The Curse of Xanadu

Excerpts from Gary Wolf, The Curse of Xanadu from Wired, Issue 3.06, Jun 1995.


“If you ask Ted for a book you’ve given him,” says Roger Gregory, Nelson’s longtime collaborator and traditional victim, “he’ll say, ‘I filed it, so I’ll buy you a new one.’”

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Nelson’s life is so full of unfinished projects that it might fairly be said to be built from them, much as lace is built from holes or Philip Johnson’s glass house from windows. He has written an unfinished autobiography and produced an unfinished film. His houseboat in the San Francisco Bay is full of incomplete notes and unsigned letters. He founded a video-editing business, but has not yet seen it through to profitability.

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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.

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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.

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“And I remember thinking about the particles in the water, but I thought of them as places, and how they would separate around my fingers and reconnect on the other side, and how this constant separation and reconnection and perpetual change into new arrangements was - “

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“OK, I’m at The Spinnaker,” he continued, “talking about the old hand-in-the-water story and how the sense of the separation and reconnection of the places in the water made such an impression on me, and how all the relationships were constantly changing - and you could hardly hold onto it - you could, you could not, you couldn’t really visualize or express the myriad of relationships.”

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“Regularity chauvinists are people who insist that you have got to do the same thing every time, every day, which drives some of us nuts. Attention Deficit Disorder - we need a more positive term for that. Hummingbird mind, I should think.” Xanadu, the ultimate hypertext information system, began as Ted Nelson’s quest for personal liberation. The inventor’s hummingbird mind and his inability to keep track of anything left him relatively helpless.

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Out of Nelson’s discombobulation was born one of the most powerful designs of the 20th century. And Xanadu’s goals - a universal library, a global information index, and a computerized royalty system - were shared by many of the smartest programmers of the first hacker generation.

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Nelson’s hatred of conventional structure made him difficult to educate. Bored and disgusted by school, he once plotted to stab his seventh-grade teacher with a sharpened screwdriver, but lost his nerve at the last minute and instead walked out of the classroom, never to return. On his long walk home, he came up with the four maxims that have guided his life: most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and everything is wrong.

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Nelson’s design included features for comparing alternate versions of text side by side, backtracking through sequential versions, and revision by outline.

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Nelson got permission from the publishers of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire to use the elaborately annotated parody in a hypertext demonstration. The idea, like most of Nelson’s contributions, was rejected by the sponsors of the Brown experiment. Nelson was bitter over the obstruction of his work. “Thus progress must wait,” he later wrote, “for the halt and lame to catch up.”

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The notion of a worldwide network of billions of quickly accessible and interlinked documents was absurd, and only Nelson’s ignorance of advanced software permitted him to pursue this fantasy. The inventor was like a vaudeville performer practicing an acrobatic routine on the edge of an unseen cliff. A look into the abyss would doubtless have sent him tumbling.

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Information is where you find it.” The teenage Resistors spent quite a bit of time driving around with Nelson in his car, telling hackerish jokes and scheming to transform civilization. Their favorite activity was wordplay. One of Nelson’s Resistor anecdotes describes an afternoon when he was cruising through Princeton with his co-conspirators and growing increasingly annoyed with the loud contradictory instructions coming from the back seat. “I demand triple redundancy in the directions,” Nelson said. “Right up ahead you turn right right away,” piped up one of the teenagers, promptly.

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The dictionary defines enfilade, which can be a noun or a verb, as the firing of a gun in a sweeping motion along the length of a target. The word has etymological links to threads and files, as well as to an arrangement of rooms with doorways in line with each other, and to a vista seen between columns or trees.

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An expression of the author’s encyclopedic passion, Computer Lib contains whatever enraged or inspired Nelson during the months he wrote it, including population statistics, hacker psychology, the evils of IBM, holograms, musical notation, lists of places to rent a PDP-8, Watergate, and how to program in Trac, among other topics. These remarks “didn’t fit anywhere else, so they might as well go here,” is a typical Computer Lib transition. The model for the book was Stewart Brand’s 1969 counterculture classic, The Whole Earth Catalog, but the design of Computer Lib was even more idiosyncratic. There was no index or table of contents. Specific quotes or sections were impossible to find. Although full of reference material, it could not be used as a reference without being read enough times to memorize it. Which, of course, is exactly what many young hackers did.

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Dream Machines, the literal flip side of Computer Lib, was largely about the transformation of the arts through computers, but it included a relatively brief description of Xanadu. In the years since 1965, when he first attempted to make Xanadu work, the idea had grown enormously. By 1974, locally networked computers had appeared, and Nelson saw a global computer network as the natural environment for a hypertext system. Over a network, linked documents, version comparison, and non-sequential writing would create a “docuverse” capable of storing and representing the artistic and scientific legacy of humanity.

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The Xanadu franchises were silly, but they contained a solution to a genuinely difficult problem. If there was to be a universal library of electronic documents, who would pay for it? Nelson’s answer was to imagine a corporate information entity that resembled McDonald’s, a chain of franchises whose operating costs were paid by their individual owners out of revenue from the information-starved masses.

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If Ted Nelson is Xanadu’s profligate father, Roger Gregory is Xanadu’s devoted mother, and in retrospect, his role appears to have been intertwined with a terrible element of sacrifice. 

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Miller and Gregory created an addressing system that used transfinite numbers, an arcane area of calculus they had both studied in college. They called the new addresses “tumblers”; the tumbler system allowed readers to create links to any arbitrary span of bytes, whether or not the author had marked them. With tumblers, Miller and Gregory could give a similar address to every document and fragment of a document in Xanadu’s sprawling domain of words, pictures, movies, and sounds. The address would not only point the reader to the correct machine, it would also indicate the author of the document, the version of the document, the correct span of bytes, and the links associated with these bytes. Unfortunately, though the design was innovative and the algorithms interesting, the Xanadu code was depressingly nonfunctional.

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When Gregory returned to Michigan from Pennsylvania, McClary noticed that Gregory resisted suggestions to formalize Xanadu’s business arrangements. There were no contracts, no documents, and no organization. Gregory and his irregular helpers took copious notes but never referred to them again. Gregory held a meeting once a week to try to decide what was next, but instead of addressing the programming requirements, the conversation would wander aimlessly from snide personal attacks to grand philosophical speculations. After witnessing the process for a few months, McClary got the impression that he wasn’t part of a software development team but of a sect in the process of self-destruction. McClary also noticed that there was nothing to enforce any claim that the hackers might have on the fruits of their labors. When he asked about ownership, Gregory explained casually that someday everybody would get a fair share.

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The style of the book was pure Nelson: it had one Chapter Zero, seven Chapter Ones, one Chapter Two, and seven Chapter Threes. In his introduction, Nelson suggested that the reader begin with one of the Chapter Ones, then read Chapter Two, then explore a Chapter Three, and then start again, passing repeatedly through Chapter Two. He also provided a diagram, with the comment: “Pretzel or infinity, it’s up to you.” The official title page reads: Literary Machines: The Report On, And Of, Project Xanadu Concerning World Processing, Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Thinkertoys, Tomorrow’s Intellectual Revolution, and Certain Other Topics Including Knowledge, Education and Freedom.

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“We have held to ideals created long ago, in different times and places, the very best ideals we could find. We have carried these banners unstained to this new place, we now plant them and hope to see them floating in the wind. But it is dark and quiet and lonely here, and not yet dawn.”

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They were dead-accurate when they sketched a future of many-to-many communication, universal digital publishing, links between documents, and the capacity for infinite storage. When they started, they had been ahead of their time. But by the mid-1980s, they were barely ahead of

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Xanadu might be transformed from a cult into a company. And when the founder of Autodesk wrote an enthusiastic note about Xanadu, his executives were inclined to pay attention. Walker’s overture was followed by a period of intense negotiations. Phil Salin and Roger Gregory spent months working with Autodesk’s attorneys. Immediately, the Xanadu crew’s casual business arrangements came back to haunt them. Ted Nelson insisted that no sale or license to Autodesk interfere with the inventor’s grand scheme for a universal library and publishing system. Nelson wanted to ensure that if Autodesk had a working product, he would have complete freedom to use it in his Xanadu roadside information franchises.

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John Walker’s Autodesk created the dominant software in the field of computer-aided design. The Xanadu acquisition reflected Walker’s hope that Autodesk could also pioneer the fields of virtual reality, information markets, and space exploration. Along with Xanadu, Autodesk bought Phil Salin’s information-exchange company, AMIX (American Information Exchange). In a contemporary memo to his company, Walker preached to his colleagues: “Reality isn’t enough any more.”

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I was sitting there thinking, you know, if this guy can really pull it off, he’s going to change the world. I looked around at all the other people in business suits and I realized that I was the only person in the room who understood.”

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search for the name of an author or book was followed by the traditional exclamation, “If only we had Xanadu!”

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Nelson had been stumping for his universal hypertext system for 25 years, and the computer industry had already grown supremely comfortable with the notion that the product was vaporware. The Autodesk acquisition inspired a new round of press coverage, which raised the level of doubt another notch. Ten years after the Swarthmore summer, Miller did not want to release a creaky and crippled version of the software he had helped design.

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Xanadu was to consist of easy-to-edit documents. Links would be available both to and from any part of any document. Anybody could create a link, even in a document they did not write. And parts of documents could be quoted in other documents without copying. The idea of quoting without copying was called transclusion, and it was the heart of Xanadu’s most innovative commercial feature - a royalty and copyright scheme. Whenever an author wished to quote, he or she would use transclusion to “virtually include” the passage in his or her own document.

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Transclusion functions like the “make alias” command familiar to Macintosh users. An alias works as a fully functioning copy of a file or application, but it is really just a pointer, or virtual copy. Click on the virtual copy, and the original file or application begins to run.

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Transclusion was extremely challenging to the programmers, for it meant that there could be no redundancy in the grand Xanadu library. Every text could exist only as an original. Every user in the world would have to have instant access to the same underlying collection of documents.

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track of different versions, did not scale well, had no multimedia capabilities, no security features, and performed poorly. The years of work Gregory had devoted to writing code seemed as much a burden as a resource. Miller wondered if it wasn’t time to wipe the slate clean and start again.

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For 12 years of missed deadlines, Gregory had nurtured his complex, nonworking, but possibly fixable technology. His code was the accumulation of all Xanadu’s relationships and struggles since the early ’70s. Through those years, he had been sustained by his belief that Xanadu was close, very close, to success. “Stiegler and Miller screwed up the entire thing,” Gregory says. “I had something that was within six months of shipping.” 

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A universal democratic library, they decided, was only the beginning. Xanadu could also provide a tool for rational discussion and decision making among very large groups. In the Xanadu docuverse, an assertion could always be followed back to its original source. An idea would never become detached from its author. Public discussion on important issues would move forward logically, rather than merely swirling ineffectively through eddies of rhetoric.

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In a paper titled “The Open Society and Its Media,” Miller, Tribble, Pandya, and Stiegler pointed out that with transclusion, links to critical information would remain intact no matter how many times a passage was quoted. No form of communication in history had ever offered this possibility. In books, television, and radio, the truth is a slave to a good story, and convincing lies are remembered while dry, factual refutations are forgotten. In Xanadu, this problem is solved. Transclusion and freedom to link are crucial to social progress, the programmers argued, because otherwise, the constant mutation of a discussion “would destroy selection by leaving criticisms behind.”

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Under Autodesk, Miller had complete freedom to pursue his mathematical solutions for data storage and retrieval, and he found enthusiastic companions in Tribble and Pandya.

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“It was not rapid prototyping - it was rabid prototyping,” said one of McClary’s friends who watched the project closely.

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In Miller’s view, the Xanadu technology was so radical that predicting its future uses was difficult. Writers, teachers, and scientists; movie directors, commodities brokers, and sports fans - Xanadu promised to remake everything.

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To understand the details of Xanadu, Shapiro had to learn not only the names for things, but also the history of how those names had come to be.

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“The General Theory of Status, Territory, and the Paradigm.”

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For instance, Nelson’s theory of language holds that every time a concept changes, the word to describe must change as well. There ought not be any “slippage” of one term into another. New idea, new word.

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the Xanadu team had “hyper-warped into the techno-hubris zone.” Walker marveled at the programmers’ apparent belief that they could create “in its entirety, a system that can store all the information in every form, present and future, for quadrillions of individuals over billions of years.”

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Rather than push their product into the marketplace quickly, where it could compete, adapt, or die, the Xanadu programmers intended to produce their revolution ab initio. “When this process fails,” wrote Walker in his collection of documents from and about Autodesk, “and it always does, that doesn’t seem to weaken the belief in a design process which, in reality, is as bogus as astrology. It’s always a bad manager, problems with tools, etc. - precisely the unpredictable factors which make a priori design impossible in the first place.”

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But they were facing a master strategist who understood the power of escalation. Nelson soon found a way to provoke the desired crisis. “I nominated Roger Gregory to the board of directors,” recounts Nelson triumphantly. The two owned nearly half the company, and together they could thwart nearly any plan. “The reaction,” Nelson says, “was as if I had set fire to the curtains.”

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The young programmer’s doubts were magnified by his dawning realization that a grand, centralized system was no longer the solution to anything. He had grown up with the Internet - a redundant, ever-multiplying and increasingly chaotic mass of documents. He had observed that users wanted and needed ever more clever interfaces to deal with the wealth of information, but they showed little inclination to obey the dictates of a single company. “The front end is the most important thing,” Jellinghaus slowly understood. “If you don’t have a good front end, it doesn’t matter how good the back end is. Moreover, if you do have a good front end, it doesn’t matter how bad the back end is.”

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beauty of the Xanadu dream - “How do you codify all the information in the world in a way that is infinitely scalable?” - but he suspected that human society might not benefit from a perfect technological memory. Thinking is based on selection and weeding out; remembering everything is strangely similar to forgetting everything. “Maybe most things that people do shouldn’t be remembered,” Jellinghaus says. “Maybe forgetting is good.”

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I asked Miller if the Internet was accomplishing his dreams for hypertext. “What the Web is doing is easy,” Miller answered. He pointed out that the Web still lacks nearly every one of the advanced features he and his colleagues were trying to realize. There is no transclusion. There is no way to create links inside other writers’ documents. There is no way to follow all the references to a specific document. Most importantly, the World Wide Web is no friend to logic. Rather, it permits infinite redundancy and encourages maximum confusion. With Xanadu - that is, with tranclusion and freedom to link - users would have had a consistent, easily navigable forum for universal debate.

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In Japan, Nelson has been lobbying for a system of transclusion that does not depend on the Xanadu software. He has baptized this system “transcopyright.” Transcopyright is not a technology; it is Nelson’s suggestion for a contractual solution to copyright problems. Nelson argues that electronic publishers should allow anybody to republish their materials, provided that republication takes place by means of a pointer to the original document or fragment. Just as in Nelson’s imaginary Xanadu franchises, publishers of transcopyrighted documents would receive a payment every time one of their bytes was accessed.

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In fact, transcopying is similar to Xanadu, but without the machinery. Nelson has reduced his contribution to a name and a description. But for Nelson, names and descriptions have always been the heart of the matter. On the short paper that presents his transcopyright idea, Nelson identifies himself as “Founder of Interactive Media,” and “Founder of Network Publishing.”

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I remembered that Xanadu’s programmers never solved the basic problem of computer performance. No matter how powerful their machines, or how elegant their code, there had always been too much data to move in and out of memory.

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Without protest, without calculation, Gregory answered every question. “I don’t know,” he said, in answer to a query that is inaudible on my tape and that I can’t remember. “I’ve struggled.” A few times, Gregory paused and took several deep breaths, but he always resumed, determined to make his point. He talked with the air of a person who despairs of justice in this lifetime but counts on the vindication of history.

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“Total insanity,”

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