Rick Wysocki has a great post introducing Ted Nelson’s innovative idea for a new kind of file system. New, at least, in 1965.

Ted Nelson’s Evolutionary List File and Information Management

In many ways though, we’re still waiting for this kind of approach to become available.

The 1965 paper begins with a programmatic statement that has still not been fulfilled:

“The kinds of file structures required if we are to use the computer for personal files and as an adjunct to creativity are wholly different in character from those customary in business and scientific data processing. They need to provide the capacity for intricate and idiosyncratic arrangements, total modifiability, undecided alternatives, and thorough internal documentation.”

Ted Nelson, in case you don’t know, was the first person to coin the term ‘hypertext’, and this is the first published reference to hypertext. In his post, Wysocki reflects on the connections across decades between Nelson’s ideas and the contemporary interest in ‘personal knowledge management’ and Niklas Luhmann’s non-hierarchical Zettelkasten system of notes. He sees the Zettelkasten as potentially more creative than many contemporary systems because it doesn’t impose a fixed system of categories from the top down.

“Creating hierarchies and outlines of information can be useful, but many don’t realize that outlines have to work on existing material; they are not creative practices themselves (Nelson 135b). This is why the common myth we tell ourselves and our students that an outline should be worked on before writing at best makes little sense and at worst is cruel; how can we outline ideas we haven’t created yet?”

He praises Nelson’s list file approach, where everything is provisional, and can be changed. Fixed categories are out; lists are in. Nelson saw his hypothetical system as a kind of ‘glorified index file’, which is where the connection with Niklas Luhmann’s (quite different) approach comes in. Sadly, most attempts at providing computerised tools for writers have thrown out the affordances that previous analogue systems offered, almost without noticing their loss. Nelson’s ‘Project Xanadu’, notoriously, was never completed. But there are some gains. I’m reminded of TiddlyWiki, in which nearly everything is a list, even the application itself.

The original paper , ‘Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate’, can be found online as a PDF.