12 October 2011

Deep Interconnection, Intercomparison and Re-use


Ted Nelson sketched porttrait











As creative and insightful as this title may be, I cannot make any authorial claims to its origin. Although, its inclusion here is the direct result of my associative wanderings (and wonderings) after reading Nelson. Wholly inspired by the man's vision to create (while simultaneously non-creating [at least not in a rigid, inflexible, nonadaptive sense]) structural changes in the arrangement of ideas and things with the expressed aim of accomplishing "rather complicated things in clear and simple ways" (134), I set out to learn more about Nelson's vision. Where (and to what depths) has Nelson's automatic personal filing system gone since the mid 1960s?

Enter Project Xandadu and the (surprisingly 1990's looking) homepage of Theodor Holm Nelson PhD. I won't go into a long discussion of the content (largely due to time constraints and my current "uncertainty about system design"), but rather use this as an entry-point and encourage you to explore.

"My designs for radically different on-line documents go to the nature of writing and interconnection.  The Web simulates paper, locking us to the obsolete, adding blind 1-way jumps to paper simulation.  I fight still for a world of radically different electronic documents, with flying pieces, visible side-by-side connections, connection of content to origins, and unbreaking links." So reads the footnote on Ted Nelson's homepage.

Stumbling narrative segue...Nelson identifies three obstacles to the realization of the dream file [which really isn't "the" dream file; not a singular entity, but rather a concept with infinite iterations that can and should be created and reshaped as necessary, constantly evolving, adapting to fit the immediate needs of the user, all the while aware of and connected to previous iterations. sort of a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail -- leading the user back not to one point of origin, but all points of origin and departure. how cool!]: (1)high cost, (2)little sense of need, and (3)uncertainty about system design. But we may wish to also add language to this list of obstacles. Certainly not a new concept (we've been discussing the limitations of language -- attempts to describe new visions are bound my descriptive communicative technologies [i.e. language] of the present; it is an endless challenge to accurately describe something (tangible or otherwise) that does not yet exist; lacking a suitable contemporary analogy, the visionary is required to find adequate proxies or invent new vocabulary. both clearly have their limitations), but this notion of language, vocabulary, and vision are significant.

Hypertext. A clearly identifiable concept. Heck, I've already employed hypertext in this post. But, Nelson's (really the original) concept of hypertext goes far beyond our use of the term and idea. Where does this leave us? How are we to reconceptualize/redefine hypertext when it already has an agreed upon meaning and application. Sure we have hypertext. It moves us from here to there with the click of the trackpad (or mouse). But is that it? What about Bush's associative trails (which Nelson seems fond of -- even if Nelson's associative trails are less footpaths and more of superhighways)? Moving one direction isn't nearly enough for Nelson. If the popular definition of hypertext is already identified with one specific concept (although Nelson clearly could claim precedence -- and he sort of is; refusing to abide by the contemporary linguistic and conceptual limitations), what might we call this broader vision? If we are really seeking a system that allows us to endlessly create, adjust, and remove entries, lists, and links, and for manipulating the sequence relation (138), do we need a better term? concept? metaphor?

Nelson envisioned an infinitely adaptable and user-friendly (I cannot help but think about the goals and goods of the late, great Steve Jobs) system that was both generalizeable and specializeable. How can this be? Are they not mutually exclusive? Can they coexist? If I may be so bold, I would argue that they are co-evolving concepts. Increasing the scale of one allows increases in the scale of the other. Static and dynamic all at once. So too are we and all that surrounds us.