The word intertwingularity was coined by internet pioneer Ted Nelson to represent the idea that everything in the universe is deeply interconnected.

Intertwingularity is not generally acknowledged, people keep pretending they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can’t. Everything is deeply intertwingled.

Ted Nelson

The concept appears within Nelson’s quest to creating a system that empowers creativity and understanding for everyone by allowing them to easily find and make connections.

It was in 1960 that Ted Nelson became «inflicted with ideas and designs for non-sequential literature and media», as reads the reprinted (in his book Geeks Bearing Gifts) letter he published in 2006 Lost in Hyperspace.

Knowing that a better version of computers and programs exist to help us connect the dots, most simply put, Nelson founded Project Xanadu. For various reasons the project had little success and failed to take off, but the deeper constructs Nelson envisioned together with his ideas that everything is connected and that computer systems are yet to become able to represent this interconnectedness, are still what Nelson passionately advocates.

In that same letter, he writes:

These would facilitate an entire form of literature where links do not break as versions change; where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; showing the origins of every quotation; and with a copyright system for frictionless, non-negotiated quotation of any amount at any time.

Ted Nelson, Lost in hyperspace

The Promise of Intertwingularity

Everything, from code to culture, is connected and the potential of a linking mechanism that can map this connectedness is as fascinating as it is hard to implement.

Conceptually, intertwingularity is about multifaceted understandings and multilayered descriptions existing on multiple levels.

In practice, the premise is simple: we need to keep track of things, in our writing, reading, and research. But instead of being able to rely on one network that has it all, where all things are linked, we have separate notes, stored in all kinds of different states. This weakens the power of the points of our knowledge-to-become pieces. The real issue is to put all these pieces together without losing track of their sources and relationships with other things.

And this is what succeeding to translate intertwingularity into a system will be about: a space which allows us to jump across points of knowing and be able to get back any time, from anywhere. Such infinite connectedness will be a means by which we can meaningfully plug into the accelerating complexity of emerging cyber ecosystems and ideate powerful digital constructs. And it is thinking about and working towards a Web as an intertwingular whole that will broaden and deepen the way we understand and create all things digital, where everything is “kind of a similar and kind of the same, and yet different”.

Everything Flows Into Everything: Interconnection, Representation, Sequalization All Similar to the Issue of Water

In a beautiful metaphor, talking about his experience with the flow of water, Ted Nelson illuminates the concept of intertwingularity though the essence of water, its flow and the interconnectedness in nature.

It was an experience of water and interconnection […] I was trailing my hand in the water and I thought about how the water was moving around my fingers, opening on one side and closing on the other. And that changing system of relationships where everything was kind of a similar and kind of the same, and yet different.

That was so difficult to visualize and express, and just generalizing that to the entire universe that the world is a system of ever changing relationships and structures struck me as a vast truth. Which it is.

So interconnection and expressing that interconnection has been the centre of all my thinking. And all my computer work has been about expressing and representing and showing interconnection among writings, especially.

And writing is the process of reducing a tapestry of interconnections to a narrow sequence. And this is in a sense elicit. This is a wrongful compression of what should spread out.

Ted Nelson in Herzog’s “Lo and Behold”

The citation above is part of the movie Lo and Behold directed by Werner Herzog and is one of the most succinct description of intertwingularity and of the conceptual understanding needed for building robust and effective computer systems.

Understanding the concept of intertwingularity and applying it in our digital activities can bring beautifully much of what we do in cyberspace together, allowing for a space of shared information, knowledge and experience and to emerge.