Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Ted Nelson on Notes in The Margin

Ted NelsonDr. Ted Nelson, Founding Designer, Project Xanadu in Sydney this evening said "I was here first and its all gone wrong". This was in reference to Facebook. He argues that the last 60 years of computing has gone the wrong way, with hierarchical systems which imitated paper systems online. It will be interesting to see how he supports this. I have just come from CCA-EDUCAUSE Australasia 2011 where McKenzie Wark demonstrated an interface showing the comments as stacked cards, linked to sections in the text.

Dr. Nelson argued that Microsoft Word, PDF and the web do not have the ability to allow margin notes because the people who designed them did not want them. But McKenzie points out, there are systems which allow these for those who want this feature.

Dr. Nelson claims that his idea of hypertext cannot work in the world wide web. This seems similar to Richard Stallman complaining that others have taken his idea of free software and distorted it to produce open source. The complaint seems to be not so much the original idea has not been implemented, but that the version which has become popular does not acknowledge their work. Nelson and Stallman are frustrated that few listen and even fewer understand what they say, but they will not attempt to explain it in terms of what has happened since. It may be they are right and everyone since is wrong, but if they can't explain it to anyone now, then their work is of historical interest only.

Dr. Nelson gave a brief history of the graphical user interface from Xerox and then adapted by Apple and Microsoft. He argued they implement the same paper based interface on a computer. In my view this is well accepted in the user interface design community. It is frustrating that we are stuck with the desktop metaphor (with some odd adaptations) but this is an improvement on what came before.

Dr. Nelson then seemed to get off the topic onto user interface design and then how to write a headline. He argued these are not technical issues. I don't agree: these are technical issues for different disciplines. Donald Norman discussed the issue of design at length in The Design of Everyday Things and later works.

Dr. Nelson then showed a black and white video spoof of a very boring university lecture. There may have been some point to this, but I don't know what it was.

Dr. Nelson then demonstrated "Zig Zag". This appears to be a linked list used to create a multidimensional spreadsheet (or database). He claimed this was based on a unique mathematical structure. This reminded me of Google Wave, which is apparently based on a sophisticated theory and was developed at a cost of hundred of millions of dollars. However, after several presentations from the Google developers I still could not understand it and they could not show me an implementation where I could read the text. The project was then cancelled.

See also: "Possiplex : An Autobiography of Ted Nelson".

Dr. Nelson will be speaking in Brisbane, 12 April 2011.

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