My ‘Misspent’ Youth

In Wired, Kevin Kelly describes the colorful web pioneer Ted Nelson:

Computing pioneer Vannevar Bush outlined the Web’s core idea –
hyperlinked pages – in 1945, but the first person to try to build out
the concept was a freethinker named Ted Nelson who envisioned his own
scheme in 1965. However, he had little success connecting digital bits
on a useful scale, and his efforts were known only to an isolated group
of disciples. Few of the hackers writing code for the emerging Web in
the 1990s knew about Nelson or his hyperlinked dream machine.

In 1984 I quit U. Chicago physics grad school to join the unpaid fringe of Nelson’s group.  (Also to pursue A.I., but that’s another story.) I met Nelson a few times, but mostly spent untold hours talking with the brilliant crowd hanging around his Xanadu project.

During those years (through 1993) I learned that with some effort one can discern a substantially clearer outline of the future than is found in Sunday supplement punditry or even conservative academic commentary.  And one can even have substantial influences on key changes.  We were way ahead of the curve on the web, nanotech, and much more.

But I also learned why this is possible – such insight doesn’t produce much compensation or recognition.  Those who made money and fame on the web were at very specific places and times with just the right skills and resources; foreseeing the general outlines of the web mean rather little.  Let this be both an encouragement and a warning to those misspending their youth today.  🙂

Of course if we had enough prediction markets about such things,  such insight might both be rewarded and better guide the actions of others.

Thanks to Chris. F.  Masse for the pointer.


Comments for this post are closed