It was the most radical computer dream of the hacker era. Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project was supposed to be the universal, democratic hypertext library that would help human life evolve into an entirely new form. Xanadu, the ultimate hypertext information system, began as Ted Nelson’s quest for personal liberation.
My own encounter with Project Xanadu, the alternative Internet that never was, first came back in 2013. It was not long after the Edward Snowden released the NSA Files to the worlds media, revealing the organised and widespread collection and surveillance of citizen’s data by the governments and security services of the UK and the US. The first iteration of the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ had been proposed by the then Home Secretary, Teresa May—legislation that would normalise this surveillance in British law. I had been feeling pessimistic about the future of the Internet, and nostalgic for the lost innocence of the earlier, simpler days of the late 1990s, before Web 2.0, before social media. Those days when I would rush home from school to browse the Internet in secret before my parents could notice that the phone lines were busy. Before scrolling through a Twitter timeline on my phone became an everyday kind of boredom. This was all faulty recollection, of course: a dead link in my memory, a dangling pointer.
His (Nelson’s) great inspiration was to imagine a computer program that could keep track of all the divergent paths of his thinking and writing. To this concept of branching, nonlinear writing, Nelson gave the name hypertext. †
I had been thinking about hyperlinks as a failed system of referencing, a stuttering, broken point of connection between two related points. Like taking a call on a bad phone line: as much information was lost as was communicated. Hitting a 404 Not Found page was hitting a dead-end. ‡ Ted Nelson had foreseen the probability of this breakdown in the quality and authority of online information long before the web became a widespread phenomena. Xanadu’s most distinctive structural difference from the World Wide Web is the premise of what Nelson describes as ‘Unbreakable Links’, a system built to strengthen and preserve authorship, accountability and information provenance online.
There are no full stops in the flow of his speech. Only commas, dashes, ellipses. If he is stopped in the middle of anything, he forgets it instantly. § Nelson records everything and remembers nothing. Xanadu was to have been his cure.
Xanadu would create and preserve multiple, overlapping and interlinked trails of information back and forth across the Internet. It was a dynamic, layered structure; one that promised extensive version management, that connected quotations and sources to their original and allowed side-by-side comparison of different versions of the same page. It held the potential for multiple interpretations and readings of a single text or image—a truly universal and comprehensive network of information. Nothing lost, nothing forgotten. ||
Were Xanadu merely the private obsession of a talented iconoclast, the piles of papers and deteriorating magnetic reels in Nelson’s many overflowing lockers could simply be carted off to a dump. But the inventor is probably right in his prediction that Xanadu ‘s strange story will prove to be an important chapter in the history of technology. ¶
Of course, much of the way that Project Xanadu has been mythologed as a lost, utopian future, is itself a fiction. Wired magazine referred to Xanadu as “the longest-running vapourware project in the history of computing.” ☞ Nelson was (and still is) a visionary rather than an engineer and his ambition far exceeded his ability to deliver it in any concrete way. Xanadu itself, in development for several decades with several abortive attempts at developing it as a viable system, remains elusive—an absent signifier, hinting at a more generalised dissatisfaction with the new realities that technology has delivered.
The story of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu is the story of the dawn of the information age. Like the mental patient in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow who believes he is the Second World War–feeling a great burst of rosy health when The Blitz comes and a terrible pinching headache at the Battle of the Bulge–Nelson, with his unfocused energy, his tiny attention span, his omnivorous fascination with trivia, and his commitment to recording incidents whose meaning he will never analyze, is the human embodiment of the information explosion.
Xanadu, named for a the mythical palace of a mythologised Emperor, remains as fugitive as Coleridge’s dream of Kublai Khan—evanescing the moment it touches waking life, leaving only fragments behind.
* Bodytext: adapted from the 1995 Wired article ‘The Curse of Xanadu’. Italic text: author’s own. Footnotes: author’s own.
† Arno Schmidt’s 1970 book Zettel’s Traum is often considered to be a forerunner of Hypertext. The story is told across three shifting columns of text interlaced with notes and collages. Inspired by Finnegan’s Wake (and twice as long) the book concerns the efforts to translate the works of Edgar Allan Poe into German.
‡ The apocryphal origin story of the 404 Page Not Found protocol tells that it was named after an office on the 4th floor of CERN’s premises (room 404), where the central database of CERN’S internal network was stored. File handlers would manually locate and retrieve requested files to transfer them over the network. Where a request could not be fulfilled, the response came as a standard message: ‘room 404: file not found.’ This is sadly a myth, but nonetheless an appealing one.
§ Arno Schmidt wrote Zettel’s Traum over 14 years. The first ten of these were spent filling over 130,000 index cards with information, and the subsequent four years weaving these threads together into a narrative.
|| Zettelkasten (the German term for a card index) is a note taking tool used by scholars and writers. It is used as an aid to memory, creative thought and associative progression, with information stored in a non-linear way on individual note cards that can be indexed and cross-referenced with one another. The technique was used extensively by Vladimir Nabokov, who when asked about his method in an interview with the Paris Review, said, “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done.”
¶ Xanadu was the name given to the capital city of the Mongol Ruler Kubla Kahn’s dynastic empire in medieval China. It was mythologized in 1797 by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in the poem ‘Kubla Khan, Or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment .’ According to the poem’s preface, it was inspired by an opium-induced fever dream. Upon waking Coleridge rushed to compose the poem, but it was never completed. The arrival of an unexpected visitor caused Coleridge’s memories of the dream to dissipate, “like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.”
☞ Vapourware is a term used in computing to describe software or hardware that has been announced to the public despire the developed having no intention of releasing it imminently, if at all. It’s often used in a pejorative way to refer to a product that is all hype and no substance
Aideen Doran is an artist and researcher based in Glasgow. She completed a practice-based PhD in Fine Art at Northumbria University in 2016, investigating the circuits of influence and affect between and across network technology and art practice.
Published as part of ‘Endnotes’, a series of online and printed commissions edited by Suzanne van der Lingen and Claire Walsh, MAP: Footnoting the Archive 2016. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a copy of the limited edition printed publication. Also available from Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and the Edinburgh Art Festival Kiosk throughout Edinburgh Art Festival 2016. References:Gold, Herbet. “Vladmir Nabakov, The Art of Fiction No. 40.” The Paris Review, Summer 1967. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4310/the-art-of-fiction-no-40-vladimir-nabokov. Accessed 20th June 2016.
Nelson, Theodore. Computer Lib; Dream Machines. Redmond, Washington: Tempus Books of Microsoft Press, 1974.
Nelson, Theodore. “DEEP HYPERTEXT: The Xanadu Model.” Project Xanadu . February 2002. http://xanadu.com/xuTheModel/index.html. Accessed 20th June 2016.
Rosenberg, Daniel. “Hummingbird Futures.” Cabinet. Spring 2004. http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/13/rosenberg.php. Accessed 19th June 2016.
Schmidt, Arno. Zettel’s Traum. Stuttgart: Stahlberg Verlag, 1970.
Wolf, Gary. “The Curse of Xanadu.” Wired. January 1995. http://www.wired.com/1995/06/xanadu/. Accessed 20th June 2016.