Saturday, June 17, 2006

Nelson's Xanadu

"The story of Ted Nelson's Xanadu is the story of the dawn of the information age. Like the mental patient in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow who believes he is the Second World War . . . Nelson, with his unfocused energy, his tiny attention span, his omnivorous fascination with trivia, and his commitment to recording incidents whose meaning he will never analyze, is the human embodiment of the information explosion." - G. Wolf.

Information theorist Ted Nelson was born on this day in 1937 in Chicago, the son of film director Ralph Nelson and actress Celeste Holm.

After studying philosophy at Swarthmore, Nelson was pursuing a master's degree in sociology at Harvard when he enrolled in a computer course and began to have visions about the future of information. There he made an attempt, before the invention of word processing systems, to create a "writing system" which would allow writers to store and edit their work; unfortunately, he took an "incomplete" in the course. In the 1960s, he became known as a computer theorist, without actually producing software, and coined the words "hypertext" and "hypermedia" to refer to the linking of related texts or media -- a concept which had been explored as early as 1945 by Vannevar Bush.

With a growing reputation as a visionary, Nelson worked in and out of business and academia attempting to advance his ideas about the nonsequential, interlinked presentation of information and his predictions of millions of simultaneous users of this information, but his chronic lack of focus (he suffers from attention deficit disorder) and rebelliousness (among his favorite maxims are "most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist and everything is wrong") got him bounced from job to job.

From the late 1960s, however, Nelson has been actively supervising the design of Xanadu (named after the "pleasure dome" referred to in the unfinished poem by Samuel Coleridge, Kublai Khan), a proposed hypertext system in which all links between text are two-way and which would provide for the publication of comments on existing works to appear as anntotations; parallel retrieval and editing; version management; and an efficient system of copyright management. In effect, he had envisioned a universally accessible, self-updating electronic library/town meeting.

In its early days, the proposed system anticipated Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web; since the emergence of the Web in 1990, Nelson has offered his proposed system as a less autocratic, more multi-dimensional and interactive alternative to the Web, which he disparages as a mere "child's wagon" in terms of its power and complexity. Like Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu construction project in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Project Xanadu is "still unfinished," although it has had the backing of no less than Autodesk (for a time) and despite the fact that Nelson had predicted its release as long ago as 1976, 1988 and 1991. According to the official Xanadu website, Nelson's investors forced his work to be made available in an "open source" environment in 1999, although Nelson is seeming to insist that Project Xanadu is ongoing as an independent project.

Nelson's critics tend to portray him, at worst, as a woolly charlatan, leaving behind him a pile of unfinished projects, disgruntled investors, and a collection of clever new buzzwords (including "docuverse," "cybercrud" and "softcopy"); at best, they see him as a brilliant, compulsive mad-monk, squandering his genius by toiling away at the mystically unattainable -- like Isaac Newton in his later years, searching for the keys to alchemy.

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