How Ted Nelson Disrupted the Land of Know


In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.


The second and third days came the medicine men. They invented the white coat. They invented the black briefcase. They invented the supercilious look. They even invented new language. Yes, new language, believe it or not, because the existing one didn’t quite fit their thoughts. “Rubeola” stood for measles. Well, not the simple meaning of the term, not the one you and I know. A more complicated meaning. “Pruritus” stood for itching. Uh-huh. “PRu-Ri-tus.” I think they rolled the “r.” Yes, complicated concept I tell you, I can’t say more about it because I don’t understand it myself, to be honest, but a grander meaning anyway, you know, much bigger than what you and I could understand.

They knew a lot…, these medicine men…

They say they were born with the Gift. Yes. The Gift to Know.

They knew they were different from the rest of us. You could say “superior.” Everyone knew they were superior. People paid them barrels of gold for a home visit. I think they healed just about everyone they touched. Except maybe for those few who were on the brink of death anyway. What could the medicine men do in those cases, you know? I think they pretty much healed everyone. I’m quite sure about that… I think… I don’t know… Anyhow.

The medicine men were treated well, no doubt about it, but soon enough they realized that they had to separate themselves from the commoners. Understandably. We were mostly a distraction, you know, buzzing meaninglessly around them. So they boarded a tall ship and went far off to a land they named “Know.” They say it was quiet there. Beautiful. It was a land of plenty for the mind. The medicine men were finally able to think in peace. They spent hours exchanging ideas. Inventing new things. Oh sure they still visited the sick, but only when their schedule allowed.

How much people looked up to them… Oh gosh. People were in awe of them. Everyone wanted to be like them. Everyone wanted to move to Know and become a medicine man. But it wasn’t that easy of course. The question was:

Would you be allowed in Know? Did you have the Gift?

So the medicine men did something really smart. I crack up just thinking about it! They said, “Ok, you commoners, you are free to come! Try it! Come join us in the land of Know. But first you have to pass a test.” And they set up this elaborate process to see if you had the Gift. People arrived to ports in droves. They paid years’ worth of earnings for a ticket. And then they packed themselves, like sardines, on ships to cross the ocean. It was an arduous journey. Two to six weeks they say. There was no food on board, except for one bowl of soup per passenger the first day, and that was that. You had to make due, you know? No bathrooms either. Some got so sick. Some even died. I mean, these poor people…, think about it. Their determination. They were just desperate for the opportunity to feed the mind. The most ambitious ones — you could call them “greedy,” I guess — were going for the jackpot. “Riches for the human intellect,” they’d say. “That’s what we’re after!”

So get this. When the ships arrived to Know, they were not actually allowed in the port. They had to dock at a small island off the Land’s main coast. That’s where the medicine men did the testing. Highly-trained officials checked each and every newcomer for signs of the Gift. With the help of a buttonhook, they looked straight through your eyes to the center of your soul. If they saw a quivering vapor inside, it was a clear indication that you had the Gift. Black stillness meant that you didn’t. I’m telling you! These guys knew what they were doing!

Gift? They let you in. No Gift? They accompanied you straight back to the ship for your return trip home. Can you believe it?!

Most people tested negative. Black stillness in their soul.

Don’t know why…


The fourth day came the lawyers. They invented all sorts of important rules. And new language too! “Fuero,” and “Argumentum e contrario,” and “Ex demissione,” and…, gosh, the list was endless. Obviously, they had the Gift too. So they moved to Know. I mean, we surely were a bother to them. Can you imagine a lawyer having to put up with folks like you and me every single day? They really didn’t have a choice, you see?

How much people looked up to them… Oh gosh. People were in awe of them. Everyone wanted to be like them. Everyone wanted to move to Know and become a lawyer. But it wasn’t that easy of course. The question was:

Would you be allowed in Know? Did you have the Gift?

At the island, highly-trained officials checked each and every newcomer. They gave you 16 cards with passages in different languages and told you to translate them into English.

Most people couldn’t.

Don’t know why…


The fifth day came the scientists. “Archaea,” “Transcriptome,” “Joule”… Highly-trained officials checked each and every newcomer. They gave you pen and paper and told you to draw a perfect diamond.

Most people couldn’t.

Don’t know why…


The sixth day came the computer people. “Memex,” and “Hypertext,” and “Cybernetics”… And just as they boarded the ship to leave for Know, they heard this loud voice from the dock:It was a man named Ted Nelson. They say he was a sociologist and philosopher and pioneer in new technologies, but I don’t completely believe that. If he had the Gift, why didn’t he board the ship with the others, you see? 

Nelson was furious. He ordered the computer people to get off the ship at once. They did. Frightened, they gathered around him. And he stood on a box and yelled:

Down with the computer priesthood! Down with intellectual intimidation! Computers are for everyone! The elderly and kids too! I declare a new era of “Computer Lib“! You must all go home right now and figure out for yourselves the promise and beauty of computers. You may not consider yourselves “experts” until you can explain how computers can augment the mind — everyone’s mind! — and enrich the daily lives of all the people on this planet. You must then go door-to-door to teach computers. NOW!

Isn’t it kind of crazy, what Nelson did? The computer people obliged. They are still teaching commoners about computers. The wild thing is that commoners are teaching commoners too. And in fact most people have come to consider themselves “computer people.”

I’m not one of them. I don’t think I have the Gift. I shall resist Nelson. There’s a place for Knowers in this world. One has to respect that.


The seventh day was a day of rest.

Now I’m going to ask you for a really dumb favor. Don’t tell anyone, ok? Since we are sitting around doing nothing, do you mind taking a good look inside my eyes? I know it’s going to sound weird, but somewhere deep in my head, I think I’m feeling a quivering vapor.


[Inspired by:

Wardrip-Fruin, N. and N. Montfort, eds., 2003. The New Media Reader, pp. 301-338. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press

The breathtaking Starr, P. 1982. The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry, p. 34. New York: Basic Books.

Just one excerpt for the sharing (there are so many…):

The guides to domestic medicine usually emphasized an intention to simplify the language of medicine. They argued that medicine was filled with unnecessary obscurity and complexity, and should be made intelligible and practicable. John C. Gunn’s Domestic Medicine, which appeared in 1830 and by mid-century replaced Buchan’s work as the popular favorite, was described on the title page as written “In Plain Language, Free from Doctor’s Terms…Intended Expressly for the Benefit of Families…Arranged on a New Simple Plan, by Which the Practice of Medicine is Reduced to Principles of Common Sense.” Gunn maintained that Latin names for common medicines and diseases were “originally made use of to astonish the people” and aid the learned in deception and fraud. “The more nearly we can place men on a level in point of knowledge, the happier we would become in society with each other, and the less danger there would be of tyranny…”]

[Photographs: Buttonhooks (Ellis Island); Eye examination for “Trachoma” (i.e., pink eye) (Ellis Island); Literacy test (Ellis Island); Now that you’re off the boat, sick and scared and depleted, “Can you draw a diamond?” test (Ellis Island)]


Dear reader,

I am closing this entry with a postscript, a practice I saw on the beautiful blog of one of my students and decided to steal.

I hope that my liberal appropriation of Ellis Island didn’t offend you. Please do not rely on my story for facts about what actually happened on Ellis Island between the 1890s and the 1950s. My story is fictional. It diverges significantly from the historical record (e.g., the vast majority of immigrants were, in fact, accepted in the US in a matter of hours; the literacy test required individuals 16 years of age and older to read one passage in their native language, etc.). My story is not about immigration. It borrows (and crudely transforms) elements from the Ellis Island story to grapple with issues concerning professionalization and the cultural construction of knowledge, education, and power.

My family visited Ellis Island for the first time last weekend, at the urging of my daughter who begged for the trip in celebration of her 10th birthday. As someone who (strongly) dislikes long lines, security checkpoints, and crowds, I obliged with apprehension. Turns out it was the most profound “museum” experience of my life. It raised many questions for me about knowledge, expertise, power, authority, liberty, and freedom to dream and grow. It was disturbing. I couldn’t help but make connections to Ted Nelson. It clearly touched my daughter too who, for the first time in an educational setting like this, asked me for pen and paper and began taking notes. Why she focused on the chalk markings that were placed on immigrants’ clothing after a six-second examination, I am not sure. What I do know is that she understood that these markings were counted against you and could lead to your deportation from the United States. I think that shocked her, especially when she saw “pregnancy” (“Pg”) on the list, a condition she hadn’t before considered a liability.

It’s all about the lenses we wear, isn’t it?

I dedicate this blog entry to her.            

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1 Response to How Ted Nelson Disrupted the Land of Know

  1. siblej says:

    Wow Yanna! Look into your eyes? I think you’ve given us a direct view into your soul. Your surely have a gift, many gifts, in fact.

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