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The Pleasure of Xanadu

Concerning the article located at:

Edward Valauskas
Chief Editor
First Monday

Gisle Hannemyr
xanadu mailinglist

Dear Edward Valauskas,

Though I was very pleased to see an article in _First Monday_ covering the
history, definition and culture of the hacker, I was nevertheless disappointed
with both the inaccuracy and unfairness with which it reported Ted Nelson's 
part in hacker culture. I am speaking of the article, "Technology and Pleasure"
by Gisle Hannemyr in Vol. 4 issue no. 2.

"Nelson's failure in getting people to Xanadu may nevertheless serve to
illustrate the hacker idiom that rhetoric is inferior to practice."

Hannemyr seems to have bought into the Wired judgement that because Nelson
has not produced million dollar making software, that his ideas are failures and
not just that he has so far been unable to create a lucrative business.

Nelson has never been a programmer. His degree is in philosophy. Nelson is a
philosopher who is interested in the sort of abstract information structures
that map well onto the computer. The concepts of Xanadu have never failed and
even Tim Berners-Lee has acknowledged his debt to these ideas in helping him to
form the World Wide Web.

The problems that Ted Nelson has met since 1960 (think about that date, think
about the state of computers at that time and who was using them) is that his
ideas were in advance of the technology, people's ability to grasp them and came
in a single inter-related lump which might have been more swiftly implemented in

Undoubtedly, Nelson would like to make good money and receive recognition for
his work. He has repeatedly chosen in favour of his ideas, over the easy
paths that have been presented to him to those other goals. 

"The name "Xanadu", the Xanadu software and Xanadu group's servicemark, the
Flaming-X symbol, are all copyrighted, trademarked and jealously defended by
Nelson and his cohorts. And at the very core of the Xanadu system is an
incredible complex scheme for keeping track of ownership to, and extracting
royalties for, intellectual property."

Hannemyr seems to have taken the position that the saying "information wants to
be free" means that information should be without charge and thereby condemns
Nelson for the commercial aspect of Xanadu. I am a published author by Reed
Books and various literary magazines. I teach creative writing for digital media
for the creative writing department at the Royal Melbourne Institute of
Technology and I am completing a doctorate in digital storytelling. Programming
is a well paid field. Programmers can afford to give programs away because with
only a few contracts, they can potentially make enough to live comfortably
throughout the year. Creators within artistic disciplines have not traditionally
made much money for their endeavours. Most of the money has gone to the
publishers and distributors. What Nelson has proposed is a system whereby
creators can become their own publishers and distributors, _and get paid for

Programmers do not generally understand what it is like to struggle to have the
opportunity to create, and frankly I find the snobbery around the thought that
information *should* be given away insulting. I appreciate the volunteerism and
generosity of many programmers and hope they continue in their efforts. The
point, though, is that it is done by choice. Enforced volunteerism is equally as
egregious as enforced corporatisation.

I would also like to point out that through the efforts of Andrew Pam and a team
of young programmers, Nelson has released a part of the Xanadu vision in a
program called ZigZag which offers access to its source and is available as

Finally, I find most Ted bashing cheap, ill-considered and unfair. Kicking a
multi-millionaire who has deliberately and repeatedly acted in bad faith is one
thing. Kicking a person with a vision, who has given up much of his life for it
and is still working toward its realisation, is another. Yes, Nelson may be
difficult to work with, but that is not an adequate basis for discounting his
ideas. Yes, some of his ideas may not be as golden as others, but given the
obvious benefit of many of them, it is wasteful to discount them all together.
And judging his ideas based on whether or not they have yet produced a product
is just plain dumb. Do people judge Leonardo da Vinci or Charles Babbage in
these terms?


Katherine Phelps

E-Mail: Katherine Phelps <muse@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
BA (Hons), MFA, PhD (candidate)
Nothing can withstand the powers of love, laughter and imagination