On Friday afternoon in the basement of MoMA PS1, Dan Visel, contributing editor to online magazine Triple Canopy, introduced Ted Nelson to a small crowd as the inventor of hypertext, here to shed light on "how we could communicate in the future". In the course of an hour, no such topic was brought up, instead the more on-target presentation of "a private citizen looking around in wonder and saying, What the hell? or What the fuck? as I guess we can now say" was delivered. It's hard to say if any of the possible future outcomes predicted in inviting Nelson to speak manifested that afternoon. Dark optimism, the theme for Expo 1: New York is all about the vein of uncertainty that runs through life in the 21st century. "I was asked to talk about something optimistic; [the] problem is, I'm not optimistic", Nelson said.
"The simplest hypothesis about the future is that it will not be like the past". At 76, Ted Nelson has seen several futures give way to the present and watched others detonate on the launchpad. "I have listened to the guff of Artificial Intelligence bullshit artists for 50 years", he said. Nelson is best known for coining the term "hypertext" in 1965 and hatching an ambitious global computer network (pre-web) called Xanadu. But it was Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web which became the dominant paradigm instead, and many of Nelson's ideas were left out (for example a system of automatic micropayments to compensate content owners for file copying). For his presentation on the future, Nelson focused on population and petroleum:
"So, what we are going to see sometime this century is a vast, horrible, precipitous fall in the population, accompanied by who-knows-what, genocide, war, and paroxysms of horror."
Take the computer models of The Limits of Growth, a 1972 book commissioned by The Club of Rome. No matter how the parameters are tweaked, the simulation ends with catastrophe sometime in the mid-21st century. Nelson believes that core aspects of the species drive human affairs above and beyond the influence of technology: "all the genes fit together in this strange thing we call humanness, which has essentially not changed in perhaps 250,000 years", an unfriendly reminder to those who believe smartphones are changing us into posthumans–an idea that manifests in some of the surrounding PS1 gallery spaces. This humanism exuded by Nelson and other techno-dissenters is becoming increasingly mainstream as well.
"Our huge collective task in finding the best future for digital networking will probably turn out to be like finding our way back to approximately where Ted was at the start."
- Jaron Lanier
In the discussion section preceding his lecture, Nelson was asked about the "Internet Skepticism movement". Nelson is a friend of Jaron Lanier (whose new book includes a chapter on Nelson), but was not aware of Evgeny Morozov, who will also lecture in the same series at PS1. Nelson expressed that he has little interest in what the media terms a movement, but he is glad others are catching on.
"I don't know anybody from my generation of computer people that has adapted because we all had original visions and were not hampered by having seen 'the web', or 'Google' or 'cascading menus' or 'Microsoft Word' so we were free to imagine things an entirely different way."
How does it feel to look around and see a watered-down version of your own vision? "Hypertext was invented by Douglas C. Englebart, my dearest friend who died two days ago", Nelson reminds us. A quick Google search for 'inventor of hypertext' displays 'Ted Nelson' inside a big box with a headshot. This discrepancy can perhaps be explained by something Nelson said about information annealing:
"On most subjects in the universe, there's generally a minority point of view and that doesn't anneal very well, unless you rule it out."
Like Englebart, Nelson's early involvement in the technology allowed him to create something unprecedented. "Everything you see on a computer screen is an imaginary concept someone carried through", Nelson said. In the current climate, programming is seen as the means to understand and manipulate the systems which exude control over our lives, but the ability to make the imaginary real is what gets many creative people glued to their screens. And Xanaduspace, Nelson's 3D demo of linked documents built on a 50-year-old data model, does much to stimulate one's imagination. It's like catching a glimpse of an alternate present, one in which "parallel flying pages or Xanaweave" are in everyday parlance. Referring to today's young technologists for which San Francisco serves as "a bedroom," Nelson said:
"[they possess] tunnel vision optimism with which they see the future. They think that apps and search will give us everything… will make the world a happier and cleaner place… it's all fad-driven.. the latest slogan has huge ripples throughout the community."
In the early days of the net, cyberculture fizzed with a similar ethos. When asked about it, Nelson remarked that Wired, a magazine started by "two people I thought were my friends" and to a lesser extent Mondo 2000, perpetrated a narrow view:
"The excitement of the latest crap is brought to you with some good reporting on various topics and a lot of futuristic gibberish and a lot of ads". "Tsunami of Junk" is another term Nelson used to describe technology today. "Everyone regards technology as this juggernaut, this bulldozer which must be obeyed". Do we view technology as a huge machine, a force of nature, unchangeable and somehow responsible for our salvation? When asked if he believes in technological solutions to problems, Nelson said:
"I do not believe there is a technological fix for everything… many things come out of the woodwork as surprises, as surprise solutions to problems".
To illustrate, Nelson explained that with heart transplants, the supply chain for replacement hearts often ends at Chinese prisoners. "That is a technological fix accompanied by, shall we say, accommodative social mechanisms that are not always available."
It's difficult to see optimism in a barrage of negativity. But the opposite, those who "plump, hype, [and] enthuse about the current paradigm" do so often at the expense of our understanding. "All kinds of things are possible but we restrict ourselves very much", Nelson said. To broaden our horizons, we must learn to think outside the current paradigm whether one agrees it's a "juggernaut of crap" or not.
Lanier, Jaron. Who Owns the Future. Simon & Shuster:New York, 2013. Print.
Griffin, Scott. "Ted Nelson". Internet Pioneers. Web. <http://www.ibiblio.org/pioneers/nelson.html>