Ted Nelson on Pernicious Computer Traditions

Uploaded by photonhunter on 06.09.2008

Hi, I'm Ted Nelson
In today's zooming, exciting computer world,
There are very few dissenters.
We're going forward as a body, in complete agreement - almost...
Except for one or two people.
I'm one of those dissenters and I want you to know why.
The computer world is not yet finished,
but everyone is behaving as though everything is known.
This is not true.
In fact, the computer world as we know it is based upon
one tradition that has been waddling along
for the last 50 years, growing in size
and ungainliness, and essentially
defining the way we do everything.
My view is that today's computer world is based on
techie misunderstandings of human thought and human life.
and the imposition of inappropriate structures
through the computer and through the files and the applications
the imposition of inappropriate structures
on the things that we want to do in the human world.
Let's tell the story!
Once upon a time, in the great dark ages long ago,
let's say 1945 - fifty-two years ago,
computers had just been invented
well they'd been invented by lots of people,
Babbage, Turing, Zuse, Atanasoff, Eckert and Mauchly,
all these people had come up with essentially the same idea.
Zuse is of special interest in that he tried to
sell digital computers in Nazi Germany.
Fortunately, the Nazis didn't know what they could have had.
Anyhow, at the end of the war, there they were with computers
and the excitement of a new burgeoning realm of possibility.
And they started accumulating data.
Data for different projects.
And this data was kept in files -
Now, what is a file? It's a lump.
It's a lump...
From the outside, a uniform, indistinguishable lump.
The interior is not addressable.
OK, first they had files, then they had filenames
gee, it makes sense to give this file a name.
Then they said 'Where shall we put all these files?
Well, why don't we make a tape?
and put the files one by one on the tape, and then
we'll write down the names on a piece of paper.'
And then somebody had a bright idea and said "Wait,
why don't we put the filenames in a separate file?'
Thus was born the hierarchical directory,
because it was recursive and it scaled.
And since then, the tradition of lump files with names
and hierarchical directories
has been the driving structure of the entire computer field.
So that in documents, one document is one file.
Metadata - now what's that?
Well, metadata began with filenames.
What's metadata? It's what isn't in the lump.
So now there are all kinds of committees
trying to decide how many angels can dance on the head of a file,
what is to be metadata of this kind, that kind, the other kind,
all of it because of the lump file structure and tradition.
All of this was frozen by Unix
when, in 1970, the inode table
the saying is that in Unix everything is a file
actually in Unix everything is an inode,
meaning an entry in this table,
which has an item with a name
and then a pathname.
And the entire structure is based on rapid rearrangement
of these elements as their pathnames change.
And so preoccupation with file structures
where they go in hierarchies and mapping everything
to this model of lumps and names and metadata
and files has been the entire driving structure
of the entire computer field.
The industry, the 'computer science' as it's called, whatever.
... finally, the tradition of one document per file.
Well, it kind of makes sense,
but other people were doing it differently.
Not just project Xanadu, but for example, the Microcosm project
at the University of Southampton
had links outside the content,
so the links could go in more than one direction.
But that's not how it's gone.
OK, take this tradition - the lump file,
the metadata, the names
and the directories. Now what happened?
Xerox PARC - Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre
and they created the modern world,
they created the so-called modern GUI
or Graphical User Interface - that's a very inappropriate name
it should better be called:-
because you can have many other different kinds of graphics-
so let's call it the PUI - the PARC User Interface
because it's EXACTLY the same on Windows and Macintosh
and Linux.
If you think the Macintosh is different from Windows,
you are trapped in the paradigm, unable to see the truth!
All of it uses the same structure.
What is the alternative?
Well, let's finish about the PUI.
So, the PUI then took the paradigm of lump files and names,
and put candy on it.
So now you have a desktop where we can place the lump files,
or the directories, and see them.
Oh, the directories are now called 'folders'. Big difference.
Then we had the wastebasket,
what was the wastebasket? A buffer for lump files
that you weren't sure you were going to delete.
In other words, you can't review particular parts of changes
that you might have wanted to make,
all you can decide is 'Yes' or 'No' - kill the whole file.
The so-called clipboard, I don't want to even get into that monstrosity.
And finally... Applications.
What is an application?
An application is a type of lump file
and the program that manipulates it.
Segregated from other forms of documents.
All of this, the PUI is the mask for the operating system.
What is the operating system?
A system for moving lump files and directories around,
renaming them
and turning on various programs
with specific lump files as data.
So, one paradigm. Now,
we have the paradigm of one document per file.
What does that mean?
Along comes the World Wide Web. Is that radical?
What's it doing?
It is a lump file, that means all the links are inside it,
the links point to hierarchical directories outside,
not only do they point to hierarchical directories outside,
it's hierarchically structured inside as well.
So hierarchy has been imposed on the content and on the world,
and on the universe.
And all of this is simply the rolling on,
the snowballing of this lump file tradition.
What is the alternative?
Throw away the lumps,
or rather,
create a new universe of small portions,
which are addressable
and which can be connected simultaneously
in many different ways.
We need addressable tiny pieces,
we need changes to be addressable
we need to file the changes to a document
so they can be run forward and backward.
It is time to re-examine the entire computer world.
The computer world is not yet finished.
Thank you.