DREAM BECOMES REALITY (now the Internet)

Written by David Tebbutt, Mensa 05/89 - scanned

About eight years ago a man called Ted Nelson, through some features which appeared in Creative Computing, inspired me to write a computer program called BrainStorm. My program was duly published and has since sold several thousand copies.

Nelson was also the author of a curious book called Computer Lib. This was first published in the mid-seventies and, among other things, it introduced the concepts of `hypertext' and `hypermedia' which, thanks to computer technology, breaks literature out of the limitations imposed by paper. It becomes almost three dimensional, with links forged between different parts of the same document and between parts of different documents.

Instead of reading something from beginning to end, hypertext allows you to branch off and follow other routes through the documents. Nelson invented a method called Xanadu for storage and access of hypertext documents no matter where they are located within a worldwide network of linked computer systems.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to meet Ted Nelson and thank him for his inspirational writing and to find out how his hypertext dreams were coming along.

People are listening to Nelson these days. Many companies have written hypertext programs and many individuals have discovered the joys of hypertext through programs like Guide and Hypercard. (These run on the PC and Macintosh respectively.) When I met him, he was in great form. He spent a lot of time explaining the reasons for hypertext, describing what it is, and plugging Xanadu at every opportunity.

His central vision is of a world of literature in which we can all have access to anything ever published, providing it has been done electronically, and is stored in one of the computers connected to the Xanadu network. This form of publishing has the potential to save millions of trees and give us access to literature the instant it has been created.

I should make it clear that Nelson's idea of literature stretches way beyond its current meaning. In his electronic world, it means any information which someone has stored in Xanadu. As well as the written word, the computer might also contain photographic images, video and sound recordings, line drawings and so on. Nelson can't see why we should want to keep personal photographs at home where they can fade, be eaten by mice or destroyed by damp. They, too, could be scanned and stored in Xanadu. Nelson believes that so many people would start using Xanadu that the cost would fall to an insignificant level. He thinks the decision would be similar to that of going to the tap for a glass of water.

We will want to keep some documents private or restrict access to some sort of closed group. Other documents will be there for everyone to see. We shall all be able to call any piece of public literature to our computer screens more or less instantly (up to two minutes, say, for some really remote item). That's still a whole lot quicker than going to the book shop or the library.

Year by year the technology has caught up with Nelson's vision and he now sees a very real prospect of it all coming true. Of course, there are still non-computer problems to overcome, like how can we deliver such masses of data from anywhere in the world to anyone's computer screen reliably and without unacceptable delays. Another hot potato is the political one. Many countries would prefer their people not to have access to the world's electronic literature. Another one concerns authenticity. Another concerns copyright and royalty payments. Another concerns trans-border data flows. After all, data is a commodity just like wheat or motor cars and I'm sure governments will want to interfere sooner or later.

Some of the problems have been addressed already. Others are yet to be resolved. There is light at the end of the tunnel though. Until last year, Nelson had thousands of followers but none in power had come up with the funding needed to turn his dreams into reality. In February 1988, one John Walker, a really nice man and the head of the huge Autodesk software publishing company, decided to back Nelson and his team. They are now planning to announce the first release of Xanadu towards the end of this year.

Getting back to hypertext, Nelson argues that the invention of the printing press forced us to put ideas and information, which naturally occur in more or less random sequences, into rigid sequences suitable for printing on paper. We have become so used to absorbing information in this way that we probably think it perfectly natural. But non-sequential writing can be done and has been done, both on paper and in the computer. A dictionary is one example of non-sequential writing. So is a car workshop manual. You can dip into either of these documents for the information you need. Neither is designed to be read from end to end.

But imagine a workshop manual stored in a computer with a graphical display and a pointing device. Page one might be a picture of a car. You point to the section of the car (wheels or engine compartment perhaps) which interests you and an exploded view of that part appears. You can use the same technique to plunge into ever greater detail.

Instead of going deeper into detail, you may want to branch off at some point and run a video on your screen of how to remove or fit a particular component. You could even call up a voiceover in your own language. If you were more concerned with product pricing or availability, you could call up details from other files and bring them up in a window on your current screen. All these things are possible now, or soon will be, through programs like Guide or Hyperdoc - a recently-announced French hypertext system.

Nelson's dream goes beyond this though. Instead of links between information in a single computer system, he envisages links between documents which may be whole continents apart. Anyone will be able to publish a document by putting it into a computer on the Xanadu network. Within seconds it could be viewed by someone on the other side of the world.

Reversing the quotation business, you could add comments or link material of your own to previously published material. If this column were published in Xanadu, you could pop your letters (yes, I do get them) straight into Xanadu, with a link to my column. Anyone reading the column would be able to access your letters if they wanted to.

I'm not sure about my family album, but I'd sure like to see Xanadu take off. How about you?