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Issue 3.06 | Jun 1995

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The Curse of Xanadu
By Gary Wolf

It was the most radical computer dream of the hacker era. Ted Nelson's Xanadu project was supposed to be the universal, democratic hypertext library that would help human life evolve into an entirely new form. Instead, it sucked Nelson and his intrepid band of true believers into what became the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing - a 30-year saga of rabid prototyping and heart-slashing despair. The amazing epic tragedy.


I said a brief prayer as Ted Nelson - hypertext guru and design genius - took a scary left turn through the impolite traffic on Marin Boulevard in Sausalito. Nelson's left hand was on the wheel, his right rested casually on the back of the front seat. He arched his neck and looked in my direction so as to be clearly heard. "I've been compiling a catalog of driving maneuvers," he said. "It's one of my unfinished projects."

Nelson is a pale, angular, and energetic man who wears clothes with lots of pockets. In these pockets he carries an extraordinary number of items. What cannot fit in his pockets is attached to his belt. It is not unusual for him to arrive at a meeting with an audio recorder and cassettes, video camera and tapes, red pens, black pens, silver pens, a bulging wallet, a spiral notebook in a leather case, an enormous key ring on a long, retractable chain, an Olfa knife, sticky notes, assorted packages of old receipts, a set of disposable chopsticks, some soy sauce, a Pemmican Bar, and a set of white, specially cut file folders he calls "fangles" that begin their lives as 8 1/2-by-11-inch envelopes, are amputated en masse by a hired printer, and end up as integral components in Nelson's unique filing system. This system is an amusement to his acquaintances until they lend him something, at which point it becomes an irritation. "If you ask Ted for a book you've given him," says Roger Gregory, Nelson's longtime collaborator and traditional victim, "he'll say, 'I filed it, so I'll buy you a new one.'" For a while, Nelson wore a purple belt constructed out of two dog collars, which pleased him immensely, because he enjoys finding innovative uses for things.

Nelson's life is so full of unfinished projects that it might fairly be said to be built from them, much as lace is built from holes or Philip Johnson's glass house from windows. He has written an unfinished autobiography and produced an unfinished film. His houseboat in the San Francisco Bay is full of incomplete notes and unsigned letters. He founded a video-editing business, but has not yet seen it through to profitability. He has been at work on an overarching philosophy of everything called General Schematics, but the text remains in thousands of pieces, scattered on sheets of paper, file cards, and sticky notes.

All the children of Nelson's imagination do not have equal stature. Each is derived from the one, great, unfinished project for which he has finally achieved the fame he has pursued since his boyhood. During one of our many conversations, Nelson explained that he never succeeded as a filmmaker or businessman because "the first step to anything I ever wanted to do was Xanadu."

Xanadu, a global hypertext publishing system, is the longest-running vaporware story in the history of the computer industry. It has been in development for more than 30 years. This long gestation period may not put it in the same category as the Great Wall of China, which was under construction for most of the 16th century and still failed to foil invaders, but, given the relative youth of commercial computing, Xanadu has set a record of futility that will be difficult for other companies to surpass. The fact that Nelson has had only since about 1960 to build his reputation as the king of unsuccessful software development makes Xanadu interesting for another reason: the project's failure (or, viewed more optimistically, its long-delayed success) coincides almost exactly with the birth of hacker culture. Xanadu's manic and highly publicized swerves from triumph to bankruptcy show a side of hackerdom that is as important, perhaps, as tales of billion-dollar companies born in garages.

Among people who consider themselves insiders, Nelson's Xanadu is sometimes treated as a joke, but this is superficial. Nelson's writing and presentations inspired some of the most visionary computer programmers, managers, and executives - including Autodesk Inc. founder John Walker - to pour millions of dollars and years of effort into the project. Xanadu was meant to be a universal library, a worldwide hypertext publishing tool, a system to resolve copyright disputes, and a meritocratic forum for discussion and debate. By putting all information within reach of all people, Xanadu was meant to eliminate scientific ignorance and cure political misunderstandings. And, on the very hackerish assumption that global catastrophes are caused by ignorance, stupidity, and communication failures, Xanadu was supposed to save the world.

Gary Wolf (gary@wiredmag.com) is the executive editor of HotWired. He and Michael Stein are the authors of Aether Madness: An Off-Beat Guide to the Online World (Peachpit Press '95).

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