Olivia Newton Coleridge

I met Ted Nelson once.

Now, one of the problems with mentioning someone like that on a page that support hyperlinks is; to what do you link his name?  There are many opinions about Ted and they range from rabidly supportive, almost Messianic devotion to the sort of ad-hominem attacks that are usually reserved for the… less popular political figures.  So I linked the three syllables of his name to three different sites that (sort of) span the range.  The first one is the notorious Wired article.

One of the most interesting thing about meeting him was to observe the response of others.  I was there with a couple of colleagues; one of whom was a Huge Nelson Fan (which was why we ended up on Ted’s boat in Sausolito drinking beers) and in him I saw something new.  Here was a manic visionary, someone who would pursue radical ideas beyond their limitations (or alternatively condemn them utterly) who I now saw treating Ted’s slightest opinions as unquestionable axioms.  Whether this was because of a genuine reverence or because this was the sensible way to cope with a maverick radical intellectual, I don’t know.

There’s this effect that hangs around people who are famous, sort of like a distorting field.  If one was wearing augmented-reality glasses, I imagine that someone like Nelson would be surrounded with tags, links to pages written about him and his work, comments about his personality and attitudes.  The real person is underneath, somewhere, their appearance coloured by layer upon layer of report.  But this is all relative, of course.  My wife wouldn’t have the first clue who Ted Nelson was and (if she’d been there) would have seen only a pleasant enough guy, ageing, slightly birdlike in the way he moved and talked.

So I made a concerted effort to dispense with prejudice, and listened to Ted as he was shown the ideas and software we’d brought to California, and as he reacted to them.  And a pattern began to emerge.  That which he was shown “had been anticipated in his work years ago”.  Principles explained to him were “already well understood” in what he’d done.  In the same way as his reputation blocked him from my sight, his fight to defend his work blocked him from seeing anything else.  Everything technical existed in relation to Xanadu.  I felt sad, that someone should be so tied to a venture they were unable to let it go.  I wanted to say to him: let it go.  There were probably good things in it, and bad.  We all write stuff like that, we all end up with projects that don’t fit the real world enough to succeed.  Move on.

Later in the evening, there was a small Generalist Gathering on Ted’s boat for Leap Day[1]  I left before then, taking a cab back into the city.  Reports that reached me later spoke of an assembly of some of the strangest people in the Bay area; those so far along the divorced-from-the-normal spectrum of geekhood that their only relation to the real world and the realms of the physically possible came from association with other geeks who weren’t quite so weird (who in turn related to other lesser geeks, and so on until one approaches normality).  I’m not sure whether Ted was their connection to the world, or they were his.

[1] This is how I remember it, anyway.

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