Lamenting Project Xanadu

I've been reading this is recently, and I have to say that it's among my favorite current blogs (by people I don't know). Geeky, but it doesn't revolve around code snippets, simple, and minimal but in all of the right ways. And a bunch of fun. Anyway he posted an article a while ago that got me thinking called, "it's my xanadu," go ahead read it and then come back.

That's a great idea isn't it? I've been thinking a lot about data management and the way we represent, store, access, and use knowledge on the computer, so stuff like this gets me more excited than it really should, all things being equal. My good friend Joseph Spiros is even working on a program would implement something very much like Xanadu and the system that sevenf described.

First order of business should probably be to explain what Project Xanadu is for those of you who don't know.

Xanadu was the first "hypertext system" designed that recognized that text in digital formats was a different experience and proposition than analog text. Proposed by Theodor Holm Nelson in the 1970s (with floundering development in the 1980s), Xanadu to be something amazing. It had features that contemporary hypertext systems sill lack. I think everyone has their own list of "things from xanadu that I want now," but for me the big sells were:

  • Links went both ways: If you clicked on a link, you could reverse directions and see what documents and pages had links to the current page. This means that links couldn't break, or point to the wrong page, among other things

  • Dynamic transclusions. Beyond simply being able to quote text statically, Xanadu would have been able to include a piece of text from another page that dynamically represent the most current revision of the included page. For example, I include paragraph 13 on page A (A.13) somewhere on page B; later you change A.13 to fix a typo, and the change is reflected in page B. I think links could also reference specific versions of a page/paragraph (but then users could from page B, access new and older dimensions of A.13).

  • Micropayments. The system would have had (built in) a system for compensating "content creators/originators" via a system to collect very small amounts of money from lots of people.

    Needless to say, it didn't work out. It turns out that these features are really hard to implement in an efficient way--or at least they were in the eighties--because of computing requirements, and the very monolithic nature of the system. Instead we have a hypertext system that:

  • Is built around a (real or virtual) system of files, rather than documents.

  • Has no unified structural system.

  • Must rely on distributed organizational systems (tagging, search engine indexes.)

  • Is not version-aware, and it's pages are not self-correcting.

  • Relies on out-modded business models.

To be fair, much of the conceptual work on the system was done before the Internet was anything like it is today, and indeed many of these features we can more or less hack into the web as we know it now: wiki's have "backlinks," and google's link: search is in effect much like Xanadu-Links, using dynamic generation we can (mostly) get transclusions on one site (sort of), and paypal allows for micropayments after a fashion.

But it's not baked in to the server, like it would have been in Xanadu, this is both the brilliance and the downfall of Xanadu. By "baking" features into the Xanadu server, hypertext would have been more structured, easier to navigate, easier to collaborate, share and concatenate different texts, and within a structure easier to write.

And yet, in a lot of cases, I (and clearly others) think that Xanadu is worth considering, adopting: indeed, I think we could probably do some fairly solid predictions of the future of hypertext and content on the internet let alone information management in general, based on what was in Xanadu.

That's about all I have, but for those of you who are familiar with Xanadu I'd love to hear what you "miss most" about Xanadu, if you're game.

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