Ted Nelson on the Politics of Internet Software

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The Politics Of Internet Software 'Geeks Bearing Gifts' - Ted Nelson

URL = http://webcast.oii.ox.ac.uk/?view=Webcast&ID=20051121_112


When we try do social science on the Internet, it is vital to know what is solid and what is highly changeable. Outsiders and newcomers tend to be awed and misled by the illusions of 'technology' - which seem rock-solid and immutable, like a child's view of home and religion.

But the 'technologies' of the computer world are extremely changeable, and give play to motivated assumptions and decisions. Like gasoline mixed with air, this an explosive mix. Fast-evolving software ideas, churned by human political agendas, power today's wildly changing product and Internet world.

If software is successful, it steers the path that many users take, and selects among many possibilities to further the creator's agenda.

Suppressing the other possibilities may also be part of the agenda.

[For the present purposes I propose a simple definition of politics: THE CLASH AND RECONCILIATION OF AGENDAS (which agendas in turn may be motivated by prestige, power, profit or ideology). This definition would seem to cover the range: electoral politics, office and palace intrigue, war (Clausewitz' continuation of politics by other means), and now the steering of products and programs.]

We will glance at some examples of technology politics before 1950 (Brunel, Tesla, Armstrong, von Braun) and then at software politics among some two dozen individuals and companies in the computer and Internet world - the clash and resolution of their agendas (so far).

Software agendas generally play out through projects and products, some of which can change more drastically than others. The digital media conventions (called by laymen 'ICTs') are by far the most changeable - and thus political.


Theodor Holm Nelson invented the term "hypertext" in 1963 and published it in 1965, and is a pioneer of information technology. He also coined the words hypermedia, transclusion, virtuality, intertwingularity and teledildonics. The main thrust of his work has been to make computers easily accessible to ordinary people. His motto is:

A user interface should be so simple that a beginner in an emergency can understand it within ten seconds.

Nelson is currently a visiting professor at Oxford University, and a philosopher who works in the fields of information, computers, and human-machine interfaces. He founded Project Xanadu in 1960 with the goal of creating such a system on a computer network, further documented in his 1974 book Computer Lib / Dream Machines and the 1981 Literary Machines. Much of his adult life has been devoted to working on Xanadu and advocating it.