I’ve become interested in the history of the thing I’m designing on a daily basis.
The World Wide Web as we know it today was sketched out in 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee and his associates at CERN. It was built on the visionary technologist Ted Nelson’s concept of hypertext ‘to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will‘ dating back to 1963. To this day this remains the case – HTML or HyperText Markup Language is the dominant language we use to create Web pages, it is all around you whether you realise it or not.
Hypertext initially interested me because of the word itself – a neologic crushing of modern prefix with ancient suffix. Terms like hypertext, cyberspace and media-virus are the stuff of William Gibson and Mondo 2000. They allude to a world hurtling towards huge change, eradicating space with time, seeking to understand itself with Frankenstein augmentations of classic concepts. The aesthetics of the word mask a very specific vision though – that of interactive text which contains embedded links to alternate locations, texts and sources which the viewer can access immediately. During the ‘90s Berners-Lee’s vision of the World Wide Web took off, sprawling infinitely and cementing hypertext’s place in the canon of technology.
Ted Nelson’s vision was never fully realised though. During the 1980’s he missed his chance to deliver a working ‘world wide hypertext’ with the malfated Project Xanadu, a lifelong pursuit that remained stunted, confusing and until April 2014 completely impossible to experience. The project was the subject of a cult Wired article from 1995 entitled The Curse Of Xanadu which presents Xanadu as a notorious piece of ‘vapourware’ – technology that neither sees release nor is officially cancelled, existing instead in existential limbo. The article does a much better job than I ever could in describing how mismanagement, misfortune and ultimately Nelson’s personality sank what might have completely changed the world we live in today.
Nelson’s conviction that ‘documents do not exist in isolation’ meant Xanadu was designed to make the connection between otherwise disparate documents explicitly visible, linking them back to their original source material through a mechanism of ‘parallel pages’. The current document and its original source sit next to each other allowing the user to navigate freely between them via ‘reading planes’. For Nelson, hypertext would redress the deficiencies of paper: its inability to meaningfully demonstrate connection, its inflexible rectangular arrangement and its fundamentally linear nature. Xanadu would simulate neither paper nor physical space, instead embracing the unique qualities of hypermedia; developing more complex and flexible hyperlinks, allowing free annotation of documents and embracing the disparate-yet-connected nature of source material.
Today the people who build the web are thinking more and more about optimisation and how to target small niches of users by varying elements of their experience. Personalisation, recommended purchases, search engine optimisation, A/B testing, algorithms to work out the perfect ‘clickbait’ headline – all of these practices re-enforce a Web increasingly unconcerned by Ted Nelson’s pure and academic dissemination of information. Even if Xanadu had got there first, where’s the space for the marketeers, the advertisers, the brands? One gets the feeling that the stakeholders that are increasingly defining what the Web’s look and feel wouldn’t have been welcome at Nelson’s table. Undoubtedly the Web of today is in part a product of itself but it’s also been influenced by changing consumer habits, socio-economic context and shifts in wider popular culture, independent variables that Xanadu would also have needed to adjust to. More than anything, the progressive logic of the Web has pushed a user experience of discrete, designable actions – linear paths that end in purchases, form submissions and photo uploads. Canonical texts within human-computer interaction have further encouraged that these paths are simplified into as few actions as possible, underpinned by the motif ‘don’t make me think’, or rather, do the thinking for me. It’s exactly this dogmatic ‘flattening’ that Xanadu stands against.
Above: A panoramic view of hypertext from 1965. The 2014 prototype entitled OpenXanadu can also be accessed here for those wishing to experience Nelson’s vision.
At the core of this is a story of idealism and the potential of hypertext though. If you believe the Wired series of events, it’s an obsession that’s brought a cluster of lives to the point of ruin. Maybe somewhere in there is a concept worth ruining your life for – pure knowledge, tamed complexity, perfect discourse? Xanadu vividly evokes the intent of the internet’s earliest pioneers. Even Ted Nelson himself admits that his friends (and enemies) at Xerox Parc, those responsible for the paradigms of graphical-user interface ‘were idealists too, they just had a very shallow notion of human potentiality‘. When we design the internet we should keep this idealism in mind. Rather than rolling over to convention and best practice, we might consider the full potential of hypertext. Despite constant technological and human innovation, when you get stuck in an eddy of regurgitated websites, templates and content you sometimes get the feeling we’re moving towards an increasingly homogenous, smaller Web. Maybe that’s the draw of Xanadu? The lure of a multi-dimensional, information zone – of infinite possibility.