May 5, 2001

The Economics of Great Ideas

I was at the Digital Arts and Culture conference in Providence last week. This meeting began a few years ago to discuss the issues surrounding hypertext literature and media and represents a new subculture for me within the digital art world. As always, the best part of these “doos” is meeting people in between sessions or over dinner. Good to see you again Donna, Judd, Nick, and Vika. Nice meeting you Myles, Lori, Ron, Edie, and Jack Ox, who won’t mind if I use her full and real name.

There was a little too much theory at times (this coming from a former academic). Rhetoric is an excellent way of limiting your audience. Since implementing technology is based on a set of social interactions that should bring people together, the dialogue shouldn’t impede that relationship.

horoscopeHypertext is much older than the web. And there is a venerable history to it which include people like Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop (the granddaddies of hypertext fiction, although it’s hard to think of them as being the right age to be anyone’s grandad) and institutions like Eastgate, the developer of hypertext software before the advent of the web.

The first keynote speaker was Ted Nelson who has developed Project Xanadu, a hypertext product he hopes will change the way we work with our computer screens. Here’s his statement on it:


Since 1960, we have fought for a world of deep electronic documents— with side-by-side intercomparison and frictionless re-use of copyrighted material.

We have an exact and simple structure. Our model handles automatic version management and rights management through deep connection. (Explained on succeeding pages.)

Today’s popular software simulates paper. The World Wide Web (another imitation of paper) trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents.


He’s quite a dynamic speaker. And I was jazzed as I listened. When he started to talk about how the “standards wars” between Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux have limited our potential and experience, I understood. Project Xanadu, he said, would change that by providing context for our editing cuts and pastes: a trail of “linkages” from one version to another. This would allow us to use others’ material to convey our thoughts yet allow them credit and credits (payment) for that use.

Nelson has been working on this model, in various forms since the 1960s. According to his web site, it was the inspiration for both Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the World Wide Web, Ray Ozzie’s Lotus Notes, and Bill Atkinson’s Hypercard. He coined the terms hypertext and hypermedia in 1967. It is clear he is a visionary.

But as I began to think about it, how many visionaries had I gotten excited about and followed into battle over the years (to continue his war metaphor)? So, during the Q&A that came after his talk I asked: “I’m willing to follow you up the hill, but what are your strategies for beating Bill and Steve (Jobs)? What’s your business plan? And, how are you going to protect us? (I can’t decide if I’ve become overly jaded or simply a yuppy pragmatist!) The audience laughed but when the laughter died down he answered: “you’re on your own.” And that was that.

I’m not faulting Nelson for his ideas nor his enthusiasm. Not one bit. And I think there is room in the world for people like him. In fact, it’s very important to have people like him.

Looking closer at his latest proposal for Project Xanadu on the web (now that the web has become so ubiquitous a series of standards it can’t be ignored) I have some further concerns. Nelson proposes a new file type for virtual content (tentatively called .XVF), browser plug-ins to present and editors to edit the .XVF file format. Each of these would require the cooperation and approval of the powers-that-be, unless, of course, Project Xanadu is so big and so revolutionary it, in turn, can’t be ignored.

Which brings me back to my initial question. Am I a fool to follow someone who has great ideas but no vision as to how to really implement them? I can enjoy, appreciate, and even get very excited by what Ted Nelson thinks. Economics, though, has become as important to me as idea. And I’m looking for a revolutionary who can take this into account. The older I get the more important this is to me. Cynicism, I mean, experience has led me to this point.

I’m willing to follow you, Ted, but what’s your plan for success? Keeping these new formats as open standards is important and certainly will encourage “critical mass.” But I don’t think it’s enough these days. I’m starting to get pretty concerned about how we’re going to get around that other “mass” created by the successful powers-that-be.

Ahh, the knot in my stomach is starting to feel better already.

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