An Engineer’s Guide to the Docuverse

Project Xanadu® is the original hypertext project — the brainchild of Ted Nelson, and the result of careful and passionate work by innumerable clever people over the course of nearly sixty years. Because of the length of its development period, the project has spawned and used many ideas of varying importance, and particularly important ideas have had many names. Because its history spans several eras of computing, ideas spawned by the project that were once considered radical have become commonplace and other ideas that were once commonplace have become forgotten and become radical again. Over this time, most documentation available to the public has been written by Ted, and intended for a non-technical or semi-technical audience.

25 years of HyperCard—the missing link to the Web

Before the World Wide Web did anything, HyperCard did everything.

Even before its cancellation, HyperCard’s inventor saw the end coming. In an angst-filled 2002 interview, Bill Atkinson confessed to his Big Mistake. If only he had figured out that stacks could be linked through cyberspace, and not just installed on a particular desktop, things would have been different.

“I missed the mark with HyperCard,” Atkinson lamented. “I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple. If I’d grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first Web browser. My blind spot at Apple prevented me from making HyperCard the first Web browser.”

.. In his 1974 book, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, he defined hypertext as “forms of writing which branch or perform on request; they are best presented on computer display screens.” By simplifying the process of dispersing and accessing information, hypertext and hypermedia could liberate society from what Nelson saw as an overprofessionalized digital information elite.

.. Fearing antitrust reprisals from the government if it strayed into the software marketing business, AT&T leased UNIX to colleges and universities at bargain basement rates. Those schools, supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, built hundreds and then thousands of ARPANET “nodes” through the 1980s.

.. “We could not have created a business around Erwise in Finland then,” one of the team members explained. But other developers had also downloaded Berners-Lee’s code. These included Pei-Yuan Wei, working on UNIX X-terminals at UC Berkeley’s Experimental Computing Facility. Where did Wei derive inspiration for his “ViolaWWW” web browser? He took his lead from a program that he found fascinating, even though he did not have a Mac of his own.

“HyperCard was very compelling back then, you know graphically, this hyperlink thing,” Wei later recalled. “I got a HyperCard manual and looked at it and just basically took the concepts and implemented them in X-windows,” which is a visual component of UNIX. The resulting browser, Viola, included HyperCard-like components: bookmarks, a history feature, tables, graphics. And, like HyperCard, it could run programs.

.. Admiring all this activity was a young developer named Marc Andreesen of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. Andreesen’s team launched Mosaic in January of 1993; it was the first browser available on PCs, Macs, and UNIX systems. Mosaic morphed into Mosaic Netscape a year later.

Not long after that, I downloaded a copy of Netscape onto a Dell PC. “Wow,” I thought, as I surfed various sites. “This looks like HyperCard.”

.. As late as August 2002, there were probably 10,000 HyperCard developers.

.. programmers for the Cyan software company originally wrote their hugely popular puzzle/adventure game Myst as a HyperCard stack.

.. When Tim Berners-Lee’s innovation finally became popular in the mid-1990s, HyperCard had already prepared a generation of developers who knew what Netscape was for.

Ted Nelson Thread on Hacker News

.. It’s easy to dismiss Ted Nelson as some old crazy man who spent his life selling snake oil when you’re behind your computer, but the reality of it is that he contributed a lot to the field and is deeply respected amongst his peers. He was a close friend of Engelbart, his work valued by his contemporaries, and there’s a reason for which he was invited at the Homebrew Computer Club reunion a few months ago. Nelson’s work gives us an insight on what computing could have looked like, in some weird parallel world.

He is controversial, perhaps; and some of his ideas/claims may be unpractical/unrealistic/etc. – but ignoring and dismissing him only sends the message that you’re not as much of an expert as your rhetoric attempts to make you out to be.

.. Alas, this believer in transclusion also deeply feels it’s important that authors need to be paid, himself included. Perhaps he’d have a better chance to impact history in a meaningful way if he opted to give away for free the works making that case? Very few will have a chance to be exposed to the ideas Ted Nelson promotes: the range of books you suggest shows the impossibility of ever getting a comprehensive look into his view.

.. More to the point, if he’d opted to open source the code.

In Computer Lib/Dream Machines, one of the systems Nelson describes and lauds is Calvin Mooers’s TRAC macro language. Mooers took his IP seriously and defended it seriously. You can read his argument in favor of copyright to protect software in a Computing Surveys issue from some decades ago. Mooers protected TRAC right into oblivion–if even 1% of those who read HN have ever heard of it, I’ll be amazed.

..There’s an open source code dump of two versions on “Xanadu Gold” is the most insane codebase I’ve ever seen — implemented in Smalltalk but intended for automatic translation to C++.

.. A friend of mine says Xanadu got quite a bit further, but failed hard at the end because they’d not bothered to do and keep viable the total end to end use case. Specially, to actually interact with the system and display a document was so hard and cumbersome it never had a chance of being adopted (by pretty much anyone, let alone widely), whatever other problems there might have been with the project.

Hyper-compensation: Ted Nelson and the impact of journalism

Before you can begin to measure impact, you need to first know who’s talking about you. While analytics platforms provide referrers, social media sites track reposts, and media monitoring tools follow mentions, these services are often incomplete and come with a price. Why is it that, on the internet — the most interconnected medium in history — tracking linkages between content is so difficult?

The simple answer is that the web wasn’t built to be *fully* connected, per se. It’s an idiosyncratic, labyrinthine garden of forking paths with no way to navigate from one page to pages that reference it.

.. We’ve spent the last few months thinking about and building an analytics platform called NewsLynxwhich aims to help newsrooms better capture the quantitative and qualitative effects of their work. Many of our features are aimed at giving newsrooms a better sense of who is talking about their work. This seemingly simple feature, to understand the links among web pages, has taken up the majority of our time. This obstacle turns out to be a shortcoming in the fundamental architecture of the web. But without it, however, the web might never have succeeded.

.. In his latest book “Who Owns the Future?”, Jaron Lanier discusses two-way linking as a potential solution to copyright infringement and a host of other web maladies. His logic is that if you could always know who is linking where, then you could create a system of micropayments to make sure authors get proper credit. His idea has its own caveats, but it shows the systems that two-way linking might enable. Chapter Seven of Lanier’s book discusses some of the other reasons Nelson’s idea never took off.

.. The inefficiency of one-way links left a hole at the center of the web for a powerful player to step in and play librarian. As a result, if you want to know how your content lives online, you have to go shopping for analytics.