Theodor Holm Nelson, hypertext, and Xanadu

As an assignment for my IB/HCI (Information Behavior in Human-Computer Interaction) class I was supposed to “select an individual (or a single project made up of multiple people) from history that had a significant impact on the progression of HCI and/or IB, or more loosely the fields of technology design and/or information science.” This is what I wrote:

tednelson.jpgTed Nelson (b. 1937) was not the first to envision a hypertext system, but he was the first to call it such. He coined both the “hypertext” and “hypermedia” terms in 1965. Furthermore he has been working on the spreading his vision ever since. However as I learned from his homepage he calls his concept now “‘deep electronic literature’ instead of ‘hypertext’, since people now think hypertext means the web.” (Nelson)

He originally defined hypertext as “computer-supported non-sequential writing.” (Horn 258) After 1974 he used the term, “docuverse” by which he meant “a global distributed electronic library of interconnected documents.” (Docuverse) These concepts inspired the thinking that led to the birth of the World Wide Web.

Nelson’s version of hypertext, to be manifested in Xanadu, however differs from that of the web’s by offering these features: unbreakable links, simplified copyright, origin connection (quotations and excerpts stay connected to their original), two-way links, side-by-side intercomparison of connected documents (showing differences between version and origins of contexts), deep version management (enhanced ways to track differences between versions), incremental publishing (changes don’t break links). (based on Deep Hypertext) Nelson outlined many more (so far unrealized) ideas in his books Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974) and Literary Machines (1981). The story of how Xanadu itself never materialized is described in a 1995 Wired article.

Nelson’s approach to hypertext was and is literary with an emphasis on empowering every user. Xanadu was “intended to serve hundreds of millions of users simultaneously from the corpus of the world’s stored writings, graphics and data.” (Horn 258) He considers himself a philosopher and a poet, not a “tekkie”. (Nelson)

A final quote from the Nelson reveals the democratic ideal of his vision:

“the ocean of universal hypertext is not enough: we want free sailing on it… A world of open hypertext publishing promises extraordinary new freedom from the mind, a new empowerment of humanity.” (Horn 259)


Deep Hypertext: The Xanadu Model. 8 January 2007
Docuverse Paradigm. 8 January 2007

Horn, Robert E. Mapping Hypertext: The Analysis, Organization, and Display of Knowledge for the Next Generation of On-Line Text and Graphic. Lexington: Lexington Inst, 1990.

Nelson, Ted. My Life and Work, Very Brief. 8 January 2007

Wolf , Gary. The Curse of Xanadu. June 1995. 8 January 2007

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