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Position Paper #1

In "Proposal for a Universal Publishing System and Archive," Ted Nelson proposed a hypertext system called Xanadu which might have some advantages over the contemporary Internet, such as a persistent archive, access to multiple versions of documents, backwards links and "trails" similar those conceptualized by Vannevar Bush, but which would have been based on proprietary technology. Do you think that Nelson's proposed system, Xanadu, would have been more useful than the contemporary Internet? Discuss positive and negative aspect of the system Nelson conceptualized.


In his "Proposal for a Universal Electronic Publishing System and Archive", Ted Nelson spends a lot of time talking about redundancies. Backtracking, alternate versions, intercomparing. It is all very fascinating. That Nelson envisioned anything even close to what we call the Internet is almost inconceivable. Of course, the Internet and how it works perhaps developed out of the theories of Nelson, among others. Maybe my thinking is too advanced for its own good, in that I cannot understand the mainstream need for extra copies, updated copies, corrected copies, ad infinitum.

Obviously, the redundancies of Nelson's vision would lend themselves to certain industries and sectors. "Versions of a document [may be] flipped though or efficiently compared side by side." (p. 449) Writers, literature teachers, and college professors among others might be very interested in comparing an author's writing from the budding seed of a story's idea to the full-grown completed work. There would be numerous drafts and revisions that could be analyzed from beginning to end, dissected for the sake of observing the artistic process. At the same time, however, how many writers would openly offer up each and every draft of a work for such scrutiny? Or better still, what is the percentage of actual works that one might consider worth scrutinizing? By the time the Literary Community decides that a work is worthy of study, would all of those drafts still be available? Perhaps, if we were all using Xanadu as Nelson projected. However, writers' works are generally stored on the hard drives on which they are processing their words. A writer's current project is like an offspring, and s/he instinctually wants to protect and nurture it safely, in the privacy of his/her own home or PC. As a writer myself, I find it much easier to do some editing using double-spaced, physical printouts and a red gel pen. This would not be as inclusive as the Nelson vision.

The interesting point of archiving was raised; I must agree completely that any study of history is not a negative thing. Web sites are altered, moved, deleted, or revamped continuously. The archiving redundancy would keep any or all of those prior versions active, at least as read-only files. It might be worth looking at the first web site of a fledgling Starbucks company, even if now it is such a monstrous corporation that no one really cares. But in a hundred years, after the company has been bought and sold several dozen times, retail or business historians might find insight in that first simple blob of HTML that graced the Internet in the late Twentieth Century. One could also review personal web pages that had long since been deleted from their servers, as microcosms of information about a time period, geological region, or certain cultural aspects.

Monkey-wrenching the redundancy ideas of Xanadu is the privacy issue. A network such as Xanadu would assume an awful lot in terms of propriety and the integrity of private citizens and corporations. I do not worry about posting my writing online because I am a single person whose ideas are mostly harmless - thank you, Douglas Adams! - and generally so detached from reality that no one would ever really want to steal from me. But I doubt very much that Boeing or Lockheed-Martin would develop the latest war-bird technology on Xanadu for any Joe Schmoe to pop in, peruse and "borrow". Actually, our government would doubtless require its own Xanadu, one with which it would connect to the Xanadu of everyone else but would prevent any connection back to its own private Xanadu. Wait, they probably already have that.

Perhaps my own ideas of writing and editing one's own work are antiquated, and most modern (dare I say Post-modern?) writers do nothing physically with their work before whisking it off to the publisher. I admittedly write letters, essays, position papers (well, this first one, anyway) and poetry that way, though any sort of prose more than a couple of pages I print out and pore over. Of course, I am 35 years old. Are kids of this generation - and by kids I mean young people up to age 25 or so - so used to the media of computers, the Internet, and word-processing that they rarely or never touch pen to paper? (That's a rhetorical question...)