I’m at a unique symposium this week named Codework, which I do not dare to describe because it has barely begun. I can only say that snagging Ted Nelson to deliver the opening talk was not only a great motivation for attendance but an exquisitely appropriate historical marker for the workshop, which bills itself as “Exploring relations between creative writing practices and software engineering.” Nelson, of course, is one of the first people to recognize the benefits literature and computing could offer each other.
Readers have plenty of ways to learn about Nelson’s famous Xanadu and his more recent project Zigzag, one of the best ways being to hear him speak as we did in a full hall last night. Thanks to the World Wide Web that Nelson perennially maligns, he is much more famous than he otherwise would be, and also has much more opportunity to spread his views. But here I’ll just jot down a few observations I haven’t seen others offer about Nelson’s ideas, and that aren’t immediately obvious from his talks, fascinating and well-argued as they are.
To me, the fundamental and most breath-taking aspect of Xanadu is not the linking and sharing of information, but its assumption that information is persistent. Who but Nelson in 1960 could have assumed that the cost of storage would drop so low that no information would ever have to be thrown away? Granted, he may have underestimated the amount of information to be generated in a wired world, and assumed that documents would be more permanent than most turn out to be. But it was still audacious for him to axiomize that one could refer to material from another document (transclusion) while leaving it in the original and assuming it would be there forever. Version control makes this ideal trivial to implement today.
Many people have criticized Nelson both for trying to maintain control over his own source code and for staking his Xanadu project on a complicated copyright and remuneration model. But he actually championed open information years before anyone defined the ideas of free software, open source, or Creative Commons. True, he wants people to pay for content and to respect the integrity of the original. But he did so explicitly in order to persuade the major copyright holders to go along with the program. Last night, in response to a question about unauthorized peer-to-peer file sharing of copyrighted material, he announced himself “agnostic.” There’s no doubt, though, that his goal is to allow anyone in the world to have access to any information. And if had his way, there’d be no such silliness as publishers suing Google for scanning their books and making them more broadly available.
Naturally, Nelson’s open information would also require open formats, which would eliminate much proprietary and monopolistic mischief in current computing.
Nelson is not unique in his disdain for the Adobe-style view of an online document as a reflection of a paper standard, or his rejection of the desktop metaphor for human-computer interaction. I was more interested in his claim that a system such as his for deeply connecting documents would eliminate the need for a lot of separate, stand-alone applications.
This data-centric view–where the data is accompanied by its own metadata that makes it easy to extract relationships and manipulate the data–probably makes him a true visionary. And his statements resonate with component architectures that I discussed in articles I wrote in 2002 and 2007
I also wonder whether something like Zigzag could also make it easier to implement the cross-referencing tool for computer education I wrote about a few weeks ago.
Ultimately, therefore, I am more of an optimistic than Nelson. He seems to think not only the the techies have screwed up the world of information, but that we can straighten out the problems only by backtracking and starting over with his vision. I think many of his ideas are fertile, but that we can eventually wind around to implementing them. The wealth of storage space and computing powr (driven partly by the popularity of computing and the Internet, which in turn were driven by the somewhat unsatisfactory applications and protocols he criticizes) make it possible to open up formats, to be language- and application-independent, and to bring information anywhere.