June 21, 1997
Xanadu's Creator at 60: Still Visionary, Still Cantankerous
By STEVE DITLEA
Last Tuesday, members of the World Wide Web Consortium gathering for their
conference at Keio University in Japan honored computerdom's enfant
terrible as he turned 60. Theodor Holm Nelson, Visiting Professor of
Environmental Information at Keio, received the traditional Japanese red
vest of seniority and was celebrated as the intellectual forefather of the
Web for ideas dating back to his frustration with paper as a literary
medium while an undergraduate at Swarthmore.For those who couldn't attend
his vesting, Ted Nelson's Home Page offers a Zen-like subset of his often
loquacious and unique world view. From a title page in which he
characterizes himself simply as "Designer, Generalist" to a page titled
What I Do (in its entirety: "I build paradigms. I work on complex ideas and
make up words for them. It is the only way."), this Web site is clearly the
work of an original thinker.
In a career that practically defines "ahead of one's time," Nelson began in
1960 to envision computer networks as the repository of all of human
documents, went public in 1965 with the notions of hyperlinked text and
media (inconceivable to almost everyone else at the time), was the author
and publisher of Computer Lib/Dream Machines, the first personal computer
book (four months before the first widely available personal computer), and
has for the last 37 years pursued his online ideal, Xanadu.
Like Samuel Coleridge's vaporous vision in the poem "Kubla Khan," Nelson's
grand unified scheme has yet to become reality. Based on an elegant data
structure, Xanadu would link virtual documents from scattered elements,
provide simple micropayment of authors' royalties, and handle copyright,
ownership and quotation functions. Nonetheless, an incomplete version of
his concept, the Web, has been effective enough to vindicate Nelson's
status as a cyber-seer.
These days, just because his name is routinely invoked by Bill Gates in his
standard keynote speech at industry gatherings and by the World Wide Web's
founder, Tim Berners-Lee, don't expect Ted Nelson to make peace with
today's Computer Establishment.
"The World Wide Web is what we were trying to prevent: spaghetti hypertext
and non-reusability," Nelson groused in a phone interview from in his
office in Fujisawa, Japan. "The Web is intrinsically broken: the links go
only one way, you can't link to spans of things, you can't link to parts of
things, you can't quote things. I like to compare it to Karaoke singing.
Anybody can do it, and that's why it's popular. It's easy to do your own
HTML if you're dealing with three paragraphs and one headline; as soon as
you start to get fancy, as we're now being encouraged to, it's hopeless."
So it turns out that his Web site's conciseness is part Japanese influence
and part "the nightmare of maintaining this stuff."
"I think short, snappy pages are a good idea on the Web as it's now
constituted," he said.
His home page also reflects recent attempts to retrofit the dream of Xanadu
to the inescapable reality of the Web. Nelson's personal pages include his
picture as an example of trancopyright for solving intellectual property
dilemmas on the Web. And from a link above the title, a page headed
Xanadu(R) and OSMIC promotes his Open Structure for Media InterConnection,
the Xanadu data structure uncoupled from the commercial organization he had
previously envisioned as essential to implementing all his software's
possibilities. (For everything anyone could possibly want to know about
Xanadu past and present, its Australian affiliate maintains the Xanadu home
"I've pried apart the whole Xanadu concept, which was completely unified,"
Nelson said. "I never thought that it could be broken into pieces. Now we
can take the data structure out and make a public domain version like
OSMIC. I want to position it as what you really want to keep your stuff in
on the Web. It will allow you to make changes, keep the links in place, and
compile Web pages."
Most World Wide Web users won't be holding their breath for OSMIC.
Unfortunately for Nelson, his track record for completed software is nil.
As Gary Wolf wrote in The Curse of Xanadu, an article originally published
in Wired magazine's June 1995 issue: "Nelson's life is so full of
unfinished projects that it might fairly be said to be built from them."
Nelson was so incensed by Wolf's article that he posted a detailed
refutation, Errors in "The Curse of Xanadu" on the Australian-based
xanadu.net Web site.
Nelson said he was offended for his colleagues when Wolf wrote "Remember
these were not computer scientists."
"We were doing real computer science," Nelson insists today. To prove the
validity of his software designs, he has asked for an impartial opinion
from a historian of computer programming, Donald Knuth. "The problem is
he's so busy, he won't have time to talk to us until February next," Nelson
said of Knuth.
As if to confound his critics, the hyper designer claims that he is on the
verge of closing a deal with a major international multimedia publisher for
the micropayment component of Xanadu. Long before the current stampede for
ways to assure the transfer of virtual nickels and dimes in payment for
accessing text or images on a Web site, Nelson had contemplated true
"Everybody else thinks that payments will be on a huge level, like 10
cents," he said, "whereas I think if you charge more than a tenth of a cent
for a picture, people just won't put up with it. The whole point is to have
a mist of money in very small quantities and many-to-many micropayments
instead of this notion of vendors and consumers."
Even for this advocate of electronic publishing, books on paper remain an
essential medium. Nelson has just completed the manuscript for his first
new book in 16 years for ASCII Corporation Japan, The Future of
Information: Ideas, Connections, and the Gods of Electronic Literature. He
described it as "my view of what I hope will someday be offered under the
Xanadu name -- but which I also hope will be done by anyone else who
understands the Web's large-scale crumminess."