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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