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BookReview: Literary Machines
by Theodor Holm Nelson, The Distributors, 1987

Nelson is an idealist libertarian. Fed up with the so-called technoid approach to computers, he tries to make them more pallatable to the end user. Hypertext is a term he coined when he started the Xanadu project.

The book provides a terse and simplistic introduction of Xanadu and hypertext. First he explains the world today with all of its problems and restrictions. He claims that hypertext will solve the information management problem. A chronology of Xanadu including acknowledgements of major contributors is provided. Some problems in the education system are presented as a connection to the information problem. Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think" is included in its entirety.

The rest (and majority) of the book is devoted to Xanadu itself, including tumblers, enfilades, versioning, links, authoring, publishing, ... Some of the concepts are pretty detailed and others are not described due to their proprietary nature. The business/development plan, legal documents for publishing, and the description of silverstands(tm)--public access terminal repositories to the Xanadu system--are covered in detail.

Some comments. He is certainly visionary, but at the same time the book appears to be written in a sort of science fiction-like fashion. The silverstands(tm) are a good point, but to plan how the culture will develop around a new technology is a little too much fiction. The system is only in the prototype phase and many of the critical concepts (back-end protocol, BEBE, for example) have yet to be worked out to make the system viable for mass marketing and world-wide distribution. By the time the technology is mature enough--it seems to me at least--our culture will have radically changed. Perhaps it will first take off in Japan in which case how will silverstands be applicable? In my opinion, Nelson's strong stance on these issues weakens his primary goal. Finally, he assumes the system software will be sold which contradicts my experience in popular systems. There are two types of systems that become popular: those bundled with the hardware and those that are given away. I think this is the weak point in his plan.

[p0/4] The computer, and now the personal computer, have opened whole new realms of disorder, difficulty and complication for humanity. With so-called ``computer basics'' and so-called ``computer literacy,'' beginners are taught a world of prevailing but unnecessary ocmplication. narly everything has to be fitted into oppressive and inane hierarchical strucuture and coded into other people's conceptual farmeworks, often seeming rifind and highly inappropriate to the user's own concerns. The files in which we must keep things on conventional computer systems are detached from their relationships and history, and (for many if not allusers) entwine like wire coathangers in a tangle of unknown relationships and increasing disorder.

[p0/5] The reason it has taken so long is that all of its ultimate features are part of the design. Others begin by designing systems to do less, and then add features; we have designed this as a unified structure to handle it all. This takes much longer but leads to clean design.

The problem is not hardware. It is generalized, clean software design. And when the problems above, in their generality, become clear to others, we think they wil see that it makes much more sense to adopt an existing, unified solution than to keeping nailing features where they weren't originally planned.

[p1/4] Imagine a new accessibility and excitement that can unseat the video narcosis that now sits on our land like a fog. Imagine a new libertarian literature with alternative explanations so anyone can choose the pathway or approach that best suits himo or her; with ideas accessible and interesting to everyone, so that a new richness and freedom can come to the human experience; imagine a rebirth of literacy. All that is what this book is about.

[p1/20] Most peopre consider schol to be a grim necessity to be accepted, endured and survived. School, as nearly everyone fleely admits, is dull, unpleasant, and designed to build mediocrity. It is a mapping of the world of ideas into a sequential bureaucratic presentional system, with generally awful results.

[p1/22] The project has from the first been carried out in a conspiratorial atmosphere on the assumption that I (later we) understood something others did not understand, and has reached for ideals others were not yet ready to comprehend. Thisa has been largely true, but has deprived us of the companionship and inspiration of outside colleagues. On the other hand, we have been confronting large-scale, indeed cosmic, social and political issues that many computer pople want not to think of.

[p1/26] [The design of Xanadu] seemed so simple and clear to me then (in 1960). It still does. But like many beginning computerists, I mistook a clear view for a short distance.

[p1/23] Through all of it we applied a relentless pressure for consistency and simplicity, and the thing cooked down remarkably. The amazing fact is that it has worked, that the hard technicalities could be pushed to fit soft ideals. But only by intricate search. This could not have been done with schedules and deadlines. When a project requires both exhaustive exploration and unusual inspiration, it is going to take however long it takes.

Via Rob 1990