October 12, 2009
Links are the fundamental building blocks of the web. And every time I click on one, I can't help recalling the odd visionary who came up with the original idea of clickable links in text, aka hypertext, in 1963 -- Ted Nelson.
Ted Nelson is, shall we say, a character. He has gone on record many times with the four maxims that guide his life. He isn't shy about sharing them with anyone he meets:
- most people are fools
- most authority is malignant
- God does not exist
- everything is wrong
And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much everything you need to know about Ted Nelson. He is the archetypal borderline autistic, non-conformist, free-thinking technologist. Any resemblance between Ted and your average programmer is, I'm sure, completely coincidental. That's why his story is so fascinating to me. It hits close to home.
Like most programmers, Ted's reach often exceeded his grasp. Ted's vision of hypertext was far more grandiose than the motley assortment of links that is today's web. His vision was (and is) a bit of computer history lore that has become the stuff of legend: Project Xanadu.
Xanadu, a global hypertext publishing system, is the longest-running vaporware story in the history of the computer industry. It has been in development for more than 30 years. This long gestation period may not put it in the same category as the Great Wall of China, which was under construction for most of the 16th century and still failed to foil invaders, but, given the relative youth of commercial computing, Xanadu has set a record of futility that will be difficult for other companies to surpass. The fact that Nelson has had only since about 1960 to build his reputation as the king of unsuccessful software development makes Xanadu interesting for another reason: the project's failure (or, viewed more optimistically, its long-delayed success) coincides almost exactly with the birth of hacker culture. Xanadu's manic and highly publicized swerves from triumph to bankruptcy show a side of hackerdom that is as important, perhaps, as tales of billion-dollar companies born in garages.
Among people who consider themselves insiders, Nelson's Xanadu is sometimes treated as a joke, but this is superficial. Nelson's writing and presentations inspired some of the most visionary computer programmers, managers, and executives - including Autodesk Inc. founder John Walker - to pour millions of dollars and years of effort into the project. Xanadu was meant to be a universal library, a worldwide hypertext publishing tool, a system to resolve copyright disputes, and a meritocratic forum for discussion and debate. By putting all information within reach of all people, Xanadu was meant to eliminate scientific ignorance and cure political misunderstandings. And, on the very hackerish assumption that global catastrophes are caused by ignorance, stupidity, and communication failures, Xanadu was supposed to save the world.
The above text is excerpted from the definitive 1995 Wired article on Project Xanadu, which is still as electrifying to read today as it was then. The hubris and sheer scale of the Xanadu dream are at turns both inspiring and desperately, hopelessly out of touch.
Xanadu has 17 rules defining its behavior. As you're reading through this list, ask yourself how many of these rules are satisfied by the current world wide web, even in part:
- Every Xanadu server is uniquely and securely identified.
- Every Xanadu server can be operated independently or in a network.
- Every user is uniquely and securely identified.
- Every user can search, retrieve, create and store documents.
- Every document can consist of any number of parts each of which may be of any data type.
- Every document can contain links of any type including virtual copies ("transclusions") to any other document in the system accessible to its owner.
- Links are visible and can be followed from all endpoints.
- Permission to link to a document is explicitly granted by the act of publication.
- Every document can contain a royalty mechanism at any desired degree of granularity to ensure payment on any portion accessed, including virtual copies ("transclusions") of all or part of the document.
- Every document is uniquely and securely identified.
- Every document can have secure access controls.
- Every document can be rapidly searched, stored and retrieved without user knowledge of where it is physically stored.
- Every document is automatically moved to physical storage appropriate to its frequency of access from any given location.
- Every document is automatically stored redundantly to maintain availability even in case of a disaster.
- Every Xanadu service provider can charge their users at any rate they choose for the storage, retrieval and publishing of documents.
- Every transaction is secure and auditable only by the parties to that transaction.
- The Xanadu client-server communication protocol is an openly published standard. Third-party software development and integration is encouraged.
It is instructive, then, to consider the primary ways in which the modern web is functionally broken:
- Link rot. The odds of a hyperlink working are inversely proportional to the age of that hyperlink. Old links frequently break, because the server hosting the content disappears for any number of reasons over time. I've gotten to the point where I dread clicking on links from old web pages, because the per-click success rate is so abysmally low.
- Every website has unique usernames and passwords. There is almost no reliable centralized form of identity on the internet, and those few that do exist are often poisoned by explicit commercial affiliation, such as Facebook Connect and Microsoft Passport. This is why curated anonymous, lightweight participation dominates the net -- best illustrated by Wikipedia.
- No redundancy. If content is driven offline by temporary high traffic levels or, worse, catastrophic data loss, there may not be any way to recover that content. I know that Digg has services which auto-mirror highly rated links because Digg traffic can be so toxic to the destination links. (Ironically, all duggmirror.com links redirect to amazon.com now, which illustrates how ephemeral all this stuff tends to be.) I suppose if you're lucky the wayback machine will eventually pick up a historical copy of the content, or the Google cache will hold a copy for some unknown amount of time while the site is offline. You'd probably have better odds praying for missing content to reappear.
Let's put aside the more ambitious parts of Project Xanadu for the moment. The current world wide web does basically one thing: simple, stupid, mindless hyperlinks. But even that alone was enough to build a functional and useful internet for the world. And Google was able to build a zillion dollar algorithm out of discovering the relationship between those dumb hyperlinks.
All that, when the most fundamental building block of the web, the hyperlink, barely works at all. Hyperlinks are fraught with peril and pitfalls even under the best of conditions. The current state of hyperlinking is almost literally the stupidest thing we could build that works. Frankly, the current system sucks beyond belief, as Ted himself notes:
HTML is precisely what we were trying to prevent -- ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can't follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.
The next time you're about to embark on a grandiose, glorious software Xanadu Dream of your own, take Dare's advice.
The bottom line is that a lot of the time it's OK to create a solution that solves 80% of the problem. Always remember that shipping is a feature.
Consider the reality of what's actually possible, what people can understand, and what us all too human programmers can practically implement. It might not be the Xanadu you dreamed of -- heck, it might even suck -- but it'll at least have a fighting chance of existing in reality rather than fantasy.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
i know Ted Nelson (not personnaly), Xanadu and ZZStructures since a long time.
And i recently watched the Google I/O conference about Wave. Don't you think it looks a bit like Xanadu ?
Good post anyway !
I'm not sure that level of "security" and authentication is even theoretically possible on something that open.
Why would I *want* Xanadu rather than the Web?
(That plus what Itay Maman said... and the contradictions of "let servers run without being on the network" combined with "always have access to everything and a payment and authentication mechanism". Can't have offline mode *and* have all of that, without every node having a copy of All Data In The Universe, including Secret Authentication Data.
That's *impossible* with the levels of data that would be involved with even a trivial subset of the Web, even if we ignore the security issues.)
Jeff, Great to have a post from you.
For me, project Xanadu simply proves Ted nelson has been lucky exactly once. The fact that he's had an influential following probably says something more about the software industry than it does about the web.
Sadly, the Internet would explode at the seams if this were implemented.
Haven't you done a blog post very similar to this one already? Been going through the archives in reverse order but can't remember where I saw it.
So EVERY time you click on a link you recall all that?
How do you get anything done?
Jeff, a few corrections: Ted Nelson is not a programmer. Also, although Nelson coined the term, the concept of hyperlinks goes back to Vannevar Bush’s Memex.
@David I dont know... it seems he did do some programming along the way...
Links are one, albeit important, aspect of the web. But other dimension has become quite important: ability to deliver application functionality. I go to many web sites not so much to get links to other sites, but to access information and functionality from that site.
It appears that some of the more mysterious aspects of the Wired article have been since revealed: for instance, we now know what an enfilade is supposed to be, theoretically. I can't figure it out, or whether it's, as Nelson describes in the article, "hot shit".
It's interesting that most advances in technology are incremental. They nudge things along just enough for something else to piggy back something better on, rather than revolutionizing the world (I'm excluding the occasional thing that really does change everything, like the Segway). No, hyperlinks didn't do it, the initial world wide web didn't do it, but despite the clunkiness of the current state of things, it's remarkable how all of the increments have combined to transform our lives (communicating, shopping, information sharing, etc.). Maybe it's better to start with one small idea that will improve the state of things. You might actually ship that and give others something to build on, eventually changing the world.
I'm tired of these narcissistic posts, unsubscribe.
I'm tired of these narcissistic posts, unsubscribe.
The wired article is a great read. And the conclusion is even better. But something seems flawed with Nelson's vision of Xanadu/Theweb: point of the whole server reliability seems to be to charge the user for anything done to data (reading, mashing up, copying or distributing). The web as we know it today might not be as close to Xanadu's vision as we'd like it to be but at least we can swim in that ocean of data in a free and anonymous way. Even if the technology of Xanadu is ubercool from a geek point of view I don't really buy it as a citizen/customer.
My 2ç. Oh, and there is a demo of Xanadu concepts with bible excerpts hanging somewhere on the web.
Andrew Dalke +1
Itay Maman +1
Xanadu wasn't (isn't?) a utopia. Not even a distopian dream caused by a "bad trip" after ingesting too much peyote, LSD whilst being in a room filled with marihuana smoke.
Worse than that: it was kinda RIA's and MPAA's heaven. Which means that would've been a TERRIBLE world to live at, for the rest of us.
And as Maman said, the fundamental premises were wrong. Had the project been shipped, it would've failed miserably trying to escalate, only to be replaced by something fundamentally simpler yet without the same problems - most probably, a system very much like today's Web. Which I don't find that bad, by the way. Actually I LOVE IT.
I'm sorry, I need to call shenanigans. It's a little too coincidental that there was a post on Dare Obasanjo's blog recently about _exactly_ the same subject. I'm not going to come out and call this plagiarism, but it's dangerously close. I think if this post was inspired by Obasanjo's, you should, at the very least, make some mention of that.
So in other words, worse is better...
And by "hitting close to home", does that mean that you think of yourself as "the archetypal borderline autistic, non-conformist, free-thinking technologist".
Geez man, both your's and Joel's egos having really gone off the deep end lately...
I'd just like to thank Ted Nelson for creating an idea which is helping to tell millions of people about God.
Perhaps vaporware is best referenced through the works of the Electric Light Orchestra not by "Xanadu", but by Twilight:
"It's either real or it's a dream there's nothing that is in between", plus to presage the advent of window-like GUI, "
Is it semiautistic of me to have the lyrics from a 1981 song pop in my mind at seeing the logo of Xanadu, the movie? Survey says... yes.
Ugh, just on a lark I googled it up while writing this. I didn't even know the song became a cult favorite of otaku. Now I need to wash.
Hey Now Jeff,
Thx 4 the info about Xanadu!
Coding Horror Fan,
Please, enough of that romantic drivel already. If I see another post about how great Xanadu could be and how much the current Web sucks, I'll probably cry for real. Setting aside Ted Nelson's arrogance and higher than thou attitude, he *failed* to produce anything usable and real for 30 years yet for some reason he continues to bitch on about his little pet peeve. Meanwhile some folks got something working back in 1991 and it went on from there.
If something sucks and you think you can propose something better, then you shut the f** up, get to work and *make* something. And don't get me started on that whole "3d demo" thing, if you have even bothered to download, and try to use it, you would see that its a farce.
But hey, apparently you get to be hailed as "the archetypal borderline autistic, non-conformist, free-thinking technologist", if you bitch about something for a really long time while waving your hands.
P.S.: And I don't even like the Web.
I forgot to note that there is a very partial Xanadu implementation in Python at udanax.com, and I should have noted what was at each link I gave:
Zigzag is a sort of multidimensional spreadsheet.
Transquoter is a transclusion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transclusion) implementation for the WWW.
Xanarama shows text in 3d.
Looks like Google have been drinking from the same magic fountain but with their slightly more pragmatic approach in their new Google Wave technology.
and 'are often poisoned by explicit commercial affiliation, such as Facebook Connect' sounds a little harsh for a system that 300 million people freely choose to use for free ;o)
It amuses me that someone can loudly proclaim that most people are fools and most authority is malignant...
...and yet be a malignant, foolish authority all at the same time.
It's a beautiful design. Too bad it didn't work on Real People. Or get released.
"Setting aside Ted Nelson's arrogance and higher than thou attitude, he *failed* to produce anything usable and real for 30 years yet for some reason he continues to bitch on about his little pet peeve. Meanwhile some folks got something working back in 1991 and it went on from there."
I think that was the point Jeff was _trying_ to make. It's the point Dare Obasanjo was making rather more clearly.
I remember reading Ted Nelson a long time ago. He was an inspiration to many, I would think including the people who hacked together the current web.
His vision was never going to be implemented as stated; systems that large can't be, and always have bad assumptions in them. (For example, people hate micropayments, and people want to do things anonymously, whether to surf pornography or to leak information or study up on embarrassing medical conditions.) However, the modern WWW is recognizably a version of Xanadu, and implements its more important features.
In particular, almost anybody can publish on the web, and it's extensively hyperlinked. It's possible, if clumsy, to set up access controls, and micropayments are largely replaced by advertisements.
It's the pareto rule right?
20% of your code meets 80% of your requirements.
The key for me was learning to seperate the important few requirements from the trivial many. Release the app at this point.
It's then optional to spend the rest of your life trying to code the remaining reqs, go insane or quit your job.
BTW nice site ;)
The Web vs Xanadu is a stunningly compelling example of worse-is-better.
In an odd coincidence I spun an LP of the Xanadu soundtrack for my sister when she visited this past weekend. Uff-da! Magic it is not!
1. most people are fools
3. God does not exist
Technology exists to help us improve the conditions of life, but it's not a replacement for the spiritual life. God exists and His natural creations abound all around us. Technology is another tool man developed, born of the free will He gave, enabling more time to worship and contemplate the Creator. Pull your head out of the sand and read Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical 'Charity in Truth' which touches directly on the problems of the idolatry of Technology:
Instead of comparing Xanadu to the Internet as a whole, it's probably better to compare it to something like Wikipedia. It's not really an Internet -- it's a centralized document control system. It's the sort of system you'd imagine the FBI would use to store reports... before it started using Wiki-like systems.
It's a lousy model for knowledge in general, though. And its disadvantages should be, by this point, fairly obvious. It's the sort of thing you think up _before_ you see how the uncontrolled chaos of the actual Internet served both to increase its accessibility (i.e., it is democratizing) and push its creative development (entirely new forms of expression have popped up and some have even become ubiquitous -- blogs, tweets, whatever). It's the system you toss out the window after you realize that all of that "granular" attention to detail isn't actually necessary at all, and is probably counterproductive.
Xanadu has no room for any of that. Any system whose specs that throws around the word "secure" probably doesn't have much room for that. The Internet isn't very "secure" -- and that's what makes it work, for the most part. (Some little segments of it, we hope are secure, like our online banking. But we don't want the entire Internet to be that way.)
And the idea that simply putting information out there will cure scientific ignorance and produce political harmony is a fallacy that should have been stamped out fifty years ago, yet is still blissfully held on to. There's no reason to suspect people work in this way, and much evidence to show quite conclusively that they don't.
Xanadu is not a joke... but it _is_ a failure, and a rightful one.
Xanadu has problems built into the 17 rules.
1) "Every Xanadu server is uniquely and securely identified." Please define "server." Does it include multiple machines used for load balancing? If I bring a backup online is it the same as the original server? Sharding?
3) "Every user is uniquely and securely identified." Different groups have different security models. Each person has different roles, with different security requirements. And since before the days of the Federalist Paper's there's a recognized benefit to anonymity. That's not saying what we have is good, I'm saying that this rule does not reflect reality.
9) "Every document can contain a royalty mechanism at any desired degree of granularity ..." How can that even work? And if the local laws ("fair use", "copyright term extension") disagree, is there any workaround? Plus, don't trust anything which includes "once we've solved the micropayment problem."
10) "Every document is uniquely and securely identified." I've been trying to understand this one, especially in the face of versioning. What's a "document"? I assume that using the document itself as an identifier isn't appropriate. Does each edit of my blog get its own identifier? Does a page which tells the current date and time get an identifier for each moment? What about included ads, esp. those localized based on the user's country? Documents which include a current webcam shot? Synthesized views from multiple different servers?
13) "Every document is automatically moved to physical storage appropriate to its frequency of access from any given location." Well, we've got that. Pay someone an "appropriate" amount of money and they'll do it for you. Otherwise it's not appropriate to move the data. Well, except for some caching.
14) "Every document is automatically stored redundantly to maintain availability even in case of a disaster." I know my web server provider makes backups of my files. But if the Xanadu server is "operated independently" then what happens? And again, what is a "document"?
16) Every transaction is secure and auditable only by the parties to that transaction." What's a "transaction"? What's a "party"? Is my ISP party to the transaction between me and my bank?
The current web may be "fundamentally broken" but the ideas of Xanadu are far more broken.
So, you could choose the crappy Olivia Newton John reference, or the superb Rush reference...Jeff, I am so disappointed.
I'm playing Xanadu right now to spite you. Can you feel it?!
"Searching...for the Lost...Xanadu!"
Jeff, it is one of the things I love about your blog. You always place an excerpt of the page you are linking. At first I liked it because it meant I didn't have to follow the link (admittedly, but I try to follow links when I can). But now, when I re-read your older articles, it really helps because those links are often broken.
Perhaps this is the best one can do in a world of link rot.
From the Xanadu website describing a data structure:
"The crum table shows how the rearrangement is enacted within a buffer containing and identifying the crums. A numeral is associated with each crum, showing its level in the tree structure of the enfilade, thus modelling a subrepresentation of the whole structure. The lowest-level crums (level 4) point to string data. WIDs are not shown.
In this map, the three-cut rearrangement of the previous illustration is mapped into its constituent operations on the crum pointers. The "¢" symbol indicates a cut to be made in the crum, specfically to crums K, H, M and N, which we see propagated up to the highest necessary level. A rearrangement of the crums (and sending the crum table to mass storage) completes the rearrangement of the text below.
The first two rows of the illustration identify the crums of a subrepresentation of the enfilade, starting with D, a crum at level 2. Passing rightward, six crums are omitted from the map; then F, a level 3 crum (not involved) and G, a level 3 crum, where the work begins. Below G are 14 level-4 crums (omitted), then K, a level-4 crum involved in the operation, and its succesor L, not involved. We see H, a third-level crum involved in the rearrangement, above M; four other crums are not shown, N (involved in the operation), and then other crum-counts of crums which are omitted.
In the third level of the diagram, showing only a part of the table, we see the cuts propagate to the bottom level as the rearrangement is consummated. Sections of crums are exchanged, after which the "¢" symbols may be removed from the crum table.
To enact the operation, K, M and N are cut. In the method illustrated here, the "¢" sign is used as an actual marker in the crum table. Crum K is replaced by crum K1, the "¢" sign and crum K2. Crum M is replaced by Crum M1, the "¢" sign and crum M2; crum N is replaced crum N1, the "¢" sign and crum N2."
Seriously, what does this remind you of...have you ever read any of the Scientology manuals?
There has always been this thing where people make up new names for things that already exist when they are convinced that their ideas are so mind blowing that existing language cannot adequately suffice.
@Matt - So glad you referenced RUSH!
"I had heard the whispered tales of immortality..."
the rest of you can complain, but I am just happy there is a new post... I think Codinghorror.com is in my history several times a day for the past 2 weeks....
Plus, I didn't know anything about this.
I always wanted to hear Olivia Newton-John sing Rush's _Xanadu_. Or, vice-versa....
Tell you what, you prove that God exists and we'll start listening to the virgin shut-ins you profess to have wisdom.
You don't KNOW, for instance, that Vishnu doesn't exist (you HOPE that he doesn't exist), but I doubt you spend any time reading the opinions of Hindu religious readers.
I prefer a reality that is only 20% (yes! even the short side of Pareto's principle) functional that a perfect dream that never fails, because we live in the real world, and not at the other side of the mirror.
Ship first, improve and debug later!
DISCLAIMER: I don't plan to write software for nuclear plants, aircraft control, etc, etc. Chernobil doesn't sound like a good proposition for a debugging campaign.
You mean by linking to it perhaps? I think it's clear it was inspired by Dare's blog by the fact he links to the very blog entry you're complaining about.
Hallelujah! You have written a post, finally when you have been silent for so long.
I like the anarchistic and obnoxious programmer - I'm little like that! And who said like that: "He tells loudly that he knows a half-dozen programming languages and doesn't shy about that either. He walks around like he's freakin' James Bond."
Let us fellow programmer's be like James Bond!!!
I think it is much more than "Always remember that shipping is a feature.".
Shipping is a feature implies that Ted just wanted to get the thing to a "perfect" state before he releases it. And that if he didn't mind releasing something with a few bugs then Xanadu were a huge success.
I think the fundamental problem here is not that of striving for perfection. Let me explain.
At the very heart of Xanadu lies a "whole world knowledge" assumption. I mean, in order to be ensure that all links are viable (no broken links) you must be able to know, at any point in time, the exact set of all documents in the system. This assumption is at odds with allowing every user to add/change/delete documents.
Assuming a whole world knowledge at modern (large enough) information system is usually a false assumption. For instance, you can't know the exact number of purchases that were made at WallMart today because this means stopping the system and counting some records in some DB table.
Xanadu is based on this assumption. Thus it was doomed to fail.
I love the web in its current miserable state. Link rot, free access, scattered identity management and anonymous access I consider features, given the alternative. Without these features the web would not be where it is. So yes, worse is better in this case.
I think it's worth considering that monoculture (that is, the ubiquity portrayed by a concept like Xanadu) hinders development (in the broad sense, if not the software sense per se). The reason we have, say, Google Maps is not just because Mapquest wasn't good enough, but because it wasn't the map application designate of the Internet. It was the de facto dominant platform in that space, but lacking imposed ubiquity, those with better ideas were free to produce and publish those ideas.
And while this example obviously could be shoehorned into the Xanadu concept, other more fundamental examples could not: those used for identification, for instance. While having a single login for the web may have its perks, it also has its limits. I value being able to identify myself differently for different purposes on the web, personally. I don't like the idea of my identity for discussing politics being mixed up with my identity for job hunting. In a sense, the Xanadu concept presents a pseudo-voluntary Big Brother enrollment platform. Given that alternative, I'd much prefer to enter whatever name I choose and answer some CAPTCHA challenge (here), or login credentials (where I store sensitive data), or no identifying information whatever (where I discuss anything I consider controversial and potentially exposing me to undue danger).
Interesting... Maybe Google wave will work out after all
The web is fine.. Ted wanted 2 way links and he didn't get them because it's a shit idea - you can achieve 2 way links as the web is now by checking the Referrer header of clients accessing your pages - so by not enforcing 2 way links you GAIN the flexibility of not having to couple the linker and the linkee. Ted's a bell-end.
I'm sorry Jeff, but moaning about the most intricate socially enabling system on the planet EVER, is pretty rich. Don't give up your day job.
"There is almost no reliable centralized form of identity on the internet..."
I think you'll find there are many people who consider that a good thing.
> ignorance, stupidity, and communication failures,
Many people know they are ignorant and stupid.
But they will never change that, because they live well enough this way.
It's naive to believe you could change the world by giving people the chance to learn - they simply ignore it :-)
Learning costs time and money, and it is stressful - easy fun is more enjoyable.
I have this picture of worldwide MS SharePoint replacing the www going through my head. Ouch.
Holy crap, 1960? Wow, that makes Duke Nukem Forever look like a drop in the bucket in comparison.
I think Internet is much better than Xanadu since it not only shipped, but is at 2.0 already. Release date is indeed feature, and I almost never use software that fail to include it.
"There is almost no reliable centralized form of identity on the internet..."
domain registration authority have control over internet..
"Links are the fundamental building blocks of the web."
I stopped reading right there.
OpenID tries to fix the "no universal identity whatsoever" problem. It might not be here YET but it definitely does come soon. Advances in strong online identity and privacy also bring along strong anonymous and pseudonymous capabilities, which do not exist either. Yet.
Every new technology has its eccentrics who see things differently - Tesla springs to mind for electricity. Nelson seems to fit that mould. If you can find his books, read them with that in mind, and enjoy them.
WOW!!! great article man. Thx
Someone once said 'I get my best ideas from misunderstanding Ted.' That's not a bad legacy, really.
Ironically, he has several storage lockers full of paper notes.
My favorite Ted Nelson quote: "Of course it [Xanadu] is real. You know it's real because it crashes."
Not to pick on Andrew Dalke's criticisms, but I do want to defend Xanadu a bit because it is fairly well thought through, and it's unfair to attack it as if it were something that someone was trying to create *today* rather than 20+ years ago.
It's all too easy to superficially criticize superficial and general descriptions rather than really grapple with the specific technical and design details of some proposed software.
@Andrew Dalke on October 12, 2009 7:52 AM
>> The current web may be "fundamentally broken" but the ideas of Xanadu are far more broken."
The fact that a bullet list of a few goals or guidelines for the system are overly general makes them broken?
One thing to realize is that there are some assumptions about the software industry/environment that seemed reasonable when Xanadu was first defined that don't really apply to the web and the open Internet today. The basic one is that Xanadu would be one self contained proprietary system offered and controlled by one or several cooperating companies over dedicated connections (probably via modem) which made perfect sense as one of with many existing online service of the 70s and 80s.
The fact that the Internet is now pervasive and the only realistic (and desirable) way to deliver remote computer services does mean that if you were to redesign Xanadu today, you'd need to use completely different assumptions about how people would be actually accessing Xanadu.
Think of it this way, the Xanadu design is for a particular application that today you might be able to build on top of the Internet. Don't conflate the particular goals of Xanadu with the way the overall Internet and web work today, that doesn't make sense.
>> 1) "Every Xanadu server is uniquely and securely identified." Please define "server." Does it include multiple machines used for load balancing? If I bring a backup online is it the same as the original server? Sharding?
These aren't hard problems to figure out.... use some imagination.
>> 3) "Every user is uniquely and securely identified." Different groups have different security models. Each person has different roles, with different security requirements. And since before the days of the Federalist Paper's there's a recognized benefit to anonymity. That's not saying what we have is good, I'm saying that this rule does not reflect reality.
Yes, this is simplistic and problematic. You would need to think through how to ensure anonymity if you wanted it. But nobody thought about anonymity in the Web either. You have a sort of pseudo anonymity because most of the time, nobody wants to bother tracking your IP address, tracing it through your ISP etc. But that doesn't stop the government from trying (and ISPs from cooperating) when they want to try. Any true anonymity (Tor etc.) on the Internet are special add-ons to the system that require extra steps and restrictions on users.
>> 9) "Every document can contain a royalty mechanism at any desired degree of granularity ..." How can that even work?
It works because of the way text in Xanadu is structured. There isn't actually any singular "document" or "page" the way there is on the web.
Also, it says "can", not "must". (Literary Machines and papers on Xanadu have some good arguments for how granular royalties in Xanadu are much fairer for the reader than the way current royalties, licenses and other payment systems work.)
>> And if the local laws ("fair use", "copyright term extension") disagree, is there any workaround?
Well, it does rely on the publisher following the law, and allowing fair use. Maybe that's an idealistic view?
And if as a publisher you overly restrict fair use of your text, or set too high a fee for access, nobody is going to ever use your text, and you won't get paid, anyway.
>> 10) "Every document is uniquely and securely identified." I've been trying to understand this one, especially in the face of versioning.
Again, the way "documents" are defined in Xanadu solves this.
An identifier for any portion/span of text (of whatever version) can be constructed. This is in fact the main innovation of Xanadu.
Nelson is primarily a scholar, he's only a software designer by accident really.
As a scholar, he sees a liberal writing/quoting/editing/reuse ecosystem and economy where monetary payment is automatic as fair and efficient. It's really a completely efficient, free market approach to writing.
Whether it would work in today's environment we don't know, nobody's really tried it. A lot of people call Xanadu a failure, but it didn't really fail on its merits, but through its mismanagement as a project.
The thing I like about Gabriel's Internet Fuckwad Theory is that it's been cited in scholarly works about the Internet and anonymity.
Interestingly, I think the document system DOORS achieves a certain amount of the Xanadu two-way link concepts.
Looking over the Wired article, the response letter, and the 10-year reflection by Wired, I think Xanandu seems like a Vaporware project. It has great ideas, lousy implementation, monolithic design, and a few mad geniuses.
Nelson's _Computer Lib/Dream Machines_ and _Literary Machines_ are both great books and still well worth reading. Nelson's a fascinating writer; his books bubble over with ideas; unlike, say, most of the comments on this post.
Remember, the ideas for Xanadu predated personal computers by 15 years, the Internet as we know it now by 25.
I find it ironic that you linked to the Wikipedia article on Xanadu but not the actual Project Xanadu site.
I think Internet is much better than Xanadu since it not only shipped, but is at 2.0 already. Release date is indeed feature, and I almost never use software that fail to include it.
Thank you for your reply @Reed. My own posting was in part a reaction to the uncritical comments from Jeff, but it does also reflect my views of Xanadu as being both overhyped and not reflective of how the world actually works. I have quite admittedly not done much study of Xanadu, but then again I don't need to fully understand all of Greek mythology to make the statement that the Greek gods living on Mt. Olympus don't actually exist.
Regarding the counterpoints you mentioned, in order. 1) the best identification service we have for the web is SSL, but I can tell you the number of times where there's been some SSL error message that I've ignored. (With ssh I'm a little more suspicious, but I only ssh to a handful of different machines.) There is a large problem with phishing and other means of fraud on the internet based on not being able to identify the server machine. My imagination is not good enough to solve this problem, so I doubt I'm imaginative enough to solve the problem for Xanadu. Well, other than through draconian methods which often start with "create a new internet but this time .."
With #3 I'll repeat what I wrote - "I'm not saying what we have is good, I'm saying this rule does not reflect reality." The idea that every user is uniquely and securely identified does not work. Period. If I borrow someone's cell phone to browse the web, how can anyone know? Replace "is uniquely" with "can be uniquely" then it's a bit more attainable.
With #9, I ask how if someone chooses to have an embedded royalty mechanism then how can that even work? That is, I recognize that not all documents will embed that scheme. But if enabled, the first requirement is solving the micropayment problem, which hasn't been done yet after some decades of trying. I note that no such scheme can prevent some forms of copyright infringement, such as public performance.
I also listed two cases - fair use and copyright term extension - which would be hard to incorporate into a document. You responded "it does rely on the publisher following the law, and allowing fair use" but it's not a question of the publisher being fair or not. How does any piece of software confirm that a given request falls within fair use? Even now there are court case to handle ambiguities, and that's after centuries of experience, assuming Gyles v Wilcox (1740) counts as the start. How do you expect someone in Canada, which has a more restricted "fair dealings" concept to include the broader US "fair use" laws if the document is read in the US? And if some time later the US extends its copyright terms by another 10 years, how do you update all of those electronic royalty statements accordingly?
As for #10, I don't know how documents are defined in Xanadu. I pointed out some concepts that I think would be hard to incorporate in what I've heard about Xanadu, like including something which displays the current date, or embedded advertising which is localized based on the language of the incoming reader. At the very least, how are all those documents versioned, and who pays for all the versioning of every timestamp every displayed on a page?
You mentioned that Nelson is a scholar, but I don't know why that knowledge is relevant. He proposes something that seems quite unworkable. I'll grant that he started in the days where among other things we thought True AI would be here within a decade, the vast experience since then, including in more controlled spaces like Minitel, gives plenty of evidence against his ideas.
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Every people wants it.The Xanadu Dream
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most people are fools
most authority is malignant
God does not exist
everything is wrong
These problem is the most.
@David: You beat me to it.
@Jeff: "visionary who came up with the original idea of clickable links". Not even close.
Memex was conceived when Ted Nelson was still in short pants. Hardly an original concep.
Xanadu as a product is obviously dead and had flaws from the beginning - but the ideas behind still shows the limitations of the Web and todays computer systems.
One of the most stupid limitations is Copy & Paste: You copied the "17 rules of Xanadu" from the Xanadu FAQ but the reader has to reconstruct the connection. It is not obvious who wrote the original list (Andrew Pam at some time between 1994 and 2002) and whether you modified something or not (you modifed the numbering schema). I would prefer a Wiki-like diff with your article at one side and the source at the other and then browse the version history of the FAQ to see when which sections were added.
If Copy & Paste would be implemented as something like 'clone' and 'merge' from revision control systems, we almost had a kind of Xanadu.