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Ted Nelson: It All Went Wrong at Xerox PARC (youtube.com)
127 points by mgunes on Jan 26, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

Oh dear. This is a Jef Raskin-esque rant of an old man that's realised they aren't going to be nearly as influential in the history books as they once thought. I would hope never to have to do the same, either from delusions in the present or anger at the end!

This business of underplaying or demeaning the importance of the use of icons, fonts, or familiar metaphors in favour of some abstract notion of an interface that no one has succeeded in ever implementing, not least because no one can agree on what it should be, is a running theme. This is often accompanied by banging on about the importance of what are really just clerical operations.

PARC, like any office of a large organisation, was invariably subject to revisionist history, office politics and all sorts of other nonsense, but attempting to deny the fact they did produce the direction for our last 30 years (and possibly into the near future) is ludicrous, much as a similar rant against Bell Labs would be misguided.

Most specifically he glosses over the fact that the nature of applications in the environments at PARC had far blurrier lines around the edges than say iOS apps do. They had things like OLE, which the web is clearly trending to recreate in the form of web components because though implementations have sucked the idea itself makes sense to people.

Paying close attention to the ideas from PARC you can see that the real philosophical difference is Nelson is closer to the idea of an all ruling single document format - whereas the vision PARC believed in was an all ruling single code format. Once more the parallel to the evolution of the web is clear, in that what began as a way to distribute documents is morphing, slowly, into a method for distributing rich code objects.

His Youtube lectures are a poor starting point to get acquainted with his work.

Start with Computer Lib to get the historical context. Then Dream Machines to get his original ideas and visions for computers as tools. Then Literary Machines, Geeks Bearing Gifts, and Possiplex (all worth it if you appreciate his work; if you don't then their level of interest decreases as publication dates increase). And finally if you really like the guy, then you can watch his Youtube lectures.

It's easy to dismiss Ted Nelson as some old crazy man who spent his life selling snake oil when you're behind your computer, but the reality of it is that he contributed a lot to the field and is deeply respected amongst his peers. He was a close friend of Engelbart, his work valued by his contemporaries, and there's a reason for which he was invited at the Homebrew Computer Club reunion a few months ago. Nelson's work gives us an insight on what computing could have looked like, in some weird parallel world.

He is controversial, perhaps; and some of his ideas/claims may be unpractical/unrealistic/etc. - but ignoring and dismissing him only sends the message that you're not as much of an expert as your rhetoric attempts to make you out to be.

Alas, this believer in transclusion also deeply feels it's important that authors need to be paid, himself included. Perhaps he'd have a better chance to impact history in a meaningful way if he opted to give away for free the works making that case? Very few will have a chance to be exposed to the ideas Ted Nelson promotes: the range of books you suggest shows the impossibility of ever getting a comprehensive look into his view.

More to the point, if he'd opted to open source the code.

In Computer Lib/Dream Machines, one of the systems Nelson describes and lauds is Calvin Mooers's TRAC macro language. Mooers took his IP seriously and defended it seriously. You can read his argument in favor of copyright to protect software in a Computing Surveys issue from some decades ago. Mooers protected TRAC right into oblivion--if even 1% of those who read HN have ever heard of it, I'll be amazed.

David Turner, who has done very important work on implementing applicative languages, similarly protected Miranda, with the result that the major work is being done elsewhere, on Haskell et al.

Project Xanadu is "worse is better" taken to the limit, in which the better doesn't even exist save perhaps as a prototype that you can at best see a short video of. The story of Project Xanadu is a tragedy of seeking funding and resources, exhausting them, and then having to look for more. How much better off would the world--including Nelson himself!--be had he decided to open it up to the bazaar.

There's an open source code dump of two versions on udanax.xanadu.com. "Xanadu Gold" is the most insane codebase I've ever seen -- implemented in Smalltalk but intended for automatic translation to C++.

I've seen a demonstration of zigzag implementing a family tree, I was impressed by its speed and fluidity as well as its ease of use. There is some background and an image of the system here http://crca-archive.ucsd.edu/view_event.php?id=60

A friend of mine says Xanadu got quite a bit further, but failed hard at the end because they'd not bothered to do and keep viable the total end to end use case. Specially, to actually interact with the system and display a document was so hard and cumbersome it never had a chance of being adopted (by pretty much anyone, let alone widely), whatever other problems there might have been with the project.

Yeah, quasi-stealth mode vs. bazaar was a killer.

But the lone visionary has a hard time opening up his/her idea to the bazaar, because then the bazaar gets to mutate the idea away from the shining purity of the visionary's dream. That is, those who most intensely insist on the purity of their idea are the least likely to make a mark. (Steve Jobs is the exception, but he had a company to back him.)

I think you're missing that this is a thought-experiment around what could be. And you are just wrong in any implication that Nelson is denying that Xerox Park "won".

Even when one approach wins, it is foolish to avoid looking at what other approaches offer. And that is all he is doing (from his particular, biased-but-interesting viewpoint, of course).

I do think Nelson underestimates the importance of icon and metaphor but given that he specific paradigm in mind, I think that's an honest mistake, not a mean-spirit effort to denigrate someone (in contrast to, say, your post for example).

I don't mean to denigrate with my opening comments, so much as observe this particular rant is not exactly dignified. There is a graceful way to present this point of view, and this isn't it.

I agree that he's clear that the PARC view won, but he (and this is the critical Raskin similiarity) is deluded about why they won, and that is because the PARC type ideas are what people want. Additionally I would argue his view is "merely" an application layer you could build with the PARC derived structure, while the opposite is not the case, assuming it could be implemented at all.

The main lesson I get from this kind of thing is a life spent pontificating without delivering products, even in the form of research products, is basically a waste. Even if those products are in some sense misguided it's better to have something concrete to argue about that can be built upon, stolen from, or discarded than a lot of ideas which never get done. I guess with that I go back to my other windows and get back to work as it's a trap that is very tempting for me to fall into.

He strikes me as an old testament prophet telling us "repent in sackcloth and ashes!" He thinks we've been wandering in a desert for 30-some years, and he is here to point out that PARC was holding the map when we got lost.

The thing is that he is not wrong. Computer documents are, for the most part, paper-simulators and that paradigm wastes a computer's potential. You're right that there is disagreement about what we can do to improve things, but he is saying that perhaps if the alternatives weren't fighting the conceptual fast-food that is WYSIWYG, we might have figured it out at some point over the past 30 years.

OpenDoc represented a gigantic attempt to create a document-centric apps-are-just-services framework that consumed hundreds of person-years of the "best and brightest" and produced nothing much useful. And then there was Taligent.

Ted Nelson's vision is attractive and brilliant and fundamentally misguided. I remember reading one of his pieces on hypertext and how there was this idea of everything being, in essence, part of a disambiguated database of information so that any version of, say, Macbeth, would be linked to the canonical Macbeth... And I thought -- hang on, does he not realize that when it comes to almost any creative work there is no canonical version ever? (Actually at the time I thought Shakespeare's works -- where we don't have any of his original manuscripts in most cases and rely on warring fragments of revisions -- was unusual, but in fact almost anything has these issues of provenance, even in the wholly digital world.)

There is some merit to what he's talking about. The idea of segmenting pieces of the file metaphor for linking or applying permissions has merit imo. http://xanadu.com.au/ted/TN/PARALUNE/paraviz.html

I would love to be able to link from one data element to another. I believe it would eliminate a whole class of applications.

One of the reasons I think the Android ecosystem will win out in the end is due to Intents, I don't see any other operating system even attempting something that cool.

Can anyone explain what the parent means by "Jef Raskin-esque rant" ?

Jef Raskin was a computer/ui designer who worked on the Canon Cat before becoming the leader on the Macintosh program at Apple. Steve Jobs took over the program and Jef was, by some accounts, forced out of the project. He expressed strongly opinionated ideas about what computer interfaces should be in a way that many see as rants about what might have been.

His book, The Humane Inerface (http://www.amazon.com/The-Humane-Interface-Directions-Intera...) does have some interesting thoughts on how novice and expert users have completely different ways of interacting with machines.

As has been pointed out, you've got the sequence reversed. Raskin was on the original Macintosh team first. His ideas for the project included keeping the cost down. Things like using an 8-bit CPU (the 6809?) rather than the still-pricey 68000, a character-based display rather than bit-mapped, etc. He later created his own company and used those ideas in what became the Canon Cat product -- something that looked like a shrunken ADM-3A terminal. It kept all your documents on a floppy disk eschewing normal filesystem in favor of a Forth-based image system (not too unlike Smalltalk images).

Unfortunately he was convinced his ideas for interfaces should be protected by patents, virtually guaranteeing that things like his "leap" keys would never be adopted.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s there was a tremendous sense of possibility for what computers could do for us on the personal level. I think Nelson, like Alan Kay, is worth revisiting on that basis: reminding us of possibilities, not so much who was right and wrong or who was first to think of X.

Wasn't it the other way around? Raskin started the Macintosh project, and then did the Canon Cat after Jobs forced him out.

Raskin had a different vision of what the Mac interface should have been. Jobs' vision won. Raskin still ranted about it long time after.

Agree 100% -- I couldn't have said it better! In my professional life, I have often met consultant types with super vague technical ideas that (surprise!) they were secretly working on implementing. They woudn't release anything because they fear being criticized. The GUI was a big deal and still is to this day. Xerox PARC did change the world. Ted Nelson? Not so much...

It's not about who did and who didn't change the world, but the fact that the people who did change the world are not above (some pretty ruthless) criticism.

Ted Nelson did change the world, actually, but by his evangelism, not by implementing.

There's a reason that he is famous, and it's not because his Xanadu project failed in many senses.

As user jasonwatkinspdx pointed out, he's doing this at the Internet Archive headquarters. He's probably for purpose of recording an oral history. It appears that rather than taking the route of singing the glories of great men past, he figures there's enough of that, so he's giving an alternate view that he calls "computers for cynics" to record some of the less glorious aspects of personal computer history. I think he's made the right choice, although if you weren't aware of the context he would seem to be a bit of a crank.

Edit: If you watch "Computers for Cynics 4 - The Dance of Apple and Microsoft [1] he's much less cranky and sings praises to Steve Jobs in a way that made me re-evaluate my opinion of Jobs.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xL19f48m9U

Hmm -- I watched "Computers for Cynics 1 - The Nightmare of Files and Directories" (which I won't bother linking to, because frankly I can't recommend watching it), since file and storage systems are a topic of some interest to me.

It was similarly cranky, and littered with statements that were either poor descriptions of the concepts they aimed to explain, highly misleading, or just flat-out incorrect (if he has any idea how filesystems actually work, he's doing a damn good job hiding it).

This is a fascinating discussion. It is especially worth watching to the end.

Among other things, it seems like one could apply this argument to claim that the-web-as-interface is strictly better than the PARC-style GUI.

It well known, however, that Nelson objects to the web nearly as much as he objects to the "PUI". And this is because web is at best as a leaky simulation of multi-part document rather than a real implementation of Nelson's Xanadu vision (articulated in the 60's).

The thing is the Xanadu vision, multi-part documents with living links (distributed version control, permissions and etc) is more or less impractical to implement fully.

On the other hand, the point that a single-person word-processor certainly could use a series of piece a-la the pre-computer method he describes.

As Nelson mentions, one of the key ways the PUI was able to dominate was by organizing a variety of operations with a single metaphor. I suspect that Nelson is underestimating how important that is for making computers accessible to people.

This video of his seems to give more of a demonstration of his alternative paradigm:


It's really interesting to see, but in order for any of his idea to actually work you need to rethink the entire operating system it seems - not just the UI. He wants all content to have history, which would fundamentally break copy and paste (one of his points actually). The problem I see with that is you'd still have individual files (actual bits) on the hard drive, just they'd all have some meta content that describes it's origin. Or you'd need some sort of database file system (WinFS).

I'd like to see technology trending more this guy's way, but the reality is that the technological challenges seem to be too great at the moment.

I'm a software developer, and I (like many) prefer not to work in VIM. If that's not damning to the idea that people would embrace abstract interfaces -- that is, a computer professional preferring a more familiar metaphor -- then I don't know what is.

We're getting closer to that vision thanks to ideas like Android Intents. I don't know how many times I've been amazed and how smoothly applications share and communicate data among them without being specifically designed to collaborate.

It's Ted Nelson rattling through some of his computer-history notes on camera. So it's good material, but it's much better presented in his enjoyable and reasonably-priced book /Geeks Bearing Gifts/ http://www.lulu.com/shop/ted-nelson/geeks-bearing-gifts/pape... .

I noted a couple of apparent mistakes: at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6SUOeAqOjU#t=4m26s Nelson says that Xerox paid Jobs to look at the PARC work, while AFAIK Apple in fact paid Xerox, in pre-IPO Apple stock. He also suggested that Xerox tried to bring in Jobs, when it seems to have been Apple who made the approach (at the instigation of Jef Raskin at Apple). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6SUOeAqOjU#t=2m15s is misleading. PARC was more-or-less forbidden to buy a DEC PDP-10, which would have reflected badly on the competing machines from Xerox's new acquisition Scientific Data Systems, so PARC built a PDP-10 clone (the MAXC) in-house for their own use. That had very little to do with why they later designed and built the Altos: there was nothing remotely similar to an Alto out there that they could have bought (Nelson knows this).

Interesting thoughts; it would be nice to have a transcript. (It's somewhat ironic in the light of the content that while he's clearly reading a prepared text, it's presented in a way that makes excerpting or reorganization nearly impossible; worse even than files of plain text.)

Youtube videos are auto-transcribed by Google for closed-captioning purposes. You can view the closed caption transcript by clicking the "Transcript" icon under the video. It's in between the "Add to" and "Statistics" icon unless specifically removed by the uploader.

I especially like the last line:

13:52in order to sell printers they threw away the universe 13:58thank you

Good call! Naturally, the prophet of the absolute, ultimate hypertext system puts out his ideas without even using ordinary text. We can assume that in Nelson's world, the system would transcribe and add to his words without him making the effort. (Edit: Despite the fact that Nelson is periodically looking off screen, there's reason to think he's reading from a prepared text. He quite possibly is reading from bullet points that he is used translating into statements - something I think many experienced public speakers do).

Nelson is a fascinating character for his idealism concerning what computer interfaces should do.

It's easy to see how that idealism might be serving as screen hiding the inherent barriers to such a system ever existing - especially, as technology allows one to give data more structures and inter-relations, there's actually no guarantee that the tools for dealing with those structures will keep with their complexity.

I love Ted Nelson. He had a vision of a future that never materialized, and never will, but he's not bitter. Instead, he's keen on showing people that this "future" thing isn't an inevitable train crashing towards us, but the result of many, many choices, none of them neutral.

It's very difficult to get past his tone in this video -- he seems angry and disgruntled.

I'm not saying he doesn't have valid criticisms, but he's not making it very easy to sympathize with him.

Someone run this through a compressor, or advise him to stop with the sudden shouts... hurts to listen to...

His point about the bastardization of "cut and paste" is very important in my opinion. Hell, he ends with this..

Bringing a complex tangle of code to heel becomes tractable if you just print it out, cut it up, and rearrange the parts.

It would be fairly sexy to be able to do this on your computer... granted, you need a lot of screen space to pull it off.

Oh, and I'm ignorant of Ted Nelson.... But it seems fairly obvious these talks are meant to be taken with some humour.

I enjoy Ted Nelson when he's sharing historical context, but I hope he realizes that most of the salient points he is making are perfectly obvious to rather a lot of technical people. Affecting meaningful change or progress will take more than impassioned pontification.

Some dude once said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", and he was right.

Is he sitting on a church pew?

Looks like the Internet Archive headquarters: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_main_hall_at_Internet_...

Well, apparently the Archive HQ is a former Christian Science church.

I thought the same thing after seeing their call for t-shirts for pillow covers.

Steve Jobs would just say: "real artists ship"


Is it just me or is Ted's vision basically OpenDoc?


Not even a little bit close -- nor can you pick up what his vision has been from that video.

Old man, bitter that Alan Key, Steve Jobs & Xerox PARC got more money & credit than he ever did. Who the hell cares about his gripes? The "legendary story" was generally corroborated by all parties involved.

Ted Nelson has yet to admit missing the boat by never being able to release anything in over 40 years. He is a super-consultant & inverse opposite of what Y&C stands for. A great visionary with zero implementation skill. Time to die.

If you'd like to read more inflammatory screeds from idealists who've never released anything, I highly recommend the blog of Stanislav Datsovskiy[1], in which he passionately elucidates the finer details of what might constitute a non-horrible operating system/programming environment[2].

> "I sometimes find myself wondering if the invention of the high-level compiler was a fundamental and grave (if perhaps inevitable) mistake, not unlike, say, leaded gasoline."[3]

As I gather, he's spent about the last five years or so trying to build a LISP machine from scratch on an FPGA.

(PS I see from your profile that you're an iOS dev too... I would think that anybody who writes Objective-C for a living would typically sustain an intense and burning hatred for the state of contemporary programming, and be otherwise eternally fascinated by any proposed alternatives. How do you do it?)

[1] http://www.loper-os.org/?p=8

[2] http://www.loper-os.org/?p=284

[3] http://www.loper-os.org/?p=55

Telling an old man it's "time to die" because you idolize PARC or Jobs or something is completely, unacceptably rude.

Sociopathic, even.

Typical iOS dev?

That's really ugly. I can understand why you felt the need to create a new throwaway to hide behind.

I wonder if meant 'PARC User Interface aka POOEY' ?

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