And the web moved on

Ted Nelson at the Oxford Internet Institute, 17 March 2008

Ted Nelson is a heretic and a maverick. Everybody knows that. A generalist and a reluctant computer-scientist. He invented hypertext but hates the web. He thinks the web is broken because it doesn’t handle links properly, doesn’t have an embedded citation system and doesn’t care about ownership or remuneration for creators. His Xanadu does all that stuff properly, of course. In fact it does everything because it’s essentially a superset of the web.

He spoke at the Oxford Internet Institute a couple of weeks ago and the whole thing was gripping. I mean not just the singing and the poetry and the B&W movies: all that was the Ted Nelson I’d been led to expect: eccentric, funny, clever, a bit big-headed. The lecture was interesting too, of course. What I found most interesting, though, was the audience. I guess it was an OII kind of audience. It was just very different from the kind of crowd you get at geek events. There were some geeks here, of course but they were different. They weren’t the busy, clean-cut, trendy geeks you get at web 2.0 events, this-camps and that-camps.

And there were none of the questions you’d expect of a geek crowd. No one mentioned the semantic web or Wikipedia or social media or information architecture or any of the stuff you’d have expected a man like Nelson to have an opinion about. So I found myself grilling him gently about the web. I asked him if Wikipedia was essentially Xanadu except it had shipped. I asked about blogs and wikis and collaborative media. Nelson had essentially one answer: “that’s in my system”. His frustration and annoyance were palpable. You could see it in his eyes: all these bastards with their shitty, half-baked, compromised systems out there in the unsupervised wild when what they should have done, the bastards, was just adopt Xanadu when I offered it to them. Bastards.

For Nelson, the whole messy ecosystem of the actual existing net and the web and those thousands of apps and millions of blogs and billions of users is just a big, ignorant snub to the totalising glory of Xanadu (which still isn’t finished). So, really, the whole thing was too sad. Xanadu and Nelson are perfect and unworldly. The web is imperfect and worldly. Xanadu can never ship because that would compromise its perfection and Nelson can never actually participate because that would endanger his precious apostasy. And the web doesn’t care so the world moves on and it’s heartbreaking really.

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Book review: Hypercard reborn?

Applescript, The Missing Manual, Goldstein & Pogue, O'Reilly pub, cover image
Going on twenty years ago Hypercard, created by Bill Atkinson, felt like something helicoptered in from a William Gibson novel. “Make my own computer programmes? Pretty ones with sounds and visuals and proper interfaces? I am as a God!” Of course, I actually used it to make crappy catalogues and half-finished tools (sometimes half-finished catalogues and crappy tools) but, like everyone else, I could tell there was something big and important under the skin and, of course, some people actually built big, important things with it.

There was the mind-blowing Voyager CD Companion Series which used Hypercard to provide historical and musical context to classical music recordings – applications which I reckon would still seem pretty cool today (in all their one-bit glory) – and countless useful programmes interfacing Macs to cash registers and power stations and knitting machines – and millions of perfectly serviceable membership management stacks for Round Tables and scout troops and athletics clubs.

So it was really dispiriting to watch Hypercard disappear without trace over the next ten years or so – killed off, I suppose, at least in part by Mr. Berners-Lee’s less friendly but more flexible HTML, which, cleverly, allowed you to connect not just to resources on your hard drive but to stuff on other computers. Hypercard still exists in various specialist forms, some even adapted to the web, but it’s more-or-less irrelevant. Not exactly a hotbed of developer creativity (why not, I wonder?).

Anyway, the latest version of Applescript and its integration with OSX Tiger looks like a minor revival for the spirit of Hypercard (which is what got me thinking about it in the first place). Adam Goldstein, irritating geek prodigy, has written an excellent Applescript ‘Missing Manual’ for O’Reilly which I reckon is pitched nicely at people like me (old-timers with failing short-term memory) as well as at ordinary Mac users and which could conceivably get us all coding again.

Tiger, apparently, comes with some useful Hypercard-style dev tools for Applescript which could kick off a real renaissance for home-developed tools and gadgets just like Hypercard did all those years ago. The metaphor is different but the goal is the same – a library of useful and reusable scripts and applications that make life easier. I’m going to keep this book next to my Mac for a while and see if it triggers any creativity. Yeah right.

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