Do librarians sound like Ted Nelson?

/ 15 April 2011

Oh, you don’t know who Ted Nelson is? He is the inventor of hypertext. You thought that was Tim Berners-Lee? Nope, Tim invented the World Wide Web. Ted began working on what would become project Xanadu in 1960, the 1.0 version of Xanadu was shipped in 2007. Along the way Ted defined hypertext, servers sharing content with one another, visible links, even search engines, concepts that would become familiar to us all. Why do we all use the World Wide Web instead of Xanadu?

Tim began work on the World Wide Web in 1989, got it working in 1990, and shared it with the world in 1991. By 1993 Tim’s employer, CERN in Switzerland, announced that the World Wide Web software would be free and open to anyone. By 2007 the World Wide Web was truly a world wide web.

WWW was incredibly simple compared to Xanadu. Xanadu defined 17 essential rules originally, including securely identified servers (and users), explicit permission to link to documents, royalty mechanisms that could be granular to the sentence, redundant storage, and much more. WWW just defined three technologies: the URL (which is now the URI) to identify resources, HTML to mark up pages, and HTTP to transfer content from one computer to another. Xanadu took 47 years to gestate and emerged as a commercial product. WWW took four years to emerge as an open standard for anyone to implement. Although Xanadu began long before WWW, WWW extracted the barest essentials from Ted’s ideas and was released long before Xanadu.

When the web first emerged people hailed it as the embodiment of Ted Nelson’s dream, but I remember thinking that Ted Nelson would hate the World Wide Web. It was brain-dead compared to Xanadu. It had none of the intelligence or authority Ted had built into his vision. The web was anarchy. Indeed, today I read an article where Ted pretty much calls the web “totally archaic” and “completely wrong.”

And yet, here we are in a world where millions know and depend on the web and hardly anyone pines for the glories of Xanadu. Those who know the wonders of Ted’s vision nod sagely at the advertising and spam issues the web faces, at the demise of paid journalism, and note that Xanadu would be much better solution, without many of the downsides we now face. But they miss the fact that simplicity, even when flawed, often triumphs. Right and wrong depend on a frame of reference. From some abstract frame of ideals, perhaps Ted is right and Tim is wrong. But from the very concrete frame of what gets used in the world today, it is pretty clear that Tim was right: the world needed a simple way to share resources stored on computers openly and easily.

Which brings me to librarians. We, like Ted, are experts of a domain. We have been working to build collections and facilitate searching long before either of those things were done on computers. Even the current generation of librarians can recall the world before Google and we know in our bones that there is a “better way” to search for information than the way being pursued all around us. We know that libraries can be the “gateway” to a better search experience and the worry that too many people are approaching information with embarrassingly blunt instruments instead of our refined methods. How awful it is to see the world trend the wrong way.

Do me a favor: if you are a librarian, read this article about Ted Nelson’s view of the web. Try to understand what he is saying. Then reflect on our own rhetoric about the information habits of the people we serve. Realize that often we sound as out of touch as Ted sounds about the web. Of course the world is trending the wrong way from our expert frame of reference, but our frame may also be trapping us, and if we want to be relevant to the next generation of seekers, we need to wrench ourselves into the present, look with clear eyes at the landscape, and get about the business of being of service! Would you rather be part of Xanadu or the World Wide Web?


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