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TheStreet Open House

How Ted Nelson Changed the Journalism Business

Stock quotes in this article: AOL, TST, IBM

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Some 35 years ago, I was far from the most popular graduate student at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.

I'm sure the faculty voted me "least likely to still be at this 35 years from now." I suspect they passed me through only because they feared I'd just re-enroll.

It seems I was an arrogant know-it-all. But at the heart of my argument with authority was a question that has played out throughout my career: Is the online world a net benefit to journalism, or does it destroy journalism?

Yes, we could see it coming, at the dawn of the PC era. It may please my teachers' spirits to know I've since been fired from every regular gig I've ever had, mainly due to insubordination. I am an arrogant know-it-all, still, albeit a persistent one. The difference is that I know that now.

But the question remains: Is this medium a net positive or a net negative for the employment of journalists?

I got my answer a few years after graduation. I was at Comdex, a now-extinct computer show now best known as the start of Sheldon Adelson's fortune. I was at a small party helping "close" the old CP/M operating system with my wife and two editors with whom we'd become friendly.

Then our party got a special guest. His name was Ted Nelson.

My wife was thrilled. She'd found a copy of his 1974 book "Computer Lib/Dream Machines," in the basement of a house we'd rented. She was enthralled by his concept of hypertext, the idea of meta-code hidden behind words that could, with a click, take you to another page, even another computer, maybe on another continent.

He liked that we had been in Evanston in 1977, where Northwestern is located, because he had been running a computer store there, called the Itty Bitty Machine Co. ( IBM (IBM), get it?)

But what impressed both of us was his take on the nature of knowledge, that it could be built from the bottom up, that it wasn't about top-down authority, that we should interact and learn things together. That's the heart of the word Internet -- interactive.

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