The Web needs Xanadu features

David Carlson mentions Ted Nelson in an E-Media Tidbits post Tuesday. Nelson is a true pioneer — he coined the word “hypertext” before people had personal computers. He’s spent much of his life trying to develop a system he called “Xanadu,” an idea that predated the World Wide Web. One of Xanadu’s features would have been a micropayment system, as Carlson notes. Other features have been largely impractical on the Web, like bi-directional linking and the ability to address individual paragraphs, sentences or even words in someone else’s document. That last feature was critical to Nelson’s vision of a document publishing system where anyone could quote any other document, comment on it, or rearrange it and make something new. The original author would be paid via those micropayments according to the percent of the original work included in the derived work.

Blogs approximate Nelson’s vision of a system for free discussion and quotation, but the design of HTML only allows them to link to an entire document. They can’t link directly to a particular sentence; the reader would have to scroll and skim through the document to find it. And bloggers definitely can’t quote from an original work without literally copying the quote. Xanadu would have let a reader’s browser go grab a particular sentence on the fly from the original publisher’s server and insert it, eliminating copyright problems and defining documents’ relationships within their markup code. The Web would be better with this idea of “transclusion.”

That said, I think Nelson’s current rants ignore the benefits of Tim Berners-Lee’s Web. Among them: Browsing via home and office computers rather than in proprietary Internet cafes, a simple decentralized system that encourages innovation, and use of the Web interface for purposes other than the Xanadu “docuverse,” like online shopping.

Incidentally, Ted Nelson is a fellow graduate of Swarthmore. The alumni magazine did a good article on him and Xanadu a few years back, describing how Nelson has been staggeringly unsuccessful at ever building his Xanadu system. What online publishing needs is someone practical who could implement some of Nelson’s ideas on the existing Web.

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This page last modified on Monday, November 24, 2008 at 8:56 am