An early internet pioneer says the construction of the web is crippling our thinking

Ted Nelson believes we should have a radical new system of online documents.
Ted Nelson believes we should have a radical new system of online documents.
Image: Wikimedia/ Dgies
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Ted Nelson is not a programmer, and his vision for what the internet could be is still in the early stages of practical realization. But the man who came up with the term “hypertext” in 1963 is nevertheless seen as an internet pioneer and visionary, worthy of being a visiting fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Nelson, who was featured in Werner Herzog’s latest film, Lo and Behold, believes that instead of the existing formats we use online, where text often mirrors the constraints of paper, we should have a system of two-way links that would allow readers to see the context of any quotation. It’s a complex idea, best explained by Nelson in the video below:

There are a few offline examples, such as the Talmud and the Rosetta Stone, where text is read side-by-side. Nelson believes this is how online documents should be constructed.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is the way literature should develop,” he says. “I don’t consider this technology, I think it’s literature. Being able to see visible connections between pages seems to me absolutely fundamental.”

Nelsons says this setup would be the ideal format for reading annotations, additional details, correspondence, and disagreements: “It’s essentially a different genre of writing.”

As Nelson sees it, our current use of online documents is very limiting. He’s particularly disturbed by how we use the words cut and paste. When the Macintosh was introduced in 1984, cut came to mean “hide this piece that I’ve just marked in an invisible place,” and paste became “plug whatever’s in this invisible place to where I’m pointing.”

“To me that was an outrage because no one has yet got a decent re-arrangement system that allows you to see the all the parts of the arrangement as you’re writing,” Nelson says. “Those words meant something entirely different until 1984. Balzac, the French novelist, carried a razor blade around his neck for cutting up his manuscript. Tolstoy would cut up his manuscripts and leave all the pieces around the floor. This is true cut-and-paste, where you’re re-arranging on a large scale and able to see the relationships between parts.”

Ironically, Nelson is friends with Larry Tesler—the man responsible for our modern use of cut and paste—but still calls their mislabeling “a crime against humanity.”

Our ability to see connections between texts, with free movement of non-sequential text, would be transformative. Nelson hopes that one day, his vision for a document that allows such relationships between texts will be realized, and eventually commonplace. “There are precedents throughout the literary world,” he says. “But the notion of making it a fundamental format seems to have been left to me.”