10 November 2010

Xanadu and the Digital Pleasure-Dome

I consider myself fortunate to have been around at the time of the birth of the Internet as a mass medium, which I date to the appearance of version 0.9 of Netscape Navigator in October 1994.

This gives me a certain perspective on things that happen online, since I can often find parallels from earlier times, but there are obviously many people who have been following things even longer, and whose perspective is even deeper. One such is Mark Pesce who also happens to be an extremely good writer, which makes his recent blog posting about the "early days" even more worth reading:

Back in the 1980s, when personal computers mostly meant IBM PCs running Lotus 1*2*3 and, perhaps, if you were a bit off-center, an Apple Macintosh running Aldus Pagemaker, the idea of a coherent and interconnected set of documents spanning the known human universe seemed fanciful. But there have always been dreamers, among them such luminaries as Douglas Engelbart, who gave us the computer mouse, and Ted Nelson, who coined the word ‘hypertext’. Engelbart demonstrated a fully-functional hypertext system in December 1968, the famous ‘Mother of all Demos’, which framed computing for the rest of the 20th century. Before man had walked on the Moon, before there was an Internet, we had a prototype for the World Wide Web. Nelson took this idea and ran with it, envisaging a globally interconnected hypertext system, which he named ‘Xanadu’ – after the poem by Coleridge – and which attracted a crowd of enthusiasts intent on making it real. I was one of them. From my garret in Providence, Rhode Island, I wrote a front end – a ‘browser’ if you will – to the soon-to-be-released Xanadu. This was back in 1986, nearly five years before Tim Berners-Lee wrote a short paper outlining a universal protocol for hypermedia, the basis for the World Wide Web.

Fascinating stuff, but it was the next paragraph that really made me stop and think:

Xanadu was never released, but we got the Web. It wasn’t as functional as Xanadu – copyright management was a solved problem with Xanadu, whereas on the Web it continues to bedevil us – and links were two-way affairs; you could follow the destination of a link back to its source. But the Web was out there and working for thousand of people by the middle of 1993, while Xanadu, shuffled from benefactor to benefactor, faded and finally died. The Web was good enough to get out there, to play with, to begin improving, while Xanadu – which had been in beta since the late 1980s – was never quite good enough to be released. ‘The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good’, and nowhere is it clearer than in the sad story of Xanadu.

The reason copyright management was a "solved problem with Xanadu" was because of something called "transclusion", which basically meant that when you quoted or copied a piece of text from elsewhere, it wasn't actually a copy, but the real thing *embedded* in your Xanadu document. This meant that it was easy to track who was doing what with your work - which made copyright management a "solved problem", as Pesce says.

I already knew this, but Pesce's juxtaposition with the sloppy, Web made me realise what a narrow escape we had. If Xanadu had been good enough to release, and if it had caught on sufficiently to establish itself before the Web had arrived, we would probably be living in a very different world.

There would be little of the creative sharing that undelies so much of the Internet - in blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Instead, Xanadu's all-knowing transclusion would allow copyright holders to track down every single use of their content - and to block it just as easily.

I've always regarded Xanadu's failure as something of a pity - a brilliant idea before its time. But I realise now that in fact it was actually a bad idea precisely of its time - and as such, completely inappropriate for the amazing future that the Web has created for us instead. If we remember Xanadu it must be as a warning of how we nearly lost the stately pleasure-dome of digital sharing before it even began.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Anonymous said...

Another disconcerting component of the Xanadu system was that it was reliant upon authenticated sources and strongly advocated the argument for Trusted Computing.

While the brilliant minds behind Xanadu were most assuredly well-intentioned, the U.S. government was still struggling with the rapid advancement in computing technology and it is indeed fortunate that many of the concepts that were being presented in the name of progress were never adopted. If I recall correctly, many of the leaders in Project Xanadu were relatively permanent consultants of the government and it was during this time that measures such as restrictions on encryption, registration of systems and users, and certification of programmers were being heavily promoted by the dominant players (IBM, Intel, Microsoft, HP, etc).

Imagine a world were all communication between citizens could be monitored by the government, where one could only do with a computer that which a corporation permitted, where the only people who were allowed to write programs were certified by the government (subject to revocation should they "misbehave").

Some poor decisions have been made in the past with regard to governance of our evolving digital society, but we've also been able to, whether through serendipity or design, avoid some fairly ominous alternatives.

Unknown said...

> Xanadu's all-knowing transclusion would allow copyright holders to track down every single use of their content - and to block it just as easily.

I don't mean to be rude, but I don't think that makes sense. Without ubiquitous Digital Restrictions Management, the above is impossible to enforce.

Xanadu's transclusion could at most only be an additional option for how to re-use content, in addition to the inevitable option of copying the content.

Filceolaire said...

We have lost the stately pleasure dome.

What we have instead is the marketplace filled with stalls of all varieties, beach side cafes, dodgy burgers from mobile caravans and deluxe gourmet meals from cordon bleu restaurants. All there as you wnader through even though yuo can nexer be sure they will still be there next time you pass by.

Now Apple is trying to create a new cathedral/pleasure dome. It will be ideal for all those who want an ordered web with no nastyness or dirt right up till the moment when it blocks that one thing they want to see.

Glyn Moody said...

@saul: thanks - I wasn't aware of that angle.

Glyn Moody said...

@zooko: well, fortunately, it never got that far, but maybe DRM would have been the logical implication of transclusion...

Glyn Moody said...

@joe: well, frankly what we have looks pretty amazing to me.

And for anyone who wants that ordered vision, perhaps I could recommend relocating to Singapore - "Disney with a death penalty" as William Gibson put it (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.04/gibson.html)

Hoat said...

An attempt to give publishers back a tiny, rudimentary fragment of the control they would have had with Xanadu's translusion mechanism is Tynt, the annoying Javascript service that hijacks a browser's copy+paste function. It inserts source links into the copied text, and phones home to the website owner, telling them which part of the webpage has been copied.


Glyn Moody said...

@hoat: interesting comparison - thanks.