The HyperText Man
Monday, June 19, 1995 by Dave Winer.
It's been raining in California.
June rain! Lots of people from the east coast think there's nothing unusual about that. It rains all year round in New York, Boston, DC, Atlanta, Miami. Not to mention New Orleans, Texas and Chicago.
California has its seasons and lots of micro-climates. San Francisco has cold foggy summers. Go to a mid-summer baseball game at Candlestick Park. Brrrr. Mark Twain said it -- the coldest winter is a summer in San Francisco. Yeah!
I live in a part of the Bay Area that has perfect summers. No clouds, no fog. Every day as monotonously perfect as the day before. Hot days, cool evenings. Then sometime around December it starts raining. And it rains and rains until April when it stops.
I must still be from New York because hot rainy weather takes me back to my youth. I like it when it rains in the summer.
Over the Memorial Day weekend I read Gary Wolf's excellent piece on Ted Nelson and the Xanadu project. When I got back, I sent an email to Gary, and we got into a bit of a dialog on Nelson, whose ideas were a strong influence on me early in my career as a commercial software developer.
I was afraid, when I heard that this piece was in the works, that it would be another puff piece about how Ted has taken the future by the balls, and is going to completely revolutionize the software industry, and in one swoop, obsolete everthing that's out there.
As a mentor, Nelson has frustrated me enormously. He saw the complete picture when I was only getting a glimpse at the parts. I was already working on my first outliner, back in the late 70s, when a friend told me that I had to check out Nelson's Computer Lib book because many of his ideas sounded like the things I was saying at the time.
How true! Nelson's book tied together a lot of ideas for me. And taught me that there were smart people that had already implemented some of the ideas I was playing with. It was disappointing to discover this, I thought everything I was doing was completely original and revolutionary! It was a letdown to find out that others had thought of this stuff before I did, and they weren't waiting for me! But I sucked in my breath and made the best of it. I loved personal computers, and I could make these hypertext ideas work on machines like the Apple II, and eventually the IBM PC and the Macintosh.
I remember meeting Nelson for the first time, in 1979, at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco. Of all the people in the new software business, Nelson was the one I wanted to meet the most. It made my day when he blessed my software, an early version of ThinkTank, by saying "this is a virtuality!" Yes. That is the highest compliment a person who appreciates software can pay to someone who makes software. It's like telling a movie director or novelist that he or she succeeded in drawing you into their world. It's called suspension of disbelief. If a program completely sucks you into its world, if you can forget for a moment or two that there's a world outside of you and your computer screen, I won. I sweat the details so that you will be entranced.
But then, instead of telling other people how wonderful my software was, Nelson ignored it. He hurt me. I wanted the acceptance and support of a man that I respected deeply. Then, even worse, he turned into a mockery of me. Hopelessly fumbling at a task he was incapable of.
The press bought it totally. Dogs watching TV! John Sculley sold it. Bill Atkinson usurped it. Instead of being a force for good, Nelson fed all the detours and white boys of the software industry. Feeding them high-calorie unsatisfying software visions. Fizzwater. Burp material. No gut quality. No suspension of disbelief. They fed off Nelson! He was victimized, but he was also party to it.
Why didn't we have his voice, a happy one, pointing people to progress, parts of the solution, real new shipping software. Virtualities! We implemented the technology of hypertext, step by step, but the world was focused on other things. Ted taught them them to ignore the breakthroughs that were being delivered. Holding back the clock so *he* could be the industrialist of hypertext. It made me very sad and angry. The wonderful collaboration I had hoped for had turned into a circus of bullshit.
I expected Wired to do the usual, to go with the flow, to talk about Ted's latest attempt to deliver what's already being delivered. Instead, they told the real story; their spin on it, but one very close to mine. I felt we could move on now. Maybe Nelson would read this piece and decide to become part of the leading edge, instead of trying to take on the whole software industry, again!
Sadly, when I got back from my Memorial Day trip, I had an email from Nelson, firstname.lastname@example.org. I've put the full text of the email on the web. It was more of the same. He accuses Wired of libel. Xanadu is still in development and viable. It was classic neo-Nelson, the post-Dream Machines man who gained traction as a comentator, but wasn't satisfied. Nelson in denial. Avoiding the growth.
If he could just let go of his belief that he needs to do the software himself, go thru the pain, the world would open up to him. I'd love to show Ted the new stuff I'm working on. I bet he'd like it! But I have a feeling that the meeting would go otherwise. We'd talk about how the world has wronged him.
Ted, where ever you are, I hate to see you suffer. The world is only fucked up if you choose to view it that way. Turn in a different direction. It'll look great!