1974 - Nelson’s Canons A Bill of Information Rights - Ted Nelson

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It is essential to state these firmly and publicly, because you are going to see a lot of systems in the near future that purport to be the last-word cat’s-pajama systems to bring you “all the information you need, anytime, anywhere.“ Unless you have thought about it you may be snowed by systems which are inherently and deeply limiting. Here are some of the things which I think we all want. (The salesman for the other system will say they are impossible, or “We don’t know how to do this yet,” the standard putdown. But these things are possible, if we design them in from the bottom up; and there are many different valid approaches which could bring these things into being.)

These are rules, derived from common sense and uncommon concern, about what people can and should have in general screen systems, systems to read from.

1. Easy and Arbitrary Front Ends

The “front-end” of a system – that is, the program that creates the presentations for the user and interacts with him – must be clear and simple for people to use and understand.

The Ten Minute Rule. Any system which cannot be well thought to a layman in ten minutes, by a tutor in the presence of a responding setup, is too complicated. This may sound far too stringent; I think not. Rich and powerful systems may be given front ends which are nonetheless ridiculously clear; this is a design problem of the formost importance.

Text Must Move, that is, slide on the screen when the user steps forward or backward within the text he is reading. The alternative, to clear the screen and lay out a new presentation, is baffling to the eye and thoroughly disorienting, even with practice.

Many computer people do not yet understand the necessity of this. The problem is that if the screen is cleared, and something new then appears on it, there is no visual way to tell where the new thing came from: sequence and structure become baffling. Having it slide on the screen allows you to understand where you’ve been and where you’re going; a feeling you also get from turning pages on a book. (Some close substitutes may be possible on some type of screen.)

On front ends supplied for normal users, there must be no explicit computer languages requiring input control strings, no visible esoteric symbols. graphical control structure having clarity and safety, or very clear task oriented keyboards, are among the prime alternatives.

All options must be fail-safe.

Arbitrary front ends must be attachable: since we are talking about reading from text, or text-and-picture complexes, stored on a large data system, the professional front end must be separabel from the data services provided further doen in the system, so the user may attach his own private conveniences for roving, editing and other forms of work or play at the screen.

2 Smooth and Rapid Data Access

The system must be built to make possible fast and arbitrary access to a potentially huge data base, allowing extremely large files (at least into the billions of characters). However, the system should becontrieved to allow you to read forward, back or across links without substantial hesitation. Such access must be implicit, not requiring knowledge of where things are physically stored or what the internal file names my happen to be. File divisions must be invisible to the user in oall his roving operations (freedom of roving): boundaries must be invisible in the final presentations, and the user must not need to know about them.

3 Rich Data Facilities

Arbitrary linkages must be possible between portions of text, or text and pictures; annotations of anything must be provided for; collateration (see p. DM 50) should be a standard facility, between any pair of well-defined objects; Placemark facilities must be allowed to drop anchor at, or in, anything. These features imply private annotations to publicy-accessible materials as a standard automatic service mode.

I believe that an introduction to any subject acn be humorous, occasionally profound, exciting, vivid, and appealing even to experts on their separate levels.

Perhaps someday I can prove it.

4 Rich Data Services Based on These Structures

The user must be allowed multiple rovers (movable placemarks at points of current activity); making possible, especially, multiple windows (to the location of each rover) with displays of collateral links.

The system should also have provision for high-level mooting and the automatic keeping of historical trails.

Then, a complex of certain very necessary and very powerful facilities based on these things, viz.:

A. Anthological Freedom: the user must be able to combine easily anything he finds into an “anthology,” a rovable collection of these materials having the structure he wants. The linkage information for such anthologiesmust be separately transportable and passable between users.

B. Step-Out Windowing: from a place in such an anthology, the user must be able to step out of the anthology and into the previous context of the material. For instance, if he has just read a quotation, he should be able to have the present anthology context dissolve around the quotation (while it stays on the screen), and the original context reappears around it. The need of this in scholarship should be obvious.

C. Disanthological Freedom: the user must ba able to step out of an anthology in such a way an not return if he chooses. (This has important implications for what must really be happening in the file structure.)

Earlier versions of public documents must be retained, as users will have linked to them.

However, where possible, linkages must also be able to survive revisions of one or both objects.

5 “Freedom from Spying and Sabotage”

The assumption must be made at the outset of a wicked and malevolent governmental authority. If such a situation does not develop, well and good; if it does, the system will have a few minimal safeguards built in.

Freedom from being monitored. The use of pseudonyms and dummy accounts by individuals, as well as the omission of certain recordkeeping by the system program, are necessary here. File retention under d u m m y accounts is also required.

Because of the danger of file sabotage, and the private at-home retention by individuals of files that also exist on public systems, it is necessary to have FIDUCIAL SYSTEMS FOR TELLING WHICH VERSION IS AUTHENTIC. The doctoring of on-line documents, the rewriting of history - cf. both Winston Smith's continuous revision of the encyclopedia in Nineteen Eighty-Four and H . L . Hunt's forging of historical telegrams for "The White House" - is a constant danger. Thus our systems must have a number of complex provisions for verification of falsification, especially the creation of multilevel fiducials (parity systems), and their storage in a variety of places. These fiducials must be localizable and separate to small parts of files.

6 Copyright

Copyright must of course be retained, but a universal flexible rule has to be worked out, permitting material to be transmitted and copied under specific circumstances for the payment of a royalty fee, surcharged on top of your other expenses in using the system.

For any Individual section of material, such royalty should have a maximum: i.e., "by now you've bought it."

Varying royalty rates, however, should be the arbitrary choice of the copyright holder; except that royalties should not vary sharply locally within a tissue of material. On public screens, moving between areas of different royalty cost must be sharply marked.


Theodor H. Nelson, "Computopia and Cybercrud" in in Roger Levien (ed.) Computers in Instraction (Rand Corporation, 1971).

Theodro H. Nelson, "A Conceptual Framwork for man-Machine Everything" Proc. NCC 73.

Publicado en Dream Machines, p. 58.]






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