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Theodor Holm (Ted) Nelson
Literary Machines 90.1
Mindful Press, 1990 (oversized paperback, 285 pages) [TRUTH] [TECHNOLOGY] [CONSCIOUSNESS]

My friend John Larson said to look at Mosaic. I looked at it and thought it was very nice, but much too simple for Xanadu. I was, however, pleased to see that Mosaic had given a tremendous boost to Tim Berners-Lee's "World Wide Web" distributed hypertext system. Tim is a fine guy and he got the idea from my book Literary Machines.
--Ted Nelson, October 1994

Before there was a World Wide Web or a Hypercard or a goddamn Microsoft Windows help system, there was Ted Nelson and his crazed, experimental information distribution "docuverse" which he first implemented back in the early 60s... he called it "hypertext" (yes, he did coin the phrase) and he was determined to bring it to bear on the unruly, disorganized mass that is human knowledge. Three decades later, Nelson's ideas have been absorbed by others and put to use in what he would describe as a diluted form... This book is about how it should have been done and--if you fall for Nelson's loony pitch--how it could still be done.

The zeal and fanaticism of Literary Machines is immediately evident. The text itself is a hypertext... you are encourage to branch from subchapter to subchapter in more or less the order your mind carries you. The oddball line-art diagrams and chatty narrative passages range from the cryptic to the extravagant, with Mr. Nelson feverishly attempting to explain the vastness and the comprehensiveness of the one-information-scheme he calls Project Xanadu, "a generalized and self-networking structure that can eventually be put in deep rock and deep space--Iron Mountain or the asteroid belt." The distinction between Nelsonís work and hypertext systems functioning today is that Xanadu was always meant to be all-inclusive, to be the general-purpose infosystem for all time--to wit: "a universal instantaneous publishing system and archive for the world", one that keeps track of all modifications ever made to any document and provides for every possible eventuality of growth and change. Nelson is an unapologetic futurist, envisioning a world where all information is irrevocably networked; by his reckoning, any data removed from the system becomes "inert" or "dead". Not only is hypertext a good thing, it is the true, natural form of all text which previous linear medias have only hinted at.

This weird, semi-altruistic/semi-fascistic vision is further complicated by a capitalistic concern for intellectual property. All accesses to information are also financial transactions thanks to a standard and (supposedly) reasonable royalty system whereby any usage of data results in an instant monetary exchange. From the current Xanadu FAQ:

Every document can contain a royalty mechanism at any desired degree of granularity to ensure payment on any portion accessed, including virtual copies ("transclusions") of all or part of the document. Every document can contain links of any type... to any other document in the system accessible to its owner. Permission to link to a document is explicitly granted by the act of publication.
The issues this raises with regard to critical appropriation of a work (parody, sampling, etc.) are never discussed, probably because he never thought of them. On the one hand, it seems no one could be stopped from reusing anotherís work, as permission has been "explicitly granted"... but on the other hand, since all information use requires a financial debit from the userís account, such free speech is no longer free--which seems to be a weird perversion of democratic ideals quite in keeping with the preferences of the corporate information mongers.

Nelson's ideas have never been fully implemented, though Autodesk funded the project for a while and a low-key development team is at work now in Australia. This is mainly, I think, due to his pie-in-the-sky science fictional approach to hypermedia. In Literary Machines it becomes evident that he expects Xanadu to change the world by the sheer force of its genius, when the sad reality is that in a capitalist society it is standardization and market share that create the environment required for the adoption of new technology. And it ain't always the good ideas that win (e.g., Microsoft Windows, CD-ROMs, etc.). Despite my reservations about Xanadu, Literary Machines remains a fine, wild discussion of things hypertextual. --K.S.

(first appeared in Reign of Toads #4)

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