On alternatives

John Ohno
3 min readSep 21, 2018

I love Ted Nelson’s concept of “ALTERNATIVE COMPUTER UNIVERSES” (more than I love Ted’s actual hypertext ideas, which is a whole damned lot) because I really do feel like we made a whole bunch of wrong turns.

Many times in history, we had the opportunity to do the right thing (“fight for the users”, build that “bicycle for the mind”) and instead we did the profitable or easy-to-imagine thing. Then, once we realized our mistake, there was a whole legacy locked into path dependence and a whole industry dedicated to ensuring we never forgot or corrected the mistakes of our youth.

Unix is the typical example given for the “worse is better” philosophy, but it’s not a good candidate because Unix, for all its flaws, has the kind of respect for its users that leads it to trusting them with powerful and flexible tooling. Two better candidates are the web (and all of web tech) and the original Macintosh’s UI ideas.

The web is a master class in taking a bunch of already-flawed off-the-shelf technologies and hammering them into places they don’t belong without thinking about how they might be used in the future. The web standards are a Kafkaesque museum of technical debt. Using web tech is always something that seems like a good idea during a half-burnt-out all-nighter and then continues to make your life harder for the rest of your days, because that is how each element of it was developed. But, at least it has reified the capacity for regular people to make ugly hacks, which should be considered their right.

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John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net