Ted Nelson


Interview with Ted Nelson, Keio University, Japan, 24th November 1999.

Please note: all mistakes in this interview are the fault of the person transcribing it (me).


[tape begins]

Belinda: Tell me about Zig Zag.

Ted: How are you with spatial visualisation?

B: I’m OK. I mean, I can do it…

T: Well, I say this because I intend to build an entire new computer world with it.

We live in many different computer worlds. One of the books I would like to write would be called computer religions–because there are so many ideas, and each one of them has a fanatical following. To explain this to outsiders is virtually impossible, but it must be done. Because no-one can begin to understand the field without realising this.

By the way, I take notes as I talk because the better the listener, the more things I think of. Now… so…

B: So, Zig Zag is your current work.

T: I have basically two major designs. One is Xanadu, the other is Zig Zag. And I’m merging them now.

B: When did Zig Zag start?

T: Well, the design was completed in ’86. It’s the first deliverable I’ve ever had. Andrew [Pam] single-handedly created a working version in ’97. I’m being awarded a patent for it in the USA, should be out sometime next week. We’re going to have an open-source version out in Finland shortly… my hand was forced by a young Fin, a very nice, brilliant fellow who caught fire [inspired by Zig Zag].

B: What’s his name?

T: Thomas J. Lukka. And he has been working on it two months and now has a version ready for release. [With] two assistants. And he’s basically working full-time on it…. he got his Ph.D at 21, I think. Then three years as a junior fellow at Harvard and then switched to computer science. Then he saw this. An ambitious fellow who found his rocketsled. And basically, correctly so. But it takes a lot of daring.

I deal with new paradigms. I’m only interested in thinking deeply about things… and that means that when you have a really deep insight, it’s impossible to stick in any existing terminology, because that means that now I have a new way of seeing things for which no words are suitable, because all the old ones are locked to the existing paradigm.

Some people make fun of my use of words… I am very careful to change words constantly.

B: Make fun of your use of words?

T: I’m very sensitive… but I think I’ve put more words in the dictionary than Lewis Carroll. But the other part of it is that I have strict rules for terminology. I take an exact note the moment I think of it and start using the term. Every significant change in an idea means a new term. Because that way I can pinpoint what I mean here in a way that even people that I’ve worked with on the Xanadu project…..

So, I’m working on about six major paradigms. The broadest is my philosophy project, which has not yet been published, which is where it all began when I was an undergraduate. It’s called general schematics. You’ve heard of general semantics, by any chance? Well, general schematics is my variation, a comprehensive view of the world which pays close attention to the use of terminology, and tends to categorise structures, forms and resemblances. So it clearly stomps on every subject in the world. Cognitive science, for example, which didn’t exist when I started.

B: Doug said people were trying to fit his work into different paradigms, too.

T: People are always trying to understand things under different paradigms. Sometimes it’s very frutiful. So general schematics was and is so elusive to say it directly that I have ceased trying to force the work to completion. But as an undergraduate I went through a tremendous…

I went to Swarthmore. Do you know Swarthmore?… I’m very extreme. I embraced Swarthmore. I was bound for a showbiz career, but was also very, very theoretical. I hated school. Every minute of it, til I went to college. and it was suddenly paradise, because there were no boundaries. the divisions between subjects were obviously artificial. and i was clever enough fellow that i just drank it all in. it was like standing under a waterfall. it was very clear to me that people didn’t understand. from a very young age my intellect was treated with enormous respect by my family. so that i had great confidence in my insights. So I’ve basically always been sure I’ve been right. And very often have been. Because i was trained to trust my own insights. I was the kid in emperor’s new clothes, the kid on the streetcorner who saw the way it really was and wasn’t afraid to say so.  I went rapidly through anthropology, sociology… was very thrilled by structural linguistics in my sophomore year. And so my junior year i wrote this paper on what i call general schematics. i had a brilliant professor, whom i love dearly, bnamed michael scriven.. english and had been raised in australia. he was so clever, and he was the first person who followed everything i said, and i followed everything he said. he’s still living near california.

So I got all inspired and attempted to write a paper that tied together all of philosophy and the social sciences in thirty pages. It’s absolutely incomprehensible to most people, but characteristically confident, some would say arrogant, and er.. and set the path because i was interested in induction. Induction means comparing things, finding out what they have in common. It’s been replaced by the term “methodologies”, which is what every science does. but it has a great philosophical interest. i was interested in “how in the world _do_ we find similarities”? and this is what cognitive science is founded on. and how do we establish terminologies and comparison and see what things are the same and what things are different, especially until you can change the terminology to find what things are the same and what things are different. it’s like standing on two cakes of ice, trying to keep your balance.


i just came across that paper in august when i was preparing for the cognitive science conference, and it was quite amazing to see… it was cleverer than i remembered. i had also just written the first rock musical at swarthmore. then i wrote the second rock musical the following spring. the cast was larger than the audience.


T: So i was extremely dissatisfied with earlier forms of writing. because i love writing, and i love good writing. have you ever read the new yorker? that is my idea of good writing. *The problem is that every sentence wants to break out and slither in some other direction…and you have to be brutal about sticking to any subject. Why should you? Because connections go in every direction, but the confines of the page, and the different involved forms of writing forbid us to. So that if the page now could sprout wings, or sprout tunnels off to the side… the parenthesis, instead of having to stop after some point, could go on forever. do you know tristram shandy? i read it as a freshman. that was the sort of thing i had in mind. there are no boundaries except that we make them so.

B: So, is hypertext like an embodied memory for you?

Well, isn’t writing? To me, hypertext is simply the manifest destiny of writing. But I do not mean HTML. Christ, HTML is like one-tenth of what I could do. It is a parody. Now I like and respect Tim Berners-Lee, in other words, he fulfilled his objective. He didn’t fulfil mine.

B: What about XML? Does that hold more promise for you?

T: Well, XML… well I like the phrase that XML is HTML done right. The wrong thing done to absolute perfection. I wrote a piece called ‘embedded markup considered harmful’…

B: Really? Where was that?

T: It’s in the W3 journal. I think… I’m not sure

(shuffling etc.)

B: So, really the problem with markup is that it is embedded? If it were not embedded, we could distinguish between form and content?

T: Yes… that’s all. Just put it aside. Now you have pure stuff which can be put in one box, scanned and transcluded. That was always one of my fundamental ideas. That you want to be able to re-use materials freely without over-committing.

B: So, having a language which is not embedded in the text would allow for things like more addressibility, directional links.

T: Exactly. You are a very bright lady.

B: So what do you propose as a short-term solution for this kind of thing?

T: There are no short-term solutions. The Xanadu model, which I can now state, I think exactly, is the only solution. And I’m now moving that to a Zig Zag base. And that means… OK, I’ll print you out my resume here.

B: Where would I find this article? Is it online?

T: Some of it’s online. That article is online. Some people feel that they have to reply to it, and they reply to it very indignantly, which is a sign of a different paradigm. Indignation is the sign of a paradigm-shift.

B: Yes, it is.

T: XML is a great religious mileau right now. By the way–I assert that there is no significant difference between a religion, a point of view, a paradigm, an addiction and a way of life. Depends on whether you are on the outside or the inside.

B: If you had to list the problems, limits of the web as it is today that Xanadu could improve on, what would they be?

T: Breaking links, one-way links, no annotation, no transclusion, copyright problems. That’s pretty much a summary. But there’s an even deeper paradigm conflict, because having everything instantly re-usable, and easily re-usable–frictionlessly, was always a principle. You see, as soon as you start listing things, you’re out of understanding the paradigm and into understanding features.This is aspects, features. Aspects and features are listable. Er…

B: Do you think that any of your ideas have been embodied by the web? I mean, it is a universal publishing system, at least.

T: Yep. It is a universal, world-wide, anarchic publishing system. It completely vindicated my 35 years of saying that a universal, worldwide, anarchic publishing system would be of enormous human benefit. There is no question of whether it is of benefit. It just does it all wrong, that’s all.

(shows me his bibliography etc.)

So, [the 'embodied markup' paper is in] the W3 Journal, Fall ’97. It’s probably already on the web.

T: People ask me why I carry a stapler… the answer is to attach pieces of paper to each other!! Such an archaic concept. Photographers carry cameras, gunfighters carry guns… I connect things.


B: That’s beautiful.

T: Basically, I have the philosophical view that everything is completely interconnected. Or as I like to say, intertwingled. And there are no boundaries or fields except those we create artificially, and we are deeply misled by conventional boundaries and descriptions. That’s my summary of general schematics. Which is essentially what my stuff has become from Korzousky [?inaudible], because he was from a technical point of view.

So anyway, with that point of view… I was very annoyed with linear forms of writing, because you always had to cut things off.

[I move tape recorder closer and Ted protests. I'm sure my voice will carry]

So, I was fascinated from an early age… when I was ten my favourite humourist was Wil Capi who wrote short articles with lots of irrelevant footnotes. In fact, in high school I remember putting a footnote in one paper which was just to another… I had two footnotes which were only to each other! I got an A for a paper which was a completely fictitious research paper, intricately…[inaudible]

I was always extremely sophisticated. I grew up in New York City, Greenwich Village, which in fact is principally a residential area, regardless of legend. I grew up among middle-class, well-educated people. I have a British accent, radio announcer…

My parents were divorced before I was born, so I was raised by my Grandparents, and they were very eloquent and supportive and, so, I went to mainly British movies, and then when I was in high school the three pillars of [inaudible] were the museum of modern art, the new yorker, and the RAND corporation. you’ve heard of the RAND corporation? that was where they were doing very important war research, which I wanted to get into. NOT because I like the idea of war, but because…

B: Because you wanted access to computers?

T: No… there were no computers.

B: Oh…

T: No, actually, there were computers when I was 16, but they were not very well known. I had in fact read the first cover article on computers in Time magazine, which may have been the first cover article on computers in the world. And that was around ’48. So I was off to a fine start. When I was about thirteen I visited [with my grandfather] an IBM reserach centre, where they had an actual computer you could walk through… they were computing the orbit of the moon… [inaudible]

We are deeply misled by conventional boundaries and descriptions. For example, the word mathematics. Because people are taught all this damned arithmetic crap, and told that’s mathematics, which I could never do. Calculation. Some people are dyslexic, I’m innumerate. But my spatial and mathematical sense are perfect. It’s just that I could never get over that…

So, mathematics is another of those areas where… mathematics is queen of the sciences and desperately in need of educational reform. Now my approach to educational reform is different to everyone else’s. People say to me, is your stuff useful for education? And I say, do you mean, is it useful for people becoming educated or for the support of the existing educational system? Because I am deeply in favour of the former and deeply against the latter. My view of the school system is blow them up and start over. Obviously that’s politically impossible, but I don’t really know any solution, because they’re SO wrong,  from top to bottom. For instance [re: the way we teach arithmetic], are we preparing people to be cashiers? If so, that’s not a bad idea, people should all have that competence, but it’s hardly suitable for preparing everyone.

Who wouldn’t have problems in a classroom like that? I nearly went nuts. By the fourth grade. Never got any better. I had a lot of social support elsewhere, and managed to get an education elsewhere… not in school.   My proposal for high school for example, establish criterion which could get you out of high school tomorrow if you want. One of the secret functions of school is to keep you out of the job market. And to keep teachers employed. The objective should be to educate and prepare students for the world.

[tape cuts off]



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