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Computers beyond computing

The Story

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about computers is their name. "Compute" originally meant "to execute mathematical processes," and a computer was a person - and later a thing - that simply did math. So, Ideas producer Max Allen wants to know, how are these devices supposed to make our lives better? In this clip, author Ted Nelson tells a skeptical Allen that computers are really a communications tool, just as suited to providing entertainment and accessing worldwide information as to crunching numbers. 

Medium: Radio
Program: IDEAS
Broadcast Date: March 19, 1979
Guest(s): Ted Nelson
Host: Russ Germain
Interviewer: Max Allen
Duration: 3:42

Did You know?

• American Ted Nelson, identified here as the president of Computopia, is an internet pioneer with a strange legacy. He was one of the first to envision interlinked online documents, and is credited with inventing the term "hypertext" to describe how computers could access branching, non-linear writing. Hypertext is the basis of the World Wide Web.

• Nelson is infamous for designing a mysterious computer hypertext and multimedia system called Xanadu. He began working on it in 1960 and it has been in continuous development ever since, without ever actually being published. Xanadu was (and for some, still is) an ambitious vision for interconnected electronic documents called "deep hypertext." The key technique envisioned was a sort of "embedding" of content from original sources into a "virtual file," unlike the system of copying and one-way links employed by the World Wide Web.

• The Xanadu model includes a method for addressing copyright and rights management (called "transcopyright"), unbreakable links, linking quotations to their original source, comparing different versions of the same document, and change tracking.
• Nelson always rejected the notion of working with existing technology like the World Wide Web, calling it shallow, "another imitation of paper" that "trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents."

• In 1995, Wired magazine called Nelson "the king of unsuccessful software development" and referred to Xanadu as "the longest-running vapourware story in the history of the computer industry."
• "Vapourware" is a derogatory term for software or hardware that has been announced, but not actually produced. The word was popularized in 1984. Each year Wired announces their Vapourware Awards — the 2004 list included several video games, computer operating systems and video cards.

• The word "computer" comes from the Latin computare, which means to count or compute. For hundreds of years, the term referred to a person or job category: those who were experts at calculation, or good at using calculating machines.
• In the 1940s, the term computer became increasingly used to describe devices that did computing. These machines were fully described as analogue computers (like an abacus), or electronic or digital computers (the device you are using now.)


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