Theodor Holm Nelson - Keio University and University of Southampton
1999-10-08

Computer people don't understand computers. Oh, they understand the technicalities all right, but they don't understand the possibilities. Most of all, they don't understand that the computer world is entirely built out of artificial, arbitrary constructs. Word processing, spreadsheet, database aren't fundamental, they're just different ideas that different guys have whomped up, ideas that could be totally different in their structure. But these ideas have a plausible air that has set like concrete into a seeming reality. Macintosh and Windows look alike, therefore that must be reality, right?

Wrong. Apple and Windows are like Ford and Chevrolet (or perhaps Tweedledum and Tweedledee), who in their co-imitation create a stereo illusion that seems like reality. The computer guys don't understand computers in all their manifold possibilities; they think today's conventions are how things really are, and so that's what they tell all the new victims. So-called "computer literacy" is an illusion: they train you in today's strange conventions and constructs-- (Desktop? This to you looks like a desktop? A vertical desktop?) --and tell you that's what computers really are. Wrong.

Today's computer constructs were made up in situations that ranged from emergency to academia, which have been piled up into a seemingly meaningful whole. Yet the world of the screen could be anything at all, not just the imitation of paper. But everybody seems to think the basic designs are finished. It's just like "Space, we've done that!" -- a few inches of exploration and some people think it's over.

Any types of graphics are possible; yet the term "GUI", supposedly short for Graphical User Interface, is used for only one kind of graphical user interface, the icon-and-window view they put together at Xerox PARC in the early seventies. There are thousands of other things that a graphical user interface could be. So we shouldn't call today's standard interface a GUI, since no graphic alternatives have been seen; it's a PUI, or PARC User Interface, still almost exactly what they were doing at PARC twenty-five years ago.

The world you are brought up in has the seeming of reality; it can take decades to unlearn. "Growing up" means in part finding out what's behind the false assumptions and misrepresentations of everyday life, so that at last you understand what's really happening and what the well-mannered pleasantries really mean and don't. But must our computer tools also be such a masquerade to be unlearned?

The usual story about Xerox PARC, that they were trying to make the computer understandable to the average man, was a crock. They imitated paper and familiar office machines because that was what the Xerox executives could understand. Xerox was a paper-walloping company, and all other concepts had to be ironed onto paper, like toner, to be even visible in their paper paradigm.

But who cares what Xerox did with their money? That was lab stuff. It was Steve Jobs that turned PARC's work to evil. He took a team from PARC and made a bargain with the Devil, and that bargain with the Devil was called the Macintosh.

There are still millions of people who believe that the Macintosh represents creative liberation. For this astounding propagandistic achievement we can thank the Regis McKenna public relations company, which sold the Macintosh to the world (in the famous 1984 video commercial and after) as smashing the prison of the PC. In fact the Macintosh was a newly-designed prison-a-go-go. And that prison's architecture has been devotedly copied to Microsoft Windows in remarkable detail.

Suppose they gave you MTV, and in return took away your right to vote? Would you care? Some of us would. That's how I think of today's computer world, beginning with the Macintosh. The Macintosh gave us Fonts, pretty fonts to play with, and graphic arts tools that previously were out of reach, except in the most high-budget realms of advertising and coffeetable book production. Those fonts and graphic arts tools were a great gift.

But nobody seems to have noticed what the Macintosh took away.

It took away THE RIGHT TO PROGRAM.

If you bought an Apple II, you could begin programming it right out of the box. I have friends who bought the Apple II without knowing what programming was, and became professional programmers almost overnight. The system was clean and simple and allowed you to do graphics.

But the Macintosh (and now the Windows PC) are another story. And the story is simple: PROGRAMMING IS ONLY FOR OFFICIAL REGISTERED "DEVELOPERS".

The Official Registered Developers, who made deals with Apple and later Microsoft, are the only ones who can do the magic now. This is not in the intrinsic nature of today's computers. It is in the intrinsic nature of today's Deals. Negotiate with Apple or Microsoft, pay them money or other favors, and they will let you know what you need in order to create "applications".

This so-called Application was another level of the pact with the Devil.

In the old days, you could run any program on any data, and if you didn't like the results, throw them away. But the Macintosh ended that. You didn't own your data any more. THEY owned your data. THEY chose the options, since you couldn't program. And you could only do what THEY allowed you-- those anointed official developers.

This new kind of Application was a prison cell, or perhaps we should say a cattle pen. First you're in ONE cattle pen, a first application, and then they take you in a bus to ANOTHER cattle pen, with another set of rules. A second application. You may get some of your data over between these applications, but it won't be the same. The wide-ranging control of events that programmers have is denied to users.

Today's arbitrarily constructed computer world is also based on paper simulation, or WYSIWYG. That's where we're stuck in the current model, where most software seems to be mapped to paper. ("WYSIWYG" generally means "What You See is What You Get"-- meaning what you get *when you print it OUT*). In other words, paper is the flat heart of most of today's software concepts.

This too was a key legacy of Xerox PARC. The PARC guys got a lot of points with Xerox management by making the "electronic document" MIMIC PAPER-- rather than extending it outward to include and show all the connections, possibilities, variations, parentheses, conditionals that are really there in the mind of the author or the speaker; rather than presenting all the details that the reporter faces before cooking them down.

Part of this was also the tekkie's approach to the behavior of software. Paper simulation worked well with the tekkie approach. Many tekkies take a rectangular, closed approach to things which might seem to others to be clumsy, obtuse, anal.

The tekkie outlook is often the hireling's mentality: that first you do this job, then you do that job, whatever is assigned to you; that the specs are given to you and don't change; and when you finish the job assigned to you, you go on to the next job assigned to you. None of these strictures has much to do with the kind of creativity that writers attempt. But then most tekkies don't understand about writing, or words.

Tekkies don't understand about choosing the right word, the right name. They seem to think any name will do; and whatever the user chooses, the user is stuck with. This becomes the Nature of Computers. Supposedly.

One result is office software that's incredibly clumsy, with slow, pedestrian operations. Think how long it takes to open and name a file and a new directory. Whereas video-game software is lithe, quick, vivid.

Why is this?

Very simple. Guys who design video games *love to play video games*. Whereas nobody who designs office software seems to care about using it, let alone hopes to use it at warp speed.

I'm not talking about "interfaces". As soon as you agree to talk about the "interface" of something, you've bought into its conceptual structure. I'm talking about something deeper-- new conceptual structures that are not mapped to paper, not divided into hierarchies.

The same goes for "metaphors", in the sense of comparisons to familiar objects like desktops and wastebaskets. As soon as you draw a comparison to something familiar, you are drawn into that comparison-- and stuck with the resemblance. Whereas if you go into free-form design -- free virtualities, as it were-- you are not bound by such comparisons.

There have been a few environments that were abstract and completely different from paper. Raskin's Canon Cat, HyperCard (in its time). My favorite abstract space is Dave Theurer's game of Tempest, which looked like nothing you've ever seen.

Now consider the World Wide Web. Even though some of us had been talking about planet-scale hypertext for years, it came as a pretty general shock. So few noticed that it watered down and oversimplified the hypertext idea.

Hypertext, as suddenly adapted to the Internet by Berners-Lee and then Andreessen, is still the paper model! Its long rectangular sheets, aptly called "pages", can be escaped only by one-way links. There can be no marginal notes. There can be no annotation (at least not in the deep structure). The Web is the same four-walled prison of paper as the Mac and the Windows PC, with the least possible concession to nonsequential writing ("nonsequential writing" was my original 1965 definition of hypertext) that a sequence-and-hierarchy chauvinist could possibly have made. Whereas the Xanadu Project, our original design which was beaten out by the Web, was largely based on two-way links by which anyone could annotate anything. (And by which thoughts could branch sideways without hitting walls.)

Even stranger is the "browser" concept. Think of it-- a serial view of a parallel universe! Trying to comprehend the large-scale structure of connected Web pages is like trying to look at the night sky (at least, in places that stars are still visible) through a soda straw. Yet people are used to this sequential "browser"; by now it seems natural; and now this "browser" is perhaps more standard than the structures it views and the changing protocols that show them.

I feel a certain amount of guilt over this. I believe it was in 1968 that I presented the full 2-way Xanadu design to a university group, and they dismissed it as "raving"; whereupon I dumbed it down to 1-way links and only one visible window. When they asked how the user would navigate, I suggested a backtrackable stack of recently visited addresses. I believe that this dumbdown, through the various pathways of projects imitating one another, became today's general design, and I am truly sorry for my role in it.

Enough! It's time for something completely different.

I believe we can turn a corner to a computer world of far greater freedom and productivity, with new free-form structures unlike paper. I expect these to greatly clarify and speed up the work of prose workers (those who use text without fonts-- like authors, lawyers, filmscript managers, speechwriters, paralegals).

But we must overthrow today's entrapment systems, to which many customers and manufacturers are committed.

We must overthrow the paper model, with its four prison walls and peephole 1-way links.

Finally, we must overcome the tyranny of the file-- meaning stuck lumps with final names. While files are necessary at some level, users don't need to see them, and much less need to give their projects unchanging names and locations. Human creativity is fluid, overlapping, intercombining, and many creative projects overflow their banks time and again. (It is well to remember that "King Kong" started as a documentary about hunting gorillas.)

Is it possible that the whole computer industry is a gathering of naked emperors? The software industry has a vast investment in today's entrapment. So do "power users" of today's "productivity tools."

But tomorrow's new users don't.