A pleasure dome for the digital dreamer

Originally published in The Age (Melbourne) Tuesday 12 April 1994
pages 23 and 25.  Reproduced with permission.
Ted Nelson's vision is to build an electronic repository of literary memory.
Lisa Mitchell reports.
Welcome to Xanadu, Ted Nelson's 35-year-old vision of a worldwide database of interactive literary and artistic works to be delivered on demand and free of copyright restrictions.

Nelson is visiting Australia this week to capture the imagination and support of potential Xanadu service providers.

His idea has been mulled over by various development teams since the 1960s, but it is the information superhighway, emerging through infrastructures such as the ubiquitous Internet and Telecom's $710 million cable TV network announced last week, that will make it physically possible.

All information on the Xanadu network, be it video, photo, music, poetry or books, will be hyperlinked. A single document could have endless hypertext or hypermedia links to other documents, video clips, photos, sound files. To avoid copyright restrictions in accessing this endless horizontal band of hyperlinked information, each author's contribution will have a royalty attached to it. The user will be charged per byte to access it (perhaps one 10-thousandth of a cent) from which royalties are automatically calculated for return to the author or artist.

The author, under contract to a publisher, relinquishes the right to copyright of the material within the Xanadu world, on the understanding that a royalty will be paid each time the work is accessed. But how it is accessed, used and by whom is in the publisher's hands.

The restriction of advanced payments and the laborious manual process of copyright approval is removed in this electronic world. But should you want to reproduce in hard copy a file created on the Xanadu network, conventional copyright comes back to play.

Nelson's Bill of Information Rights outlines the Xanadu Publishing Universe and the obstacles ahead. "It is a future hot spot for litigation, prosecution, persecution etc . . . Make no mistake, we are entering a world of danger," and one the law will have to catch up to.

The descriptions of Xanadu are plentiful. It is open hypermedia publishing, electronic freeware, world publishing repository or a universal bookstore. Take your pick.

But the technical details of its delivery are vaporish. Xanadu storage servers will act as a single pool. The data banks will use conventional database technology such as Oracle's or Sybase's relational database management systems. The Xanadu network will not necessarily be physically interconnected, but affiliated centres will run servers that behave as a single entity, using the same publication method.

The clients to these servers are up for third-party development. Xanadu will not have a single look and feel, developers will provide a range of faces. The Mosaic interface, used on the Internet's World Wide Web service, will probably be one of them, says Nelson.

Users will ask for pieces of documents and objects, the request will be received by the user's session node, which fans it out to the nearest source. The user's payment is automatically sent to those publishers involved with the transaction.

The user experience is essentially point and click for any text document or other form of media. You pay for what you retrieve, which may be a paragraph in a chapter, not the entire book. "It's like selling wine by the sip," says Nelson, who has learned to explain "the pinball machine of the mind" by analogy.

Before you view a document -- which is akin to retrieving it -- information on the author, type and price will be shown. For authors and artists, Xanadu may be the idea they have been waiting for.

"Artists have three main problems: financing their work; distributing it; and getting paid for it," says Nelson. "We solve the last two problems by publishing it worldwide."

Nelson's idea is to immortalise works of art and literature for future generations, the sooner the better.

Metaphorically speaking, although he rejects the use of metaphors in computer technology design, Xanadu suggests "the magical place of literary memory where nothing is forgotten" after the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem 'Kubla Khan'. Coleridge in turn, was inspired by Marco Polo's mention in his autobiography of Shan-Dua, a pleasure palace somewhere near Beijing.

There is no question of whether Xanadu will exist, rather when. As Nelson points out, most people in the '60s couldn't imagine what to do with a computer.

In the meantime Nelson continues to refine his plans, recording his thoughts as he thinks them. Around his neck, on a length of red string, dangles a bull clip clasping a bugs bunny pen and a notepad. On his belt is clipped a holster of pens and pencils. He tapes every conversation in case he or someone else says something worth remembering and his vide camera is on hand to record everything for posterity or his planned movie; a romantic comedy called 'The Silicon Valley' story starring himself and a bunch of industry notables like the '60s LSD guru Timothy Leary and Douglas Englebart, inventor of the word processor and the mouse.

Australian artists and perhaps Japanese artists could be the first to benefit from Nelson's vision. Xanadu will take off in these countries first it seems. Why? In Australia at least, the project will gain impetus from a group of three fresh-faced evangelists led by Andrew Pam under the banner of Xanadu Australia. Pam is Nelson's most promising disciple.