free project xanadu

It's my hope that this post will combine the following ideas:

1. The concept of "General Information" As Posited Samuel Delany's 1984 novel Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand.

2. The hypertext system, Project Xanadu, as described by Theodor Holm Nelson in his book Literary Machines (and elsewhere) which I've discussed on this blog recently.

3. The contemporary idea of distributed network service, as described in the Franklin Street Statement, and enacted by technologies like git, xmpp, and open microblogging, and others.

We value the Internet--really the "web"--as it is to today, because it's diverse, and flexible. Web pages can look like anything, can do virtually anything from present the text of a book or newspaper to fulfill most of the functionality of your desktop computing needs. What's more all this is indexed and made accessible with google search. That's pretty cool.

While the web's ad-hoc and disorganized structure has made many things possible, there's no reason to assume that the future development of the web will continue in the current direction. microformats, and the proliferation of rss in "Web 2.0," not to mention human generated portals like Mahalo (or google knoll, and even various WikiMedia Foundation Projects), all seem to point to a larger trend toward more structured, hand curated information.

As an aside, I think it's interesting that hand-curation (more human involvement) in information networks while structured data means less human involvement those networks.

I should also clarify that by "more structured" I basically mean an end to web-design as we know it now. Rather than allow designers and--well, people like me--to have a say with regards to how pages are organized, information would be collected in containers with specific structures (headings, lists, tables, metadata, etc.) and the design or display would happen on the client side in the form of specialized browsers, Site specific browsers, but also domain specific browsers. (eg. use this program to view blags and microblog pages, and this program for reading pages from the news services, and this program to view x-new-class of sites). In short, adding structure to content wouldn't limit the realm of possibility, but it would separate content from this stream of thought.

Structure is one part of the Xanadu-model of hypertext/content, and perhaps the most lamented by those of us who are... professionally frustrated by the lack of structure in the contemporary web, but I think it's distribution and federation concepts are too often overlooked, and are quickly becoming relevant to contemporary technology.

Federation, to subtitle, is the set of technologies technologies that allow network services to function without always-on and real-time network. Federation avoids two other technical problems with distributed network services: first, it removes the need for centralized servers that provide canonical versions of content. Secondly, in a distributed environment federation removes the need for local nodes to contain complete copies of the entire network. Xanadu had provisions for the first aspect by not the second while the Internet (more or less) has provisions for the second, but not the first, and free network services--in some senses--attempt to bring the second form of federation to the web and to the Internet.

Federation, for free network services, means finding ways of communicating data between websites so that networks of information can be built in the same way that networks of computers have already been built.

In Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand Delany's "Internet" is a service called "General Information" or GI which exists in a neural link for some of the characters. GI isn't always complete, or accessible in it's most up to date format--and it's users know this--and accept it as a price for living in an interstellar society, but it is accessible on an interstellar level. GI, like free network services is built (either implicitly or explicitly) with the notion that a node on the network could go offline, continue to develop and be useful, and then go back on-line later, and "sync" with it's peer nodes, thus creating some measure of resilience in the network.

The contemporary network uses a resilient routing system to "get around" nodes that drop offline, whereas a truly federated system would store diffs across time and use this "temporal" information to maintain a consistent network. This sort of consistency is going to be really useful--not only because it would allow individuals and small groups to provide their own networked computing services locally, but also because providing data connectivity that is free, always-accessible, fault tallerant, and high speed, is unlikely to appear universally... ever, and certainly not for a long time.

I suppose the next step in this train of thought is to include some discussion of my friend joe's project called "haven," which would tie this to the discussions I've been having with regards to databases. But that's a problem for another time.

comments powered by Disqus