Electronic Documents vs. Books

In the above video, Ted Nelson states that Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat are not exactly the best examples of electronic document programs, primarily because they refuse to break out of the notion that electronic documents must resemble paper (Ted Nelson, photonhunter, 2008), essentially becoming virtual books.

Nelson explains why books themselves are old media rather than new: the paper of books constitutes a prison, where words and ideas are longing to jump out from their pages of four walls (Ted Nelson, photonhunter, 2008). Parentheses and footnotes, he adds, only support this desire to break free (Ted Nelson, photonhunter, 2008). Human thoughts themselves are not organized or structured but all over the place; therefore, why should the ways in which we express ourselves be structured in a rigid format, where one cannot deviate?

As a writer, Nelson spoke to me as he expressed that the computer was meant to be a way to radically redefine how writers write, as well as redefine the documents themselves (Ted Nelson, photonhunter, 2008), not to imitate books both appearance-wise and even worse, structure-wise.

Watch the above video to discover Nelson’s brilliant program Xanadu Space, as well as more of his insights regarding where new media should be. 

The Cleverness of Hypertext & the Essentials of File Systems

The longing to allow users to be both readers and writers, and to share ideas in an unstructured and creative way, was what led Nelson to coin the term hypertext in his article “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate.”

Hypertext is a “body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.” 

Nelson’s concept of the file structure ELF, or Evolutionary List File, would eventually become the computer, an important piece of new media technology that still fails to live up to everything new media could be. There are three elements of ELF: entries, or units of information; lists, or ordered sets of entries; and links, or connectors between two entries in two different lists (Nelson, 1965, p. 6).

To be honest, before I thought of a computer I actually thought of WordPress! Specifically, how we create blogs in WordPress: posts, pages, categories, menus, tags and links… all used to express ourselves as creatively, conveniently and thoroughly as possible.

Nelson considers three fields to be essential for a file system, or what would later become the capabilities of a computer: the ability to handle changes in the arrangements of its contents; allowing for dynamic outlining, or a change in an outline automatically resulting in a change in the main text; and permitting many different drafts of the same entry (Nelson, 1965, p. 5). Overall, his main point is that it shouldn’t be complicated and shouldn’t make our lives any more difficult, that we should be able to do whatever we want within any given moment.

Ultimately, “information systems must have built in the capacity to accept the new categorization systems as they evolve from, or outside, the framework of the old. Not just the new material, but the capacity for new arrangements and indefinite rearrangements of the old, must be possible” (Nelson, 1965, p. 12). 

What it all boils down to? The computer should be working for us, listening to our every whim, rather than vice versa. The ways in which we express our creativity shouldn’t be constrained; that would defeat the purpose of creativity, wouldn’t it?

If new media is not creative, then what is its purpose? Essentially, what then is new media?

Nelson’s insights during the nineteen-sixties still ring true today, even as new media continues to evolve.


Nelson, T. (1965). Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate. Cleveland, Ohio: ACM.

photonhunter. (2008). Ted Nelson demonstrates Xanadu Space. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=En_2T7KH6RA