At Incubation Ted Nelson, relocated to Oxford, spoke about the uninspired, paper-centric ways in which we use computers. “I never imagined, back then, that the techies would try to simulate paper,” he complained, calling Adobe Acrobat not merely a simulation of paper but a simulation of crippled paper, paper under glass: you can’t scribble on it, tear it or really use it unless you print it out. “That is why the paperless office is a fiction”, he said, “we print things out becuase there is no decent way of organising electronic documents”.

I love Ted Nelsons clear and heartfelt explanations of why the world of computers is wrong. Yes, assuming that everything should be built around a hierarchical file structure limits us yet we take it for granted (need the world be hierarchical?) but I’m less enamoured with his self-declared monoism, his desire to INSERT these things with his own singular vision. He ignores the ways in which people use computers otherwise than as fake paper. I hardly ever print out the weblogs and wikis I read, and I use search engines and collaborative linking to keep track of what I read. Commercial systems like Tinderbox for writing, iPhoto for images and iTunes for music let you do away with hierarchy and let you organise your data in many ways, using keywords, searching, metadata and agents or “smart albums” to visualise shifting interests and constructions of the information you have. Nelson points out that a document needn’t equal a file, as it does in most (all?) operating systems, but neglects to note that on the web, it doesn’t.

It’s still wonderful hearing Nelson’s scathing criticisms of the way most of us use computers. And I do realise that although more and more of us truly use our laptops and mobile devices and the network as a distributed office, most people still print their documents. Paper simulation.

7 thoughts on “incubation: nelson and monoism

  1. hanna

    Kind of off-topic, but I’m in Cambridge (UK) at the moment—are you likely to be anywhere near there at all? If so, want to meet up?

  2. Armature

    Display technology is such that no matter how good the software is, reading a scientific paper (for example) on dead trees will be easier and more satisfying than reading it on a screen.

    It is, furthermore, trivial to spread out four pages of a paper on my desk simply by ripping off the staples, whereas I would have to shell out enormous sums to cover my desk surface with the equivalent square footage of even the pathetic display technology available to us.

  3. Jill

    Hanna, no, I’m going back tomorrow morning, early…

  4. Keith

    Sorry to point out a mistake, but you typo’d a , for a < (I hope this comes out right!) Commercial systems like ,a href="http://eastgate.com/tinderbox">Tinderbox

    Love the site, I hope to learn from it!

  5. Keith

    Sorry, let me try that again: Commercial systems like ,a href="http://eastgate.com/tinderbox">Tinderbox

  6. Jill

    Thanks, Keith, I think it’s fixed now 🙂

  7. Martin GL

    Hey! If you like non-hierarchical structures, I suggest you try out The Brain. It’s a sort of mind-map program, where you navigate through a self-created 3-D structure. It can activate documents and other files, and it can function as a bookmark system for your browser, activating hypertexts when you click on them. I sort things by topic: writings here, blogs here, online newspapers here, MP3s here, etc. And you can interlink the different “thoughts” in the Brain. Like, I’ve worked for Bergens Tidende as a music critic. Everything I’ve written for Bergens Tidende is a subgroup to a thought which is linked both to Bergens Tidende and to my own writing, and to music.

    Mostly non-hierarchical and organized the way your own mind works. It does have flaws, but I love it nonetheless. It’s a great supplement to ordinary filing systems. Try it out. It gets smarter the more you use it.

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