open Vault

WGBH Media Library and Archives

The Machine That Changed the World: Interview with Ted Nelson, 1990

  • Cite

Summary
Full-length interview with Theodor 'Ted' Holm Nelson. Portions of this interview were featured in episodes from the WGBH/BBC Series, The Machine That Changed The World. The Machine That Changed The World was a five part series chronicling the personalities and events of the computer revolution. The program traced the history of the development of the computer to the modern personal computer, to future developments on the horizon. There was a focus on history of computers from 19th century to PC, present day applications, and future developments. Ted Nelson founded Project Xanadu in 1960 and has been called a pioneer of Information Technology. Select metadata for this record was submitted by John Campopiano.
Topics
Computer software--Development--United States, Xanadu, Information Technology, Personal Computers, Computer software--Development--History, Microprocessors--United States--History, Computer software developers--United States, Nelson, Theodor H. (Theodor Holm), 1937-
Tags (0)
Add Tag Add Annotation

Transcript

THE MACHINE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD - TAPES F62-65, F198-200 TED NELSON
Interviewer:
...PROGRAM TWO, THE RISE OF THE COMPUTER BUSINESS. HERE WE ARE IN 1969, '70, '71, SOMEWHERE IN THERE. WHAT WAS THE STATE OF THE COMPUTER BUSINESS, AND WHAT WERE SOME OF THE PROBLEMS?
[BACKGROUND DISCUSSION]
Nelson:
The problem of computer access in the early '70s, well, there hardly was any, because you had to play ball with the computer centers. All the computers were big mainframes. Or we thought them big mainframes at the time. They were roughly the power of the very big mainframe then was smaller than this Macintosh.
[BACKGROUND DISCUSSION]
Nelson:
Well, in the early '70s there was hardly any computer access at all. The only computers there were lived in fluorescent lit rooms on top of raised flooring in freezingly cold air-conditioned rooms, tended by a priesthood, and this was called the Computer Center. And in order to get into the Computer Center, you basically had to pass all the tests of the priesthood and play ball with the Computer Center and the way they worked. Essentially, well, there were a number of large computer manufacturers, but predominant was, of course, IBM, and the Computer Center management was essentially a captive bureaucracy that was an off-shoot of IBM. So that the people who ran the Computer Center usually had the IBM mentality. In fact, like many colonized people, imitating the psychology of their oppressors. And in order to get to use the computer you essentially had to be really playing ball. Now I speak with a certain bitterness because in the early '70s I tried to get... I was on projects at places like the University of Illinois trying to get computer graphic stuff [TELEPHONE RINGS] I had some bitter experiences in this regard, one notable one being about 1972, when I and a colleague were trying to get some computer graphic equipment in at the University of Illinois. And we talked to the Computer Center people, and it became increasingly clear — we went in to see this guy whose official title was Director of Computer Security. And as we talked his countering remarks and his little sneer made it increasingly clear that the... that the main message was, thou shalt not have another computer at the University of Illinois in Chicago, because essentially the computer belonged to that priesthood. Now to give them a certain amount of credit, they could not imagine that anyone besides their trained captive market would be willing to use the computer, would have any use for the computer, because of course they knew computer users as these highly disciplined troops that would come in with their problems neatly punched onto cards, and would obey all the rules and wait at the window until their printout came back. And they couldn't imagine any other style of usage, such as a person being able to sit down at his own computer, his or her own computer and wham away at the keys and make pictures. But, so, essentially there was a psychological gap. And then, of course, when the teeny computers came out it became like, well, it was as though all the galley slaves were suddenly able to jump overboard in life preservers with their own little computers, because they no longer were enslaved to the Computer Center and its it bureaucratic mentality.
Interviewer:
IN THE LATE '60S, A LOT OF ACTIVISTS WERE DISTRUSTFUL OF THE COMPUTER BECAUSE IT WAS THE TOOLS OF THE ESTABLISHMENT. BUT YOU SAW IT AS A LIBERATING DEVICE. WHY?
Nelson:
I saw the computer as a liberating device for essentially the same reason that millions of people now see it as a liberating device. Because as soon as you have your own it becomes your printer, your storage plex, your way of examining information and of dealing with ideas to unfold them, to visualize them on the screen, to try out simulations, to explore the world. And all of these mechanisms are essentially tools of freedom. And as I've said in my book, "Computer Lib" in 1974, "the purpose of computers is human freedom." But when the computers were in the hands of the bureaucracies, the distrust that most people had for computers was quite natural because they distrusted bureaucracies and they supposed the computer to be only the tool of the big organization because that's what they were. And it took just a little looking behind the veil to see what it could become. But I think in retrospect it's obvious. The only difference is when it's not obvious to everyone else, you have a difficult row to hoe. If paranoia is believing what no one else believes then there are two cures for paranoia. The first is to give in and accept the majority opinion, and the other is to persuade everyone else. So it's for my own mental health that I go around the world trying to persuade people of my ideas.
Interviewer:
WHERE DID YOU FIRST HEAR ABOUT THE MICROPROCESSOR AND WHAT DID YOU THINK OF IT WHEN YOU FIRST HEARD ABOUT IT?
Nelson:
Well, I think I first heard of the microprocessor basically in my first computer course in 1960. They didn't have them then, but it was obvious that they were coming, and so that my agenda immediately became to program for the personal computers, and to create interactive software for personal computers. I didn't know how long it would take. I thought it would take two or three years at most. So the fact that it took until 1974 before the first personal computer was announced was infuriating -- the first personal computer besides the LINC -- was infuriating to me. After all, the... it was perfectly obvious that they were going to come down in price and go up in speed, and so there was no point in fiddling about doing anything else. The only agenda was to build the tools we needed for creative work. And the painful part for me has been that it took so much longer than I thought. You know, I was... I was going... I was expecting to be 25 before I had all the tools that I now have at 52.
Interviewer:
TIME-SHARING IN THE LATE '60S OR EARLY '70S, TIME-SHARING WAS THE FUTURE. WE HAVE THIS VERY VALUABLE RESOURCE. WELL, WE SEE THAT THERE'S MORE PEOPLE OUT THERE THAT MIGHT WANT TO USE IT, SO WE'LL CARVE YOU LITTLE TIME CHUNKS AND LET YOU PAY FOR IT. HOW WAS THAT LIMITING?
Nelson:
Well, the time-sharing notion, of course, is that we have only one big computer and we can let you use a little of it for a moment and then computer will respond. And if you're used to punch cards why that seems wonderful and fast. But if you expect to have your own computer on your desk it seems completely pointless. It comes from the psychology that there's only going to be this one instrument. It's like having a bus. You're... you're willing to take a bus if you don't have a car, but of course, anyone, most people who have the choice of driving a car, whether this is ecologically beneficial or not, choose to drive the car, because they have individual choices that they would not have, otherwise have. And it's the same way with personal computers. The excuse for time-sharing was that was that you had a central resource that was superior to a distributed resource. And we now know that a lot of little computers do a lot more for you.
Interviewer:
WHY DID YOU THINK THAT PEOPLE WOULD WANT PERSONAL COMPUTERS WHEN THE IBMS, THE DECS AND THE INTELS SAID, THERE'S NO MARKET FOR THEM?
Nelson:
It was obvious that everyone... would want personal...
It was obvious that everyone would want personal computers because if you just looked at the... at the programs people were tinkering with everywhere. If you looked at what they were doing at MIT and Stanford and CalTech and Berkeley and Utah and all these wonderful programs for graphics, wonderful programs for text handling... well, Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad in 1960 was a program that allowed you to design on screens. And this was miraculous. And the principle product of my company... Autodesk is now AutoCAD, which is the successor to Sketchpad, that allows... that is replacing architectural... blueprints throughout the world. And this is one of the many things you could do if you had computers. Be... you could do things with sound. Well, now sound studios are built around computers. Motion picture synthesis is being built around computers. So that all these different things you could do were just lying there waiting for us. And this seemed to be perfectly obvious, and the only question was why it was taking so long. Orson Welles once said a movie studio is the greatest toy any kid ever had." And now we could enlarge that to say, "the computer is the greatest toy any kid ever had," because now the computer is, among other things, a movie studio.
Interviewer:
HOW IMPORTANT WAS THE ALTAIR, AND THEN THE SUBSEQUENT DEVELOPMENT OF THE HARDWARE HACKERS AT HOMEBREW?
Nelson:
Well the history, anyone could see how it was going to go, but who did it, who happened to do it was a matter of historical accident. The first personal computer was really the LINC which was handed out to about 50 scientist laboratories in 1960, but nothing happened from that really except the 8-bit machines from places like digital Equipment which were still expensive but no one had a computer personally. Then in 1970 I believe a Vietnamese fellow in Paris announced the first personal computer, I don't remember his name but he goes down in history for having done that. But it was the Altair in 1974, the announcement I guess in December 1974 of a personal computer kit for $400. And I'd been saying all along that there was a tremendous latent lust for computers out there in the body politic and people thought I was nuts, but I was just speaking from my gut, I knew I wanted these things for many different purposes and as soon as people could see what they could do with them, well it would be like a combination workbench and playpen and recording studio and manuscript coffer and art box and all these wonderful things. So...of course everyone would want computers plus the fascinations they have that have no analogy to any other such as programming languages and experimentation all the delights of artificial intelligence and the many different things you can do as a programmer which many people find thrilling. And because here you are wrestling with pure ideas as it were, trying to formulate the exact plan that will make the machine do your bidding and this is not a trivial pursuit, this is a real and fascinating activity. And so it was perfectly obvious that this would appeal in different ways to millions of people. And the puzzlement to me was always that it took so long. Anyway so the Altair came out in '74 and bang I believe the first weekend the company was on the verge of bank—bankruptcy and the first weekend they received enough orders in the mail to pull them out of bankruptcy and had not actually built a computer yet, they had just planned the kit and they were rather surprised when not only did they get all these orders in the mail but one guy arrived in his camper, handed over the money and insisted on building the computer in his camper in the Altair parking lot. So that allegedly that was the first Altair actually built. Anyway the impact this had in terms of busting the dam of suddenly unleashing the computer hunger that was latent...is quite astonishing. People drove all night to get their computer kits. And so it was the American dream all over again... Why do people read the Popular Mechanics magazines? Because they dream of all the things they could do "if," and suddenly here was a new "if." If only I had this computer I could keep track of everything, I could learn everything, I could be creative in every possible way. And and so it began. And it turned out that the Altair was a flaky and intolerable machine and it has gone away as well as the so-called S-100 standard which it pioneered, but it paved the way for Apple and the other -- Apple who claimed for a time that they invented the personal computer -- it paved the way for Apple and other manufacturers to bring out more robust machines that would actually take over the desktop.
Interviewer:
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE, COMING AT THIS A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT WAY, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE SCENE OF THE HARDWARE COMMUNITY THAT COALESCED INTO THE HOMEBREW OR COALESCED INTO THE TRENTON HOBBYIST ORGANIZATION OR WHEREVER IT ENDED UP IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA? HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THAT PRE-ALTAIR?
Nelson:
Before the Altair there were all these technical wizards that had been working on the space program, had been working on you know, different kinds of electronics projects for industry like Lee Felsenstein who was I think at Ampex and many other highly competent electronics engineers who hungered for something more personal, more interesting and some way they might make a lot of money. And then bango when suddenly the processor chips were available, well they wanted to make these into personal computers and there immediately were formed in the Bay area... Homebrew Computer Club and in Boston, the Boston Area Computer Society and the Trenton Club, and these were essentially leading edge organizations. But of course the different individuals in them behaved very differently and no one could have predicted that a fellow named Wozniak would throw together a few chips. He now says it was just to please the guys at the club and so he put together the Apple computer. And it took that great it took, it took Steve Jobs to say, oh we might sell a few of these. At least that's the story, I'm not sure what actually happened. But in any case, these groups of technical wizards essentially were reaching toward the possibility of a personal computer industry although most of them didn't get it because they were hobbyists at heart, but a few, a few had the, not just the technical smarts, but the marketing smarts and the sense of what the public would want, which was a very difficult combination to get together.
[END OF TAPE F62]
Nelson:
LET'S GO BACK FOR A SECOND. WHAT WAS THE GOAL OF "COMPUTER LIB," WHAT WERE YOU TRYING TO DO THERE?
Nelson:
Well my book, Computer Lib was essentially an act of a desperate man. I had been since 1965 trying to pro...to promote the ideas I had for personal computer use which do not exist yet mind you, I mean people "Oh, Nelson isn't it great all your ideas have come about?" In a pig's eye! What's come about has been a nightmarish version, a twisted and deformed version of the world I wanted to see and the fundamental piece of software that I think is necessary hasn't appeared yet which I call...transclusive fragment sorting. But so that basically you see a word processor allows you simply to work on one version of one document at a time, and that's not how a serious writer works. A serious writer is working on many projects at a given time with many fragments that he might use there, he might use there, he might use there, and you want to be able to try it in all the different places. And then when you decide yes it goes here, cancel the others. So you need a thread between those separate uses and this software does not exist yet. And this was the heart of the Xanadu program which I've been working on for the last 30 years and which is about to come out. In any case computer ignorance is one of the most dangerous conditions -- well you don't see it very much anymore, frankly. When I wrote that in 1974 -- I forgot the original question...
Interviewer:
WHAT WAS YOUR GOAL OF WRITING "COMPUTER LIB" IN 1974, WHAT WERE YOU TRYING TO DO THEN?
Nelson:
Okay. "Computer Lib" was an act -- "Computer Lib" was really an act of desperation because I had not been able to get my ideas out to the computer community and I thought I would reach a broader public with "Computer Lib," I thought it would become a bestseller out among non-computer people which is very interesting because it didn't, it caught on among the computer youth at the universities and in many companies. But it was an act of desperation because I wanted these ideas to get out, people say now, they say, "Look Nelson your vision's come about." And I say, "No, a thousand times no, what's out there is a nightmarish deformation of the way it should be." And what I was really trying to promote was a much better world and I was also trying to survive... I found it very difficult to find employment in the '50s and '60s -- in the '60s and '70s -- because no one wanted a computer visionary, especially one whose language they could not understand. They thought I was crazy, they could not imagine sitting at the computer screen, they could not...they could not imagine, I was talking about image synthesis for example, which I was also working on. And I said...the computer will be able to make objects that look like real photographs. And they said, "What do you mean look like real photographs?" So I said, well, you know, "What do you mean, what do I mean look like real photoss...it'll look like a real photograph of something that..." and they couldn't understand the concept, okay. So, so I put all these different ideas into, between covers about what computers were now doing and what they could become and it was called "Computer Lib." And it was very moving the moment I thought of the title, it was the night my grandmother had just died who raised me, and I'd thought -- sitting in a restaurant trying to distract myself with thoughts of this book I was going to write, and suddenly it came to me, "Computer Lib," and I just cried and cried because it unleashed all the feelings I had. And it was interesting too because I just talked to Russ Walter who publishes a book called, "The Secret Guide to Computing," and he thought of the title Computer Lib, I don't know when, but he was so delighted with this title and the next day he was in the computer store and saw my book by that title. Anyway, so "Computer Lib" was intended to gel computerdom as I saw it, not as the stolid professionals saw it or the corporations saw it, but as this great seething potential of excitement and hobbies and new tools around the computer screen which was clearly going to be humanity's new home. And so it froze a moment, it essentially turned the corner for a lot of people in terms of making this whole vision plain at once which is why it took me so much longer to write than I...expected. It was only 128 pages but they were very big pages... And so anyway this book essentially did not reach the people, the general public I wanted to reach but it did get the message to a whole generation of hackers and engineers who then...have since become the head of the head of the new industry. And that's, I like to think that I've helped to shape the way people thought but not enough.
Interviewer:
DID YOU GO TO ATLANTIC CITY DOWN TO THE CONVENTION, TO PC '76?
Nelson:
Hm hm.
Interviewer:
WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
Nelson:
The first PC convention at...Atlantic City. Well it was extraordinary. I and my friends, we had a company called the itty bitty machine company in Chicago, it was the first, maybe the second computer store in Chicago, but we were, we were out for bear, we were going to franchise it and make it big. And and the name really worked for us because of course itty bitty machine company had always been a nickname for IBM and the great laugh was that we were selling these tiny computers and people would call up IBM and say I hear there's a new, there are new computers out for under $1000 and people at IBM would actually say, Oh call up the itty bitty machine company in Evanston. So anyway I and my colleagues drove all night to get to this thing and then hit rush hour traffic and people, I was driving and I was really determined to get there. People who were in the car claimed that I actually drove on the sides of tunnels to get through traffic, but we made it. And it was it was quite a zoo, it was very it was crowded and busy and we were selling my book "Computer Lib" and we had banners and we had our franchise package and we were selling EMSI computers. And I gave a talk which was attended by I guess a couple of about a dozen perhaps diehards who had read "Computer Lib" already and they didn't like the fact that I went over time and they actually opened the curtains, the folding doors to the cocktail party so I could...hardly be heard and yet my diehard listeners hung on listening. It was, it was quite a zoo. I remember Jobs and Woz were there with the, with the Apple I or perhaps it was the first Apple II and people kept telling me I should go look at the Apple computer and I would ask does it have lower case? They said no. I said well it can't mean anything cause it doesn't have lower case because after all text is going to be the center of the next generation of computer use. So I was wrong and I was right. I was I was wrong about Apple not being a success, I was right that they finally had to put in lower case.
Interviewer:
WHAT WAS THE SENSE WHEN YOU CAME TO A PLACE LIKE THAT WHICH WAS I GUESS THE FIRST REAL GROUPING OF DIFFERENT COMPUTER COMPANIES? ALTAIR HAD HAD THEIR OWN CONVENTIONS, BUT WERE YOU SURPRISED THAT THERE WERE THAT MANY PEOPLE ENTHUSED?
Nelson:
Was I surprised at the size of the gathering? Hardly, I mean I was surprised it wasn't a million people. To me this thing has always moved much more slowly than I expected it to. I really expected the personal computer to be on every desk by 19...by 1962 or '63 in 1960. In fact in 1960 I expected the computer to supersede paper publishing by 1962. In other words I had a clear view of what was going to happen but I mistook that for a short distance and things have taking, have taken much longer to happen and happened so much worse in many ways and...people have been so confused and not understood the direction.
Interviewer:
BUT HOW DID YOU FEEL—YOU'VE BEEN SAYING THESE THINGS SINCE, THAT YOU'VE BEEN THINKING OF SINCE '60, PROBABLY HAD SOME THINGS WRITTEN DOWN LIKE IN MID '60S, LATE '60S, "COMPUTER LIB" COMES OUT AND SUDDENLY THE HARDWARE ACTION IS BEING HAPPENING AND WE'VE GOT CONVENTIONS, TALK ABOUT HOW DID THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?
Nelson:
Less ticked off. I was very angry by this time because I had been not only, not I'd not only been unable to make a living but I'd been ridiculed and gotten rather snotty... treatment from a lot of well people like venture capitalists, how was I to know what venture capitalists were like, you know. And so the...there was a great accumulated bitterness that I had by this time which has taken well I would say 15 years to wear off since the personal computer started and now since actually getting a salary that's made a very great difference in my outlook because it's very tough to keep going on for years and years sure that you're right with other people thinking you're nuts.
Interviewer:
WHAT WAS THE WEST COAST COMPUTER FAIR LIKE?
Nelson:
The first West Coast Computer Fair, let's see. I gave a luncheon address I think it was. My title was, Those Unforgettable Next Two Years. And I think I laid it out...basically what was going to happen in the next two years in terms of in term of the explosion of the desktop computer world. I did predict the collapse of IBM and that has taken longer so it's now, it's just happening now but it was very clearly inevitable. Once again, I got the timing wrong but given that the personal and small scale computers were coming along at that rate the domination of the field by a huge company that relied on mainframes had to come to an end. So at any rate the, well the West Coast Computer Fair was very interesting also in that it was a gathering of innovators who could still get launched on a very small amount of capital, that window has closed further than I expected it to. And and now you see a really good and new idea can still get a start or so it seems, but of course there may be very many good and real new ideas that we don't see.
Interviewer:
WE ACTUALLY LOOKED FOR TAPES OF YOUR ADDRESS 'CAUSE I'VE HEARD REFERENCES TO IT, I'M REAL ANXIOUS TO SEE IT. I HEAR THAT YOU HAVE THE TRANSCRIPT OF IT?
Nelson:
I have it in print and I'll give it to you.
Interviewer:
DO HAVE IT HANDY?
Nelson:
Yeah.
Well yeah here's the talk I gave at the first West Coast Computer Fair. This is a little book I put out in the '77 called "The Home Computer Revolution," it dropped like a stone. [READING FROM MANUSCRIPT] The title is Those Unforgettable Next Two Years. "Here we are at the brink of a new world, small computers are about to remake our society and you know it. I'm supposed to tell you what is about to happen in the, in the near future, but to understand the future we must understand the past, most people don't realize what has happened. What is astonishing to me is not so much the future as the past and the things that are going to happen that are going to surprise the sudden appearance of little helpful interactive computers everywhere should be less surprising than the past circumstances that have delayed all this till now." [ENDS READING] So that's take, my take is why the heck did it take so long rather than isn't it miraculous that it happened. And I was saying that in '77.
Interviewer:
WHAT, HOW DID, WE'RE DANCING AROUND THIS, YOU'VE ANSWERED THIS A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT WAY BUT LET ME KIND OF A DIFFERENT TANGENT HERE — HOW DID THE DEVELOPMENT OR HOW HAS THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE PERSONAL COMPUTER CHANGED, WE'LL DO IT IN LITTLE PIECES, ONE THE FIELD OF COMPUTING AND TWO SOCIETY? LET'S DO THE FIELD OF COMPUTING FIRST.
Nelson:
How have little computers changed computing and how have they changed society? See I...where my mind is wrapping around that and thinking well it's hard to define change because if it was going to do that, you know, is it really a change if it's inevitable. But okay. First of all the computing field has changed enormously because it has put computer power on the desktop and the computer field is not now what it was because the computer field used to be that big and now it's that big. When when I joined the Association for Computing Machinery in '65, I suppose it was a few thousand members or so, and now it's hundreds of thousands I think. And but the number of people, the number of Americans with computers on their desks who buy software is in the millions, and so if you refer to "the computer field," it really has to include all those million of people now and that's a, that in itself is an enormous change. The kinds of problems researchers work on are different because of course new ideas have come up, no one had heard of chaos or fractals in 1965. But also the emphasis on interaction is completely new and that's the notion that you're creating interactive systems which will respond to what the person does at the screen and that's completely different from the old concept of computing. Now I happen to have gotten into this very early because I was a filmmaker and to me screens and what happens on screens and the psychology of what happens on screens was completely natural and instantly transposed to the computer screen. But now instead of being a motion picture over time that just goes on happening, it was going to be one which the user could effect. And it's astonishing me, it's astonished me all these years to see how difficult...it was for people to imagine this. The idea that you are creating some sort of an entity which will respond and could respond any way whatsoever. So the problem is not just making it responsive...it's to make it respond in a coherent, meaningful fashion that will integrate some domain you're working on, whether it's text or numbers or pictures and allow you to work on this for hours without losing track of what you're doing so a system like well I've just been working with a program called MacroMind Director which allows you to make interactive movies on the Macintosh screen. And I'll tell you I was really infuriated at my...during my first couple of hours using it. But then I settled down and said oh I suppose I get it, they mean, they're thinking of it this way and I can tolerate it now. But that's one example. This language for producing interactive systems is one example of an interactive system which have designed for a specific purpose that doesn't quite interact the way I want it to you see, that's the, that's always the conflict. You sit down at a, at a screen system and you want it to be intelligible and clear and simple and it gets off on tangents and complications that you feel don't belong and you can't reconfigure it. So that's where we are now in a world of irreconfigurable software that no one can change. And I hope that changes so we come to a world of software that you can quickly reshape into the environment you would like to work in.
Interviewer:
LATE SIXTIES A LOT OF PEOPLE LOOKED AT IT AS THE TOOL OF THE ESTABLISHMENT, OF MILITARY. HOW HAS THAT CHANGED, HOW'S THE IMAGE OF THE COMPUTER CHANGED?
Nelson:
Well sure people thought computers were a tool of the establishment and the military because they were, but...the public has a simple minded idea of how much control the establishment and the military exert on their machines anyway. For example, my favorite example is that billions of dollars went for "defense computer research" in the 1960s and '70s, but lots of that actually dribbled off into people playing with artificial intelligence and computer graphics and so what looked to the public on the, on the spreadsheet, on the national budget like an...a great expenditure for defense was really ended up in the laps of long hairs who were playing these games like Space War in their in their allegedly high security military places. I worked in a, in a, on a military project for awhile...one of the Nike missiles, it would never have worked, and we spent a lot of time playing games. Anyway, so the public stereotype...has a great deal of merit, that the computers were in the hands of the government but at the same time not, they were not the simple tool of oppression people imagine even then. And now of course it's as though the government is in the hands of the computers. In other words, the computer freaks are in control much more than anyone imagines. My favorite example is the guy who I think he was a lieutenant but the way I heard this story he managed the system on the Pentagon that reported on military preparedness and when he was in a bad mood he would make a million soldiers invisible to his superiors just because he was, he felt like it. So anyway obviously now we see that computers are a tool, as Martin Luther said, "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" And we see that a tool — that the computer as a tool is accessible as well to every cause no matter how liberal or radical or counter-cultural or small. So Greenpeace and the ecological movements now have their computer networks, and the anti-smoking movement has its own computer network, and you know, let a hundred flowers bloom is now the general use of computers.
[END OF TAPE F63]
Nelson:
In 1960 the computer world was at a turning point because already the infiltration had begun of small computers, and small graphical computers -- especially the PDP-1 and the PDP-4 -- were already out there in engineering laboratories. Now that's where my heart was. I was, I was reading the catalogs avidly and saying oh boy, any minute now these things are going to get all over. And that's when IBM made a move which I think, I still think set civilization back about ten years. And that was their 360 computer system. It was a brilliant marketing move. They billed it as one computer for all purposes, so it was going to do business computing, so-called scientific computing, well those were essentially the two fields that they were going after. Now what this really was was a move to head off the other computer companies from establishing a niche within corporate America by bamboozling corporations into thinking that one computer would be used for the job could be used for all types of jobs, why that made the corporate comptroller think well that's the sensible thing to do, why have more than one computer. Now of course the joke is that the one IBM 360 cost as much as four or five or six computers would have cost but that's not what showed up on the alleged bottom line. And so this brought about the incredible horrific system of oppression which kept computing in its iron grip for the next decade, specifically the Computer Centers which were the captive tools of IBM where not only did you have to use the computer according to the system that had been laid out and submit punch cards, but also you had to do it according to the rules laid down by the bureaucracy that ran it who were all trained by and extremely loyal to IBM even though they worked for your corporation allegedly and because well that's just how these things work. So the 360 diabolically I would say suppressed personal uses of computing by about a decade because otherwise I think the small computers would have marched in everywhere a decade sooner in '64 rather than '74. And so the fact that it was...That it was all on a chip and that sort of thing is relatively minor because as soon as a small computer appeared in a department then some kid would start programming it and this kid would think of more and more things to do with it and he or she would gradually get to know it and make, and make other suggestions. And so you would have had a...dispersed and diffuse innovation throughout corporate America as distinct from the extremely oppressive and centralized computing system that evolved during that time. So...And I... I came up against this system on several different occasions when I suddenly realized that it wasn't just a machine or an organizational structure but it was a, as it were, a rather large conspiracy to prevent, as IBM saw it, personal as IBM saw it, competitors from getting a nose into the corporation or as I saw it, preventing the innovative uses of the computers that were ripe to happen. And that is the reason the personal computing explosion occurred with the violence that it occurred in 1974 because if it had been a trickle starting in '64, it would have been much more evolutionary. and what happened was all this pent up demand, a sort of latent understanding everybody had of what computers could do suddenly was allowed to burst forth.
Interviewer:
IN THE LATE, IN THE MID-'70S...YOU KNOW BIG CORPORATIONS I THINK, I KNOW DEC FOR ONE, DAVID... PITCHED THEM TO DO A PERSONAL COMPUTER AND IBM HAS CERTAINLY —
Nelson:
Did David, have you talked to him?
Interviewer:
NO, WE HAVEN'T.
Nelson:
Huh.
Interviewer:
BUT, LET ME FINISH UP WITH THIS, WHY WERE THEY, WHY DID THEY REJECT IT, SIMPLY BECAUSE THERE WAS NO MARKET OR BECAUSE IT WAS A THREAT?
Nelson:
Why did whom reject it?
Interviewer:
DEC, IBM, WHY DID THEY ALL SAY THERE'S NO MARKET? WAS IT BECAUSE YOU KNOW IT'S A THREAT?
Nelson:
...No, IBM said there was no market for a personal computer because even if they had imagined that there was, and I'm sure that sincerely they didn't imagine it, nevertheless it was nowhere near their price horizon. And DEC didn't see it simply because they didn't get it because the establishment never gets it, that's how it is with paradigm shift, the establishment does not see where the next wave is coming from. And even if they hire somebody to tell them where the next wave is coming from, they never believe them which is exactly what happened with Xerox and Xerox PARC. When Xerox set up Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to tell them where the next wave was going to come from, and they basically gave them the Macintosh back, they said, "No, tell us where the next paper wave is coming from." So of course they couldn't miss the point. So the establishment can almost never understand where the next... innovation is coming from because they are, they become entrenched to an old way of thinking.
Interviewer:
TAKE ME THROUGH THE HISTORY OF THE, THIS IS FOR THE NEXT PROGRAM, TAKE ME THROUGH THE HISTORY THROUGH THE INTERFACE, YOU KNOW, IVAN SUTHERLAND'S SKETCHPAD, YOU KNOW, THAT WHOLE LINE, AND WHERE ARE WE NOW, WHERE HAVE WE BEEN, WHERE ARE WE GOING?
Nelson:
I don't like the... I don't like the term interface because that suggests that you have a package, a bunch of functions in the machine and then some way the user's going to select from this bunch of functions. And that's already too late in the game. What I talk about is virtuality, which is essentially the imaginary structure, the seeming of the system and creating this imaginary structure of all the things the computer could do and how to interact with them. That's the design of interactive systems. Now, we were off to a fabulous start in 1960 with Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad, one of the most extraordinary programs ever written where he invented object-oriented programming, he invented rubber band line and various kinds of light pen tracking, he invented instances, he invented blueprints on a screen. All of these things in one package and the amazing thing to me is that this did not start a vast movement. In fact, it just stood there as an example that people would gaze, they'd look at the movie and say, "Yeah, gee, well that's very inspirational," and they'd go back and do exactly what they were doing which had nothing to do with interactive computing because there wasn't any interactive computing. To me interactive computing is an art form, is... basically a branch of movie making and the computer establishment does not understand this. People who are trained as programmers think that they are perforce competent to design interactive systems whereas they have no more competence to design interactive...systems than if they'd been trained in pipe fitting. [INTERRUPTION] [TAPE CUT]
Interviewer:
LET ME JUMP IN HERE FOR A SECOND. TELL ME ABOUT DOUG ENGELBART. WERE YOU AT THE '67...?
Nelson:
Yeah, but can I go on with that roll?
Interviewer:
SURE.
Nelson:
We'll get to him. Okay, good. The people that are best trained I think for the design of interactive systems are really movie makers. Now I saw that because I think of myself as a movie maker even though I've only made one movie. And because you are visualizing what will happen on a screen if the user does specific things. Again I use the term screen generically, it could be a, an audio surround, it could be a miasma hanging in the middle of a room, but you're visualizing something an interaction between some world and what the user is doing. And this is a very intricate interaction like making movie because when you make a movie, you may make a decision about the music or the sound which influences the way you're going to cut a certain scene which influences the way the script's going to come out. All the parts interact with one another. And so in designing the system you have to make all these decisions in concert and in parallel, whereas computer people tend to want to set down rules and make it simpler and clearer, set down guidelines, and that leads to extremely clunky systems of the kinds we see now. So the kinds of interactive systems I've been designing have been far more fluid, and far more well...when people see my designs, they say, "Oh my God," because it's not like anything they expected. When I was at Datapoint in 1981, they wanted me to design a suite of office software so I came up with a design for a text system that I'd discarded ten years previously. And they said, "Oh my God, this is too futuristic" and threw it out. At any rate so where this is going, the most influential stuff is going to be the video games. In other words I take, I take Pac-Man to be the prototype of the office systems of tomorrow, not these obtuse, tiresome word processors and outline processors and spreadsheets, but Pac-Man which has real interaction, immediate feedback, color and sound, and is self revealing as different aspects of the design become clear to the user. As distinct from things where you have to open the manual and tediously learn each feature. So when the generation that grew up on video games gets to it, well they are now, they're now beginning to program their own software and so that's why we're seeing more and more vivid and imaginative software out there in the marketplace. Okay, you asked me about Doug Engelbart.
Interviewer:
YOU WENT TO '67 CONFERENCE WHEN HE PRESENTED?
Nelson:
No. Was it '67, I thought it was 68? ...I'm not sure. It's funny, I started designing text systems in the fall of 1960 and basically came up with the hypertext concept, and that word, and various data structure designs for it. Over the period 1960 to 1965 I did not hear of Douglas Engelbart until 1965, I remember the conversation, and I didn't meet him 'til I think it was '67 that I came out here and met with his group. And so I guess that was when I first held a mouse and said, "Of course, it's great." That was something I hadn't thought of, and it was absolutely much better than the light pen. And but we had a fundamental disagreement because Doug's stuff was all sequential, he had, everything was in one long... outline. And so you were starting sequentially and continuing sequentially with the objective of sequential documents. And this seemed to me to miss the point of the computer screen...because writing is really sequential, in my belief, because we have numbered pages and for no other reason. An author has to twist his or her brain to make a document fit into a sequential structure and now that we have screens and interaction, we don't need that sequential structure anymore, the writer need only create the, a presentation showing the user what the categories and things to be looked at are, and allow the user to make these jumps into that material -- that's the hypertext concept. And but I don't want to sound disrespectful of Engelbart. Engelbart is one of the great men of our time. Doug Engelbart has not only had a vision of a better world and work at screens for high-powered teams that has been, well that has influenced many people, but he has also had the courage and clarity of mind to go on and on and on against all odds. And and he's just done a wonderful job in inspiring the whole world, and what we see out there. What did he invent? He invented the mouse, he invented word processing, he invented outline processing, he invented multiple windows on a screen, he invented the text link -- he gives me equal credit for that but I'm not sure I deserve it. He is, he is and he is a saintly individual, so I think he is one of the great men of our time.
Interviewer:
JUST IN GENERAL KIND OF TRY TO MAKE AS MUCH EYE CONTACT AS YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE, YOU COME OFF BETTER THAT'S WHY I ASK. WHAT'S SPECIAL ABOUT A COMPUTER, WHY IS IT THAT IT'S ON THE ONE LEVEL SO SEDUCTIVE, PEOPLE WILL WRAP THEMSELVES AROUND A COMPUTER FOR HOURS, HOW IS IT DIFFERENT OTHER TOOLS?
Nelson:
The word computer, let's start, let's start with the word computer. It's a misnomer, okay? John Von Neumann called it the all-purpose machine and even though today's computer designs are called Von Neumann machines, nevertheless we don't call them all-purpose machines, we call them computers because historically we just happened to use them first for numbers, they could have been used first for controlling moving signs like baseball scoreboards, in which case we wouldn't have thought of them as numerical, we would have thought of them as textural and graphical machines first and then recognized their numerical functions afterward. So it's a historical accident that they're called computers and this has mislead a lot of people. What they really are is all-purpose machines that can be turned to any purpose by instructing them, which doesn't mean saying "Now computer, you do this," it means thinking of a series of operations and a way of specifying those operations that will make the events occur that you want to occur, and that sounds so simple. And there's the seduction, there's the quagmire of the that pulls everybody in, quick -- what's...what are those puddles called that pull you in?
Interviewer:
QUICKSAND?
Nelson:
Quicksand. And the quicksand of the computer is that you think it's going to be easy and you put your toe in, and you think it won't take much longer because all you wanted to do was this little bit and so obvious to you, it's so clear to you what you want this machine to do. And you think okay it'll just take a few steps...well it'll take a few steps more, there you are six years later and your workroom piled high with papers and printouts and you're gradually realizing what an enormous job you chose because you just had no idea at the outset. And that's how it is essentially with, that's how it's been in almost every branch of computing. You thought, we all thought that all these different were so much simpler because the concept came to our mind so readily and the execution took so long. This has been especially true in the project I started 30 years ago with my term paper at Harvard which was going to be a writer's console, I thought, which would later expand to a worldwide publishing system and in fact it still is. And we'll have the product out this year or next and so after 30 years this extremely intricate system which keeps track of all the different versions of the same fragments will be available. And what I thought I could do as a...as one individual for a term paper 30 years ago has taken dozens of very brilliant and well trained guys years to complete.
Interviewer:
ISN'T THAT THE LAYER OF THAT QUICKSAND ALSO A LOOKING GLASS? I MEAN DON'T YOU WHEN YOU DIP YOUR FOOT IN —
Nelson:
Beautifully put, yeah I'll, I'll quote you. Yeah, the layer, the upper surface of that quagmire, that quicksand is really a looking glass because...there you are seeing yourself, the computer is a projected system, a Rorschach test, 'cause you look at it and you say why of course. What it really is a system for dress design, it's a system for movie making, it's a system for and you name your favorite subject because you see how this can be used for what you want to do. And but unlike narcissus just looking into this thing you have to, you have to reach in and try to pull out of that looking glass, you're, you're trying to reach behind for the image you see and what you get is this quicksand that pulls you in and keeps you programming and designing for years and years.
Interviewer:
I MEAN IT ON ANOTHER LEVEL ENTIRELY ...TO STEP INTO VIRTUALITY, INTO A VIRTUAL REALITY THAT ESSENTIALLY BECAUSE YOU CAN DO THINGS YOU CAN'T EVER EVEN IMAGINE DOING ON THIS LEVEL.
Nelson:
The term virtual reality gives me a slight problem, I like to call goggle-roving because basically what you're doing you put on goggles and you're in a three dimensional world and I'm glad it's catching on finally. Ivan Sutherland was doing it at Harvard in 1965 and I couldn't understand why it's taken all these years for people to see how great that is. On the other hand I'm not a member of that church, I mean it's, it's, it's going to be very interesting, I'm not sure it will reform the world and even if every personal computer owner puts on the goggles and enters a three dimensional space, it doesn't solve the interface problem because you still have to decide what's going to -- how you're going to control the database, and how you're going to control this or that aspect of the virtual world you're in. But still the virtual reality roving is a wonderful toy and it's a wonderful way of visualizing and an easy way to get around things, and far better than MS-DOS, and so I heartily applaud all the directions that are taking us into it.
[END OF TAPE F64]
Interviewer:
AS I WAS DESCRIBING TO YOU -- PROGRAM SIX -- WE HAVE, LOOKING AT THESE STATIC NOTIONS, THESE IMAGES, THESE POPULAR IMAGES OF THE COMPUTER WHICH ARE OUTDATED AS SOON AS... ACTUALLY, WHY DON'T YOU PHRASE THAT FOR US IF YOU DON'T MIND DOING THAT.
Nelson:
Our picture of the computer...the public picture of the computer keeps changing and almost the--
Interviewer:
AGAIN, AS DIRECT TO ME AS POSSIBLE.
Nelson:
Okay, yeah. The public picture of the computer keeps changing and in a sense is obsolete almost the most it's formulated so that, well I remember the first, the cover of Time magazine, the computer was on the cover of Time magazine about 1947, '49, it was an Artzybasheff cover and it was, it was, showed the computer as an octopus. And the bureaucratic octopus image that was on the cover of TIME and perhaps in part shaped by that cover of Time was with us for until quite recently, I guess until the personal computer in the mid-'70s. And now we have the personal computer view which sees the computer as a narrow screen. For example, I was extremely annoyed at a, at an article in the Saturday Review, no The New Republic a couple of years ago which said that the computer screen can only hold, that's right, a word processor can only hold ideas as wide as the computer screen. No I wrote a letter to The New Republic saying that The New Republic by, of the same token could only hold ideas 44 characters wide because that was the width of the column in The New Republic, but they didn't print it. In any case, so the, this cliché about a computer screen being a narrow thing about 50 or maybe 128 characters wide already this is dead, because now we have computer screens two feet wide on Macs and Suns. And within another ten years they'll be four feet wide and they'll be three dimensional, we'll have the goggles. So already we're now seeing a cliché computer world where the computer most people have seen is the MS-DOS IBM PC clone with the little screen that is only text. And...ah, but it's, the evolution is so fast, the moving storm of computer progress leaves so many stagnant puddles and in which teem interesting life. And so there are many different computer worlds, each one with its own obsessions and so the public concept depends entirely on what computer person they've talked to. Now most computer people are obsessed but each at some different level. Now my obsession is with the overall objectives and making wonderful systems for the whole world that aren't held back by technical considerations whereas many guys, the ones I call technoids or chipmunks, tend to be obsessed by the individual details let's say of each new chip that comes out so they want to study these things in detail and memorize them and read them backwards at great length and tend to turn away from the larger issues. Well I think the larger issues are what count and making the public, helping the public see what the large issues of computers are going to be like, are going to be about, this is the real problem, the larger issues that computer have to do with. Personal freedom, for example, now of course they can track where convicts go, they put an electronic ball and chain on them issues of tracking who reads what in electronic libraries. I think it's very important that we not track who reads what in electronic libraries. Issues of well who's going to have access and really what's happening is basically...it's going to be a market system which is in some ways sad because some people won't be able to afford computers but at the same time so many people will that it will be overall beneficial. But there are very many great issues about the future of computing and helping the public see what they are rather than be swayed by this or that cliche of computers is absolutely vital, I hope your program helps.
Interviewer:
HOW IMPORTANT IS NETWORKING AND HOW IS IT TRANSFORMING HOW COMPUTERS EFFECT SOCIETY?
Nelson:
Computer networking means many things. For example, in many in many companies a computer network can be a network of small computers that are essentially behaving altogether as...one big one, or it can be many people phoning into a big central computer. When I lived in Texas right around the corner was this large complex which an airline had, I had to walk by there at night and there were all these people sitting at desks receiving reservations from all over the world. And so that was, you know, kind of odd. And so there are...there are many different kinds of computer networks and the conferencing networks now like The WELL and other conferences on things like CompuServe and the Source allow people to dial in and have conversations with other users all over the world and they don't know if they're talking to a retired four star general or to a teenager and this in many ways is considered extremely liberating because they can speak and write freely and create these long collections of letters and diatribes that can be shared. This is an extremely interesting development, the only problem, one of the problems with it being that a conversation on The WELL can't be read by someone who is subscribing to CompuServe and vice versa and there are so many Balkanized different conversations we don't yet have a way to pool them all, which is one of the objectives of the Xanadu publishing system we're working on. So networking is these many different ways of tying information together and I don't think it's any one thing so I can't really characterize it, nor can I say what it's leading to in particular, because like the computer itself it's leading in so many different directions.
Interviewer:
WANT TO GIVE US THE, I DON'T KNOW HOW MANY MINUTE VERSION YOU WANT TO TELL US ABOUT XANADU.
Nelson:
It's a little difficult to talk about Xanadu quickly because it's taken me so long, I've worked on it for 30 years now and it's such a simple concept that almost no one has been able to understand it until now because they always said, "Well, where's the Framiss?" or "What about the Tweedledum?" and they couldn't look at the big concept. The big concept of Xanadu can be most easily expressed as follows. Imagine the year 2020, I like to call this "the 2020 vision," when a billion people around the earth are sitting at screens, each able to reach into the common pool of documents, you might call it a library or a repository, and pull to the screen any fragment of text, any footnote, any illustration, any piece of audio, any piece of sheet music, any piece of video or motion picture, paying for the individual fragment at the instant of delivery with an automatic royalty being remanded to the publisher. So it's a very simple concept. Oh, one more thing. Anyone at any instant may publish anything. So you just, if you've written a comment you like on something, you just type it in and press the publish button and bingo now it's available around the world and if anyone should happen to read it for some reason because they like your things you've written before or they are curious about what's been added as a footnote to that document, they can get that fragment out with automatic royalty to you at a very small cost. So it's a very small royalty to you but the whole point is that it accumulates. So this simple concept which I think is the obvious extension, you see, when the computer screen was invented, we arrived at a divide in human...in the history of human culture like that of the printing press, and people didn't get it. The...they bring the Macintosh out and it's used for word processing for God's sake or what they call desktop publish, i.e. typesetting sequential documents to be printed on paper. That's like driving a 747 on the highway, okay? To use the computer as a paper simulator rather than as a window to the great new shared world of the human culture because here are the libraries with all this great stuff in them but we can't get at it, you can't get at...just because a book is published doesn't mean it's accessible, it just means that someone somewhere once had a copy. Whether that book even exists anywhere is not clear. So with the Xanadu system we'll be able to create a repository that can grow indefinitely without slowing down substantially in performance. In fact it should be able to keep up with, to continue fast delivery in the year 2020 even when there are a trillion documents with a trillion links between them and people are adding a billion documents a day let's say as the thing really gets up to speed. This will essential...this will essentially become the replacement of the printing press. Now people thought I was crazy when I talked about this in 1960 and in 1970 and the funny—what really rocks me back on my heels now is that they, oh of course that's how it's going to be. And I say what because it's, it's very strange having promoted this idea which I think was perfectly obvious in 1960 for all these years and being treated as if I were completely nuts and then having people suddenly get it. It's very nice. The hard part was the software because what was needed was not just a simple delivery program based on the way people delivered -- the way computers delivered documents before but rather a very intricate program designed to speedily deliver fragments from an ever growing pool of computers on a great network. And so we have been pushing the state of the art in design. The chief architect, Mark Miller, is an extraordinary guy. Roger Gregory, who held the technical side of the project together for a decade is an extraordinary guy. And, and the people who've actually gone and built it, I take credit for the inspiration but not for the actual building, have been a marvelous and wonderful group. And and the company that's sponsoring it, Autodesk, has also been very foresighted. There are those who think it's, the enormous success of Autodesk in creating a worldwide standard for drawing on screens was an accident, I assure you it happened because they were very smart.
Interviewer:
STOP TAPE FOR A SECOND. [TAPE CUT]
Nelson:
...I had the good fortune to get to know John Mauchly before he died. He was the wonderful man who had headed up the development of the ENIAC at the Moore School in University of Pennsylvania at the, during World War II. And he was an absolutely delightful guy, I guess he was in his seventies, and wonderfully charming and outgoing and friendly, but I couldn't quite figure out...as he told his stories there was talk that I was going to help him ghost write, ghost write his autobiography but it didn't pan out. I couldn't understand what his contribution could be because he—could have been because he couldn't seem to stay on the topic and he rambled, but he was so charming and delightful. And then he died suddenly and I was very broken up about it and I went to his funeral. And at the party suddenly afterward suddenly I understood what Mauchly had done because here were all these people in their sixties, but the most dynamic, bright group of people I had ever seen. And it became immediately clear what Mauchly had done, he brought them together and he inspired them. And so, and, anyway Mauchly was a tremendously delightful guy and he was annoyed to the very end that John Von Neumann had gotten credit for the idea of the stored program computer because he said Von Neumann had come to their lab at the University of Pennsylvania and they had been under military nondisclosure and Von Neumann was not and simply went out and wrote up all the ideas as his own, that's what, that anyway was Mauchly's claim. But it was a very great honor to be able to know a guy like that.
Interviewer:
HE WAS AT WENT TO ONE OF THE PC EXPOS...
Nelson:
Excuse me, I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it... If he what?
Interviewer:
HE WAS AT ATLANTIC CITY?
Nelson:
Probably...I yeah he got around, he was very popular.
Interviewer:
ANY OTHER THOUGHTS?
Nelson:
Yeah, we're moving into a very strange new age with some very sinister aspects. It may be that we haven't even recognized what the dangers are going to be of computers and the biggest problem is people being aware of what they might be. And they can pop up out of nowhere like computer viruses. Computer viruses two years ago were theoretical and suddenly they're with us now as a real danger to your personal files. And we don't know what it's going to be next time, but it's a sure thing that the authentic storage of true documents is going to be a tremendous issues because once a document is on a computer there's absolutely no way a forgery can be detected. It's not as though you could examine the paper and do chemical tests of the paper, the handwriting, you just have this document that are these words and you have to judge by external evidence whether they're real. Now when Oliver North's correspondence was discovered in backup files, they had external evidence to show what they were. But when those things are coming at you through networks, they'll be no way to tell. So the door is open to the Winston Smith world of the future. And in 1984, Winston Smith the hero had as his job to rewrite history and that could actually come about. With the new electronic cameras there's no film, there's just an image made on a video disk which is sent down the... down the line back to the back to the newspaper. And the forgery of perfect photographs is now possible especially through computer retouching means. So that means the chain of evidence that was possible before for a photograph is no longer possible, so that the so-called authentication methods for determining the documents are real and for assur -- and methods for assuring that the real documents are stored, these are going to be extremely important in the future, especially as more and more sophisticated forgers turn up who know all the ins and outs. To have a forger paste a picture of a bicycle in Leonardo da Vinci's codex, I mean that's nothing compared to what can, what can happen in the future. And, and I think we're scarcely aware of how serious this problem is because anyone in any generation could rewrite all of history.
Interviewer:
WHAT IF IT'S ON MANY DIFFERENT SYSTEMS?
Nelson:
Yeah, how could we, how could we fight this? Well one way is to keep records on many different systems, but of course since a copy can proliferate so fast or be deleted so fast that isn't itself a solution. One of the things that's being talked about that's extremely important is the authentication code which is a process applied to a file after the file is created which cannot be undone or allow the file to be changed, so that if you have, if you authenticate if you put an authentication code on a document, then when the document is supplied with that authentication code, you can perform the same process and come out with that code and therefore know that it hasn't been changed because there's no way it could have been—the document could have been changed and still yield that same code. That's the kind of thing that people are looking at now.
Interviewer:
ELECTRONIC ENVELOPE.
Nelson:
Electronic envelope is another term, yeah. And so this is just one threat and of course being able to track—oh there are many other threads. Being able to track individuals and persecute individuals, not just have a government persecute individuals but have individuals persecute other individuals electronically will be all too easy. Having organized crime persecute other individuals, having using computer networks illicitly for a vast variety of purposes that clever people can begin to use them for. This is, this is very threatening but all we can hope for. The answer I think is more understanding rather than trying to suppress any part of it.
Interviewer:
...I GUESS WE'RE SEEING THE EXTREME EXAMPLE OF INFORMATION AS POWER AND WE'RE CHANGING THE POWER STRUCTURES.
Nelson:
Information as power, yes we're...we are seeing information as power in new forms, but of course information has always been power. In ancient days if you possessed the map and the other guy didn't, you held a unique—well even today if you have the map and the, your adversary doesn't, you have the unique advantage. And indeed so many services for the business world are based on supplying information of a type your...competition may not think to look for. So that, information as power is not an intrinsic change, but the kinds of information that are available and the kinds of power they yield may be very different because of course -- well what was it in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? The hero played by Bing Crosby in the movie was able to seize power by predicting the eclipse of the moon or the sun, whatever it was. And, and this of course was tremendously impressive to the, to the locals because they didn't have that information and perhaps the same thing will come about in the future from... well whoever has the information has leverage, whether you can use that information is another question. For example, you know, thirty years ago I knew personal computing was going to be the hot stuff, and I was not able to use this as leverage. So just having the...information is not necessarily enough.
[END OF TAPE F65]
Interviewer:
...GENERAL QUESTION I'M ASKING EVERYBODY. CAN YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION OF A COMPUTER, YOUR FIRST RECOLLECTIONS OF A COMPUTER?
Nelson:
My first recollection...my first recollections of a computer, well heck, I was an avid reader of Time magazine when I was about ten or eleven and somewhere around that time, that would be 1947 or '48, there was a cover story on...in Time on the computer with one of the wonderful covers by Artzybasheff who portrayed it as an octopus and it was an extraordinarily good piece and I read it with great care and great interest. And a couple of years later my grandfather and I went up to an exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci models up at the IBM intergalactic headquarters on 57th Street and right next door they had a huge relay computer with which would go clickety-click behind glass and supposedly they were commuting the trajectory of the moon. And this was all very interesting. You stood inside the computer with the relays around you. I don't remember whether it glowed or not, I had the feeling it glowed but it shouldn't have so, in any case it was, it was wonderful but I had no idea what a computer was, I was still under the thrall of the mathematical myth. And then when I took a course finally in computing programming in 1960 and it was the first one that had been available to non-mathematical types. Sudden the scales fell from my eyes and I realized what a fraud everyone had perpetrated because the computer was not a mathematical device at all. And so my feelings were a mixture of indignation, hilarity and lust because here was the perfect typewriter, the perfect movie machine for all the, all the movies I wanted to make and all the articles and books I wanted to write. If only just a little bit of software could be created to make it do what was so self evidently, so...self righteously obvious as the destined true use of this machine, and I've been working on that for the last 30 years.
Interviewer:
WHY DO YOU THINK IT WAS OBVIOUS TO YOU THAT IT WASN'T PRIMARILY OR SOLELY A MATHEMATICAL MACHINE OR ARITHMETIC MACHINE?
Nelson:
Well it...well it was obvious to me. I mean, why is it obvious that the computer is not an arithmetic machine, but it is obvious, I mean it's obvious. Now most people hadn't caught it because the machine had been... essentially a kept mistress of the mathematical and scientific community and forced to engage in certain pursuits with no let up and therefore never generally recognized that these were just as legitimate—I mean they'd put labels on their, on their files and occasionally text strings in there but they didn't feel that this was a legitimate or proper use, it was just something it had to do whereas of course it's just any use of the computer is perfectly legitimate whatever.
Interviewer:
DESCRIBE THE COMPUTING EXPERIENCE THOUGH IN THOSE DAYS. IT'S ONE THING TO REALIZE IT COULD HAVE ENORMOUS POTENTIAL, BUT YOU DIDN'T OWN A COMPUTER DID YOU? YOU HAD TO USE THE ONES THAT WERE AVAILABLE, WHAT WAS IT LIKE PROGRAMMING SOMETHING?
Nelson:
What was it like to program at that time? Well you see I never even got near a computer. The program I wrote in, for my term project in the fall of 1960 did not get completed, I did not attempt to run it, I flunked the course and I was thrown out of Harvard with a terminal Master's degree instead of a Ph.D. which was what I went there for originally. But I never I never got near a computer 'til years later I was essentially designing in my mind which was the right thing to do because I was very good at imagining how it should be and that emerged as my function and that's what I've been doing all these years and with, to good effect, although it was a very peculiar career route.
Interviewer:
I MEAN CERTAIN THINGS HAD TO HAPPEN TO THIS MAINFRAME TYPE OF COMPUTER FOR THE VISION TO BE REALIZED, COULD YOU LIST SOME OF THOSE, HAD TO GET SMALLER, INTERACTIVE, WHAT...?
Nelson:
Many people think that great changes were necessary in the computer to make it personally useful. I think this is a misunderstanding. I want to, I want to bring about a revisionist history. The real, the truth is that computers were always perfectly well suited to personal use, it was just that they were too expensive and they required too much air conditioning. But aside from that there is absolutely no reason we couldn't have used them and I was, I was eagerly awaiting my chance to buy my own 7090, I thought I would get rich enough somehow or that there'd be a way to actually do this and in fact now I have one except it's called a Macintosh.
Interviewer:
YOU DIDN'T PROGRAM THAT FIRST COMPUTER IN YOUR COURSE, WHEN DID YOU GET INVOLVED AS A PROGRAMMER, WHEN DID YOU HAVE THE ROMANCE OF ACTUALLY TRYING TO GET THE COMPUTER TO DO...
Nelson:
I'm not a programmer, I never have.
Interviewer:
WHEN DID GET THE SENSE, YOU GET MORE ACTIVELY ENGAGED WITH THE COMPUTER?
Nelson:
Never.
Interviewer:
OR NEVER —
Nelson:
No I mean what I...what I have always done since the fall of 1960 is designing interactive software for personal use on computer screens and this does not require any sort of contact, any direct contact with the machine. In fact, direct...contact with a machine is merely distracting because it's doing something else, it's not doing what you wanted to do. The whole point is to imagine the way it should be and bring that, and elucidate that in the structure of the program, the structure of the design. I'm now working on a generalized design for a complete personal integrated software system and it's of no use to me to look at the machine while I think of this because I'm looking in my mind at the way it should perform under different circumstances and that's what design is about.
Interviewer:
NOW, YOU USED A TERM -- THE COMPUTER IS A VERY STRANGE SORT OF ANIMAL, THAT IT'S PART MACHINE BUT IT ALSO PARTLY BEHAVES LIKE A MEDIUM -- YOU USED THE TERM "LITERARY MACHINE." WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?
Nelson:
You know I forgot one thing—I usually tape my own - [MISC. DISCUSSION]
Interviewer:
THIS MACHINE WAS INVENTED AS SORT OF AN ARITHMETIC ENGINE... AND AS YOU ALREADY ATTESTED YOU REALIZED THAT WAS A BIT OF A FRAUD, AND LATER ON YOU CALLED THIS THING A LITERARY MACHINE. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?
Nelson:
Well...see, our old literary machines were printing presses and bookshelves, and the printing press allowed us to create these packages and to distribute them inexpensively. And the bookshelf allowed them -- allowed us to find them when we had them and the very...the very big bookshelves are called libraries. And the good news is that we're publishing more documents now than ever before, and the bad news is you can't get at them, you have to buy them or do without or send for them, it's quite elaborate. And it just makes so much sense to have a great repository where all documents are stored from which any portion can be extracted innocently and have automatic royalty and various other nice features like that. Linkage so you can create a document which couples to other things that are stored. And so a literary machine then is such a document... is such as storage device set up to provide a repository of stored documents to every user. And that's what I've been working on all this time.
Interviewer:
THE COMPUTER CAN DO -- YOU MEANT IT IN THAT SENSE, A COMPUTER OF COURSE IS A UNIVERSAL MACHINE, RIGHT, IF IT'S LITERARY, IT CAN DO THAT, BUT ALSO IT CAN DO ALSO LOTS OF OTHER THINGS. CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR READING OF THIS, WHEN YOU REALIZED THE MACHINE WAS A RATHER SPECIAL MACHINE AND IT COULD BE PUT TO DIFFERENT MEANS. WHAT'S ACTUALLY GOING ON? THERE'S A SORT OF LINGUISTIC, IT'S ALMOST LIKE WE'VE GOT A MACHINE WHICH IS DESIGNED WHERE IT CAN DO SOMETHING AT ONE LEVEL BUT BY... SOFTWARE TURNS IT INTO OTHER SORTS OF VIRTUAL MACHINES, DOESN'T IT? I WONDER IF YOU COULD EXPLAIN IT?
Nelson:
Well, you see the computer is a totally blank device, and this of course -- first of all, this was not obvious when it was being paraded as a mathematical and scientific machine. And secondly, today the computer no longer arrives on your doorstep naked like an orphan, but comes dressed in all sorts of armor and you can't really get at the functions that it had, chastity belts and whatnot, you can't get at the things that it's actually capable of doing unless you either program in the ways that have been allowed open for you or you use a can opener to find your way into the functions you would like it to perform. So that creating the virtual machine you want, making this all-purpose machine, as John Von Neumann called it, into a, into the particular responding entity that you want is a terrific amount of work.
Interviewer:
YOU SPOKE LAST TIME WHEN YOU WERE INTERVIEWED ABOUT BEING SORT OF SEDUCED -- IT'S A SEDUCTIVE THING, ONCE YOU DIP YOUR TOE IN THIS TASK YOU GET DRAWN IN. IS THAT WHAT REALLY APPEALED TO THE HACKERS IN THE LATE '50S AND EVERYBODY EVER SINCE THEN...THAT HERE'S A MACHINE WHICH WILL DO YOUR BIDDING IF YOU TELL IT RIGHT?
Nelson:
Well yes, yeah, it will do -- the good news is it will do your bidding, the good news is the computer will do your bidding exactly as you tell it to and the bad news is that's it's always much harder to get it to do this than you ever imagined. Supposedly one of the reasons that some of the settlers in Venezuela got to be so achievement oriented is that they inherited they conquered very bad mines. Venezuelan means lousy vein. And so the Venezuelan settlers who got hold of these mines unlike the ones who conquered the Incas, had to work the mines themselves because it was useless to try to enslave people, they couldn't feed the slaves if they—so they had to do it themselves. And hackers, that is, enthusiastic computer people which are hackers, unfortunately the word has come to have another meaning in the popular presses, but people who love computers have tried to get them to do what they wanted and found they had to do it themselves, there was no slave bureau or employment agency that could find someone who would get it to do it your way. So a hacker then, you become a hacker by necessity. Either you are going to make it work your way or you're going to have to settle for what somebody else does. And this is this is a very irritating state of affairs. We would all like to just lie back and say out loud the wish we have in mind and it, the computer doesn't quite respond that way.
Interviewer:
YOU SPOKE LAST TIME A BIT ABOUT IVAN SUTHERLAND AND DOUG ENGELBART, I WANT TO ASK YOU THIS TIME HOW MUCH DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THE WORK GOING ON AT XEROX PARC WHEN IT WAS GETTING ON, WAS THAT WELL KNOWN TO PEOPLE LIKE YOURSELF?
Nelson:
The work at Xerox PARC started about 1970. Essentially all of my creative contributions in the field took place between—before 1965 and I was in no way influenced by that. I did hear about Sutherland's work in the early '60s and I used his movies when I was teaching at Vassar in 1964, in 1965. I did not hear about Engelbart's work I think until '65, actually I argued, I discussed this with Engelbart at dinner last night and neither of us could remember when we first heard of the other but I think it was in...1965 I first heard of Doug Engelbart, and by that time all my designs were in place. The thing is that Doug, wonderful, saintly Doug Engelbart wants to create a world in which people can work together, which is a fabulous objective. My own personal objective always was to create a world in which I didn't need to work with other people because I really hated collaboration. And the irony of it that well the irony...is that Doug had to go it alone and I've had to learn how to collaborate so we've each had to turn in the direction we didn't exactly intend.
Interviewer:
ON THE XEROX PARC THING, DID YOU EVER VISIT PARC DURING THOSE TIMES? AND CLEARLY ONE OF THE THINGS ABOUT YOUR VISION OF COMPUTING IS THAT IT TOOK A LONG TIME TO COME ABOUT —
Nelson:
It hasn't come about, not nearly...I don't find any software acceptable in the present day.
Interviewer:
WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO THE WORK GOING ON THERE, WAS THAT SORT OF PRETTY CUTTING EDGE OF THE AS REGARDS WHAT WAS AVAILABLE AT THE TIME?
Nelson:
It wasn't available. I first visited Xerox PARC I think somewhere between '70 and '72, I'm not sure when, and I was of course overwhelmed and impressed and wished they would hire me, I never sent them a job application because if you have to apply, that means you won't be hired anyway, somebody has to want you... But it was fabulous the toys and the goodies they have. Of course what wasn't clear was that it was a great concatenation of demonstrations and you had to know the right buttons to push that wouldn't crash the system like any, like any demonstration. But it certainly was unlike anywhere else. MIT and a few other universities and oddly enough a private university on Long Island were doing a great deal...of spearheaded research but Xerox PARC was where all the toys were, it was the big sandbox. And everyone envied it and it was a, it was a very strange place though because I always found... there was a strange level of tension at Xerox PARC, I don't know how much of the tension was my own tension at the time because I was a very angry young man and how much of it was real, but it was a, certainly a place where there was extreme competition under a surface veneer, a convention of everyone acting cool. So you had this curious push pull between, a double bind between having to be Californian and sit on bean bags and play and play volleyball at lunchtime, I don't think they do that anymore so much and the fact that you were under terrific peer pressure as a computer professional. And there was, the conversation at Xerox PARC and among PARCees is, at least was at the time intensely status oriented.
Interviewer:
SOME OF THE TOYS THEY CAME OUT WITH, WERE THEY WHAT YOU HAD IN MIND BACK IN 1960 SOMETHING LIKE THE ALTAIR?
Nelson:
Were the toys that Xerox had in mind what I had in mind? No, no. It's a different model. The windowing of... the windowing of the Xerox PARC stuff I find still unacceptable although it's passed into the vernacular. The trouble is you can't make a mark between the center of one window and the center of another. I want to show in one window a side view or a textural description let's and on the, in the other view a different picture and have a line or a band going from the description in one window to the thing it's describing in the other window. There's no way to do that in existing so that what they did, imaginative and elegant as it was, left a great deal out.
Interviewer:
IT CONCENTRATED ON THE LOOK RATHER THAN ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE CONTENT?
Nelson:
There is a Xerox PARC style which was taken over into the Macintosh and has now been copied into Microsoft Windows and the Amiga and various other windowing systems that leaves out a great deal and that ignores some of the fundamental structures I think are vital to elucidate. So yes it, they left out a lot.
Interviewer:
HOW WOULD YOU HAVE -- RATHER, SEEING THE HISTORY, YOU SUGGESTED JUST A MINUTE AGO IN YOUR REVISIONIST VERSION THAT IT WASN'T THE MACHINERY THAT WAS LIMITING, I MEAN IT WAS THE COST, BUT YOU THINK IT'S LARGELY A SOFTWARE PROBLEM IN MAKING THIS THING BECAUSE YOU USED THE TERM, YOU INVENTED THE TERM VIRTUALITY, DIDN'T YOU?
Nelson:
Hra hmm.
Interviewer:
DESCRIBE WHAT THAT WAS, AND GOOD VIRTUALITY IS THE THINGS THAT GIVE US LEVERAGE OR WHAT?
Nelson:
My history of computerdom of course begins with about seven different people inventing the computer independently ,and then its becoming stereotyped and enslaved as a numerical device which was only one possible function. Now there's an interesting anecdote. When Mauchly and Eckert who invented the computer at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering during the war took it to a private backer, they found such a backer and he was a manufacturer of racetrack signs. He was killed in an airplane crash, but if he hadn't been, it's interesting to conjecture whether the computer might not first have been called in it's commercial, first commercial version a text machine or an electronic text machine and whether or not the it would have taken an entirely different direction with word processing coming in before the mathematical applications. Probably not, but it's an amusing conjecture. So why then did it stay so long on that track? Well there were a number of things. And, and why was why were computer graphics suppressed for so long? One reason is that it was being sold so hard as a business machine. Another is that IBM, through the marketing of the 360 which essentially smothered most other computer companies for about a decade from 1964 to 1974 prevented the arrival of computer graphics into the firm and essentially the access to computer screens of the entire population for I would say a decade. And so the pent up computer hunger everywhere that made personal computers when they started marketing them much more cheaply made them explode into the workforce and into personal life with the impact that they did.
[END OF TAPE F198]
Nelson:
The notion of virtuality is the idea of the opposite of reality, okay? Reality is the nuts and bolts of the thing, the brick walls that hold up a building, the engine that makes a car go. But virtuality is the conceptual structure and feel, okay. And the conceptual structure and feel of a car—all cars have the conceptual structures, forward and back, left and right, start and stop, but they have a different feel and that's why, that's a lot of the reason people pay such ridiculous amounts of money for upscale cars. The feel of -- the virtuality of a building is that sweeping look that the architect may have tried to give it or perhaps just the everyday look of a, of a tin industrial building. But that still has a conceptual structure and feel. For example, in Frank Lloyd Wright's soaring and jagged structures you had this...had this remarkable look that he gives it. That's the virtuality of the building and you don't really know if it's made of concrete or cardboard. Okay, now the same issue comes up in software because really software is a conceptual structure of the field and so constructing this virtuality is an act of the imagination. The skills of programming are really what are like the hammers and nails that make that come together, but it's not the same thing as...but the real issue is the design that's in the mind of the creator.
Interviewer:
WHEN THAT VIRTUALITY IS DESIGNED PROPERLY, IT GIVES THE USER A GREAT DEAL OF...LEVERAGE IS THE WORD THAT'S OFTEN USED, ISN'T IT?
Nelson:
Well, I don't know...
Interviewer:
IS THERE ANOTHER WORD?
Nelson:
To me the design of virtuality is an art, pure and simple. The, there's an art to designing the handling of a car which is part of its virtuality, and there's a...there's an art designing a motion picture, which is called direction really, and that is creating a virtuality. And so that's why I say that software design is really a branch of movie making because you're dealing with screens and events on screens and the impact of events on screen on the mind and heart of the user, except you have the added the added quality that the user is exploring and able actively to influence what goes on in the screen. So it's a new multidimensional movie and I think the film schools are the right place to teach it, but computer programming itself is like being a cameraman for a movie, it's, it's a skill which is important but just as every cameraman thinks he's a director but very few directors are cameramen, it's a special talent and a special ability that has nothing to do with the technicalities.
Interviewer:
NOW WHEREAS SOME OF THE VIRTUALITIES THAT HAVE BEEN THOUGHT UP ARE REALLY SLAVISH IMITATIONS OF EXISTING MEDIA, AREN'T THEY? SO WORD PROCESSING WOULD BE NEAT, BUT WOULD YOU SAY PREDICTABLE?
Nelson:
You could say, hm hmm.
Interviewer:
BUT THE SPREADSHEET IS OFTEN CREDITED AS BEING A RATHER BRILLIANT THING, DO YOU AGREE?
Nelson:
Word processing in a way, well it's making the computer into a paper simulator and I was extremely disappointed in mankind when I saw the impact that world—word processing had because what it meant was that people didn't see where the future...of literature really lay which is in hypertext on the responding screen. It means that people are still thinking in terms of one page after another. Well that's okay, but the moving out of the paper simulation into virtualities that are detached from previous concepts, this is the heart of software design for me. And the spreadsheet is a good example because while it mimics in a way what corporate statisticians and sometimes managers did with paper spreadsheets, adding things up and subtracting them, erasing numbers, nevertheless it became a conceptual structure uniquely to—unique to itself. And well I had never seen a paper spreadsheet so to me it was an electronic concept from the very first and I think it very much goes beyond the paper because the way you...subdivide the screen for example into rows and columns and it can move and pan, this is a new conceptual structure.
Interviewer:
AND SOME PEOPLE ARGUE THAT THE EXISTENCE OF VISICALC WAS WHEN YOU GET A NEW VIRTUALITY AND IT HITS BULL'S EYE, IT'S TREMENDOUSLY EFFECTIVE IN A COMMERCIAL WAY, MANY PEOPLE ARGUE THAT VISICALC MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE THE EARLY PERSONAL COMPUTER MARKET...
Nelson:
Yeah. I first saw VisiCalc I think around, somewhere, well just before it came out whenever that was. And shown to me by a fellow named Peter something or other from Canada. I said well this is going to revolutionize American industry, I think I called that one right. But yeah it had a tremendous impact and it is said that the Apple computer, Apple II that was actually got its foothold, caught on because VisiCalc was the program for the Apple II. And it was a beautifully designed one too. It's amazing how we went from as, such a well designed program as VisiCalc to some of the other spreadsheets which are rather clumsy.
Interviewer:
NOW IT'S QUITE INTERESTING THAT IN THE FORTY YEAR HISTORY OF THE COMPUTER PEOPLE STILL HAVE NOT MUCH OF AN IDEA OF WHAT SOFTWARE IS, THEY TEND TO SEE THE COMPUTER THROUGH THE MACHINE. AND IN THE EARLY DAYS THE IMAGE OF THE MACHINE WAS VERY MUCH TIED UP WITH ITS SIZE, WASN'T IT? HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE THE DIFFERENT MYTHOLOGIES THAT HAVE BEEN FORMED ABOUT COMPUTERS OVER THE YEARS? BECAUSE THAT HAS CHANGED QUITE A LOT WITH...
Nelson:
Well there have been a number of myths of the computer. The first of course was the locomotive tended by acolytes in the air conditioned room that no one could get at, the...along with that the notion that it was a great scientific or technical monstrosity that only certain people could understand and had an intrinsically numerical quality. The new myths of the machine, well now they're tied up shall we say with the myths of the company that make them. And and so you have the IBM myth of the small machine, the Macintosh myth of the small machine and it's remarkable how IBM people for example, people who use IBM PCs or...PCs, pardon me. People who use PCs which were originally made by IBM and no longer are, that they think of themselves as practical people and quite remarkably I find that Macintosh people tend much more to be idealists and in fact the Macintosh seems to be the idealist computer around the world. I don't know if you can use this example but, I know a couple in San Francisco who have a so-called open relationship and he doesn't mind her sleeping with other men but he does mind her using a Macintosh.
Interviewer:
CURRENTLY WE HAVE LIKE A STAND ALONE VIEW OF THE COMPUTER AS A MACHINE ON THE DESK, AND CLEARLY AS IT GETS SMALLER AND MORE NETWORKED THAT MAY CHANGE AGAIN. DO YOU EVER THINK WE'LL GET BEYOND THE MACHINE IDEA OF A COMPUTER AND MORE TO A MEDIUM RATHER LIKE PAPER AND STUFF LIKE THAT?
Nelson:
People still think that buying a computer ... People still think of the computer as a sort of commodity, and in fact people think of a telephone as a commodity even though it has a computer in it. So the object has an image that hides so much that's inside it. I hear of people sent to buy a computer for a company that has no computer and still being, treating it this is a commodity as though it's something you can buy off the shelf and make happen. And no I just think that's just going to continue. The psychology of buying a machine is so much with us, rather than the... psychology of buying into a system which is... what you're doing, you're buying into a system and way of life. It's like choosing to live in a condominium with a swimming pool for example rather than owning your own house. It's you're entering into an entire system, and yet people don't realize it. Now computer as medium is going to be... Computer as medium is going to be a new thing though. And again what we're going to call it isn't entirely clear, of course the term people, a lot of people are using now is multimedia. I very much prefer the...term hypermedia because that means responding media where you get to make choices. And the hypermedia machines of tomorrow...the hypermedia machines of tomorrow are going to be essentially computers really with transmission lines like any others but because the emphasis is going to be on exploring text and graphics and movies and simulations, there's going to be a new edge to it and maybe we need a new word -- I haven't thought of one really but in any case it will be essentially sitting down at the [MAKES SOUND] and being able to read, write, explore, add, create, change, and connect, making notations, making anthologies, making new interconnections, quoting things left and right. This will be a new environment wholly unlike any others. And of course it's the one that I've been trying to set up the kitchen for, the service facilities to deliver these materials, for all this time—over time, that's what we call the Xanadu Project.
Interviewer:
I MEAN IT IS AS YOU SAY VERY MUCH UP TO US, BECAUSE THIS MEDIUM IS A META-MEDIUM, IT CAN SIMULATE ALL OTHER MEDIA, CAN'T IT? THEREFORE...IT COULD GET SWALLOWED UP BY TELEVISION IF WE WANT IT TO, OR IT COULD SWALLOW UP EVERYTHING... WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL HAPPEN? I MEAN, DO YOU THINK IF WE'RE LOOKING ON A HISTORICAL STAGE WHEN WE REGARD THINGS LIKE THE THE INVENTION OF WRITING, THE INVENTION OF PRINTING AS SIGNIFICANT...WE'RE TALKING ABOUT SOMETHING RATHER LIKE THAT?
Nelson:
First of all I really like meta-medium which I'd never heard before. Yeah, well the computer is in this sense going to be a meta-medium combining and allowing the delivery of all sorts of existing media but in new ways, in an utterly new theater as it were, theater of the mind. And I think this is going to have an immense impact on the way we think, the way we do everything and like every fad that catches on big, it's impossible to predict when it will start or how it will start but we know that it will start. And we don't quite know what machines it will be delivering it to and what they'll look like. They'll probably be high definition TV consoles but we're not quite sure of that. It's going to be a departure though from media as we, as we know them now, and especially from television because television is built around, television and radio are built around the time slot, and the time slot is intrinsically inimical to exploration. And the school is another institution built around the time slot and inimical to exploration. And I look forward to seeing both of these take on new positions in our lives, because I think the addiction to television and leaving the set on has done bad things to us in many ways. I don't know where my television set is right now...oh there it is. But but I haven't turned on a television set more than...I haven't successfully turned on a television set in the last year.
Interviewer:
I'VE GOT TO ASK YOU A COUPLE OF QUICK QUESTIONS FROM LAST TIME... WHEN YOU WERE DESCRIBING BACK IN THE SEVENTIES, TWO COMPUTER FAIRS AND I'D JUST LIKE YOU TO REPEAT THE ANSWER AND YOUR RECOLLECTIONS OF THEM, THE FIRST WAS THE ATLANTIC CITY COMPUTER FAIR...AND THE NEXT WOULD BE THE WEST COAT COMPUTER FAIR AND THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THEM...
Nelson:
Well, memory fades. I guess the, hmmm, the early computer fairs... ah, yes -- "Yes, he said in his rocking chair." -- Well the first personal computer fair I guess was in Philadelphia in '76.
Interviewer:
ATLANTIC CITY.
Nelson:
Was it Atlantic City?
Interviewer:
I THINK SO, YEAH. YES, IT WAS ATLANTIC CITY. WELL WHEREEVER IT WAS...
Nelson:
Well, the one I remember, the first personal computer fair that I remember was in Philadelphia in 1976. Well...might it have been Atlantic City. All I remember is going, is driving through rush hour traffic, I had six or seven people in the car with me and we'd been delayed and so we hit rush hour traffic and according to some of those people in the car we drove on the walls and ceilings of the tunnels in order to get through that traffic...we were determined. And in any case, wherever it was -- it might have been Atlantic City -- it was it was special because it was a lot of people coming together for the first time who suddenly realized they were an industry. I was an entrepreneur in something called the itty bitty machine company in Chicago, a computer store. And I had several partners...we never actually had a falling out it's just that it was run into the ground, each thinking it was run into the ground by the others. And although we had, we made some nice posters, but we exhibited at that company—at that conference and I sold my book, "Computer Lib" there. Allegedly, Jobs and Woz were showing their Apple. That's right I remember several times people saying oh you should go see the, that Apple, or those fellas Jobs and Woz...Wozniak want you to come see their Apple II computer. I said does it have lower case and they said no...it'll never fly, where text handling is going to be the way of the future, without lower case no personal computer is going to make it. So I was wrong on that one...
Interviewer:
SO THIS WAS A REASONABLY SMALL SET-UP JUST FOR ENTHUSIASTS, I MEAN THIS WAS AN EMERGING INDUSTRY THAT HADN'T REALLY GOT VERY FAR, WOULD YOU AGREE?
Nelson:
Yeah. I gave a talk there that I had really done myself proud in organizing it. Only about 15 people came and I was supposed to limit my remarks to a certain length of time and when...I ran over, they did a very rude thing, they opened the curtains so the cocktail party drowned me out but everyone in the audience wanted me to continued so I continued to the end and got a standing ovation from 15 people. It turned out that I now know all these people well, it was a hardcore of kindred spirits and but it was a...it was kind of a monumental speech...at that time where I was...denouncing IBM and saying we would take over the world. We have, we still have tapes but not of the ending part.
Interviewer:
NOW A YEAR LATER ON THE WEST COAST THINGS HAD MOVED ON QUITE A LOT —
Nelson:
By the way one computer...one early computer conference I'd like to mention was the Altair computer conference which was really the first of them. It was called the World Altair Computer Conference and we all flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico where Altair, then the undisputed champion of the personal computer was holding court. David Bunnell was the organizer, he later went on to found PC Magazine I believe, and then PC World magazine and Macworld magazine, did very well. At the time he was just the young whippersnapper who put the conference together, or so I thought. But he did a good job and we all flew into Albuquerque and I remember it was remarkable. There were about, well several hundred people and I remember the evening session and making some sort of speech. Apparently I said things that shocked people but that was in the days of... I thought everybody was much more liberated than they turned out to be. And anyway the Altair Computer Conference was the first moment we all became conscious of each other and that had a verve that no other conference has ever had before or since.
Interviewer:
BUT DID YOU THINK IT WAS A SHORT MATTER OF TIME YOU WERE GOING TO DEMOLISH IBM, THAT IN FACT YOU WERE GOING TO START A REVOLUTION, DID IT FEEL LIKE THAT?
Nelson:
I was sure that there was going to be a revolution and it was all tied up with a lot of things. I, yes I thought the downfall of IBM was going to be part of it and I think in fact that is happening right now. IBM is on its knees and has a, has a lot further to fall in my opinion. And...you know...I no longer am eager to see this event but at the time that seemed to me a necessary step in the struggle for liberation. No, yes it was a revolution and there's no question but it was a revolution that turned middle class the way they all do you see and they've compared me to Trotsky, because in every revolution there's...there's one character that says "No, we haven't gone far enough, we've...we've left our principles behind!" and it was Danton in the French Revolution, and Thomas Paine in the American Revolution, and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution, and in the Computer Revolution, well...
Interviewer:
LOOKING BACK...YOU SAID IT WASN'T OVER YET. HOW FAR HAVE WE COME, AND HOW FAR HAVE WE GOT TO GO?
Nelson:
Well of course it's going to...the computer revolution... The computer revolution is going to be an unending change, an onrushing torrent that sweeps the old aside in every field. It's a black hole that eats fields, you go in and you don't come out. But on the other side we missed the most fundamental problems. I believe that the file model, the way we handle files without any way of keeping their history...without any way of showing interconnection between them has left everyone drowning in stinky little files with short names that you can't understand and drawers, these desk drawers full of every kind of disk and you don't even know what's on them, and you don't have time to look and you can't find out what's on them without a heroic effort -- and this has got to change. And so this fundamental model of how we store information has been wrong from the very beginning and it's what I attacked in the... at the very beginning in 1960. So that's what's wrong and that's what's got to be fixed because we're drowning in information already and the spigot has just started to open because the torrent and avalanches of information we're going to have to keep organized is only beginning. At the National Supercomputer Center they have --
[END OF TAPE F199]
Interviewer:
OKAY, SO YOU WERE SAYING WE'RE DROWNING IN INFORMATION...
Nelson:
Right. We are now drowning in information, and the rate is going to increase from every source and the ability to understand this, to show it, to visualize it and to mark it so we can make bookmarks. I can make a mark on some piece of data and say this is such and such. Here's a here's a photograph sent back from Mars all these dots coming in on the radio from some Mars probe we sent and I said look at that formation you say "No, that's a statue of Elvis." We had a big headline recently that said Elvis Presley found on Mars and we can argue about this, we'd have to be able to be for all this data to enter into a controversy, into the stream of controversy, so that everyone can access it, everyone can mark it, annotate it and deal with it for their own purposes. But presently this is not possible. We have a Balkanized system where he's got that data, they've got that data there is not yet a common repository where all these things can be published. And I consider this the principle task that lies before us now.
Interviewer:
HOW WOULD YOU RATE -- FINAL QUESTION -- THE COMPUTER, IT'S FORTY YEARS OLD, WE HAVE GREAT DIFFICULTY THINKING ABOUT IT AND THINGS LIKE SOFTWARE AND SO FORTH, IT'S VERY HARD TO INTERPRET. DO YOU THINK IN THE HISTORY OF HUMAN CULTURE THIS IS AN EXTREMELY SIGNIFICANT CHANGE? ... HOW WOULD YOU GAUGE IT, TO GIVE US SOME IDEA? THIS ISN'T JUST ANOTHER MACHINE, IS IT?
Nelson:
This century has seen half a dozen extreme paradigm shifts caused by various technological invasion which became part of the culture. Radio, tele- -- well, the telegraph is last century -- then came the telephone, radio, movies, television, the nuclear bomb, the automobile, not in that order, and the birth control pill, and the computer. So they've many such extraordinary sweeping changes in the way we live our lives built around these extraordinary innovations. The computer... each of these innovations is a paradigm shift, because it's created a different way of living. The computer is a special paradigm shift because it has so many sub-churches. There are different denominations who cannot even speak to each other and cannot understand each other. Artificial intelligencers don't talk to the rest of us. People into mainframe computing are scarcely aware of, and deeply resent, the small computer people. People who use computers for databases are very different from and resent people who are into hyper-bases and hypermedia and hypertext, my particular church. People who are into interactive graphics insist that's the center of everything and can't understand why anyone would ever want a printout. So there are all of these different churches of computerdom and there are going to be more sects. The latest and hottest church is so-called cyberspace or virtual reality, where you put on a helmet and wander through artificial three dimensional worlds. I'm not of that church. It's been around for...Ivan Sutherland was doing that 25 years ago and I wondered why it hadn't caught on, it's wonderful but it doesn't change any of the fundamental issues such as the issue of a great repository we can all share. So, the computer world will continue to be an ever proliferating collection of sects rather like Los Angeles.
[END OF TAPE F200]
Enter the timecode: