…Did Kubla Khan a Stately Pleasure Dome Decree

I’ve been listening to audio recordings of Open Tech 2005 (previously known as NotCon). As seems to often be true, about half the presentations are uninteresting, dully presented, or so poorly recorded as to be unintelligible. The other half are fascinating.

In particular, I listened to a talk given by a distinguished-sounding gentlemen, explaining that his view of computing is different from probably everyone else’s in the room, and how he’s been using computers for decades, and how computer are operating on completely the wrong metaphor for 90% of us (that they’re primarily representing secretarial functions). I thought to myself, “This guy is great. I’ll have to check up on him and see who he is.” Then he explained that he was finally now codifying a lot of his ideas, and here it was, the latest iteration of Xanadu.

It was Ted Nelson.

For those unfamiliar, Ted Nelson essentially invented the notion of “hypertext,” of documents with embedded links that take you to other documents. But his view goes much beyond that (indeed, he sees the world-wide web as a pale shadow of his idea, since in his view the links should never die). He assembled his ideas into a system concept he called “Xanadu,” but which has never come anything close to a real-world system.

Until now. He’s released a very early alpha version of ZigZag, a cross-platform (Windows/Mac/Linux) piece of software that lets you enter chunks of data and create relationships, then manipulate that data in what sounds like amazingly useful and powerful ways.

It’s a completely different way of looking at computing. I wonder if it has any legs.

Amazing to think of a guy, working for decades to achieve a specific vision.


Brennen I was just reading a bit about Nelson again last week. He’s a fascinating character, and Xanadu is/was a fascinating dream, though I think it’s been eclipsed by the grandiosity of its ambitions and its disconnection from any kind of pragmatic implementation. I also think Nelson’s plans have tended to suffer from a misplaced sense of total ownership, and Xanadu itself, the parts that can be deciphered, has elements of being a system for strong DRM & re-use payments, which I think are problematic. To say the least.
Brennen If you haven’t read Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines, it’s well worth jumping through a few library related hoops to find a copy.

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