Roads to Xanadu…

Xanadu is, of course, Ted Nelson’s dream of what distributed hypertext systems really ought to be — his attempt to at least think about how one might make real Vannevar Bush’s dreams of the Memex, a kind of global intellectual distributed… Talmud… may be the best thing to call it.

Tim Berners-Lee’s World-Wide Web — .html and http://--is a magnificent and very lightweight approximation to what Xanadu might, in some alternate decohered branch of the multiverse, have been or someday be.

But we should be able to do better.

I think we ought to do better in four dimensions:

  1. Links, even with tooltips, do not provide us with enough of the context we need to see to understand if we want to follow them now, follow them later, reserve them in our long list of things we might want to check out someday, or ignore.
  2. Web documents do not easily and properly adapt themselves from desktop to mobile device presentation.
  3. Content is not properly stackable — there is no easy and straightforward way for the server to figure out whether the incoming websurfer wants (or needs!) the 140-character tweet, the one-paragraph abstract, the weblog-post elevator pitch, the 750-word op-ed, the 2000-word presentation, the 7000-word longform article, the 40,000-word short book, or something even longer. The inverted pyramid simply does not do it.
  4. Newness is a surprisingly-good heuristic for what a visitor to a website probably wants to see, but by now we should be able to come up with a better statistic — one that makes much better use of the stock of accumulated past work on a website.

It would be nice to figure out how to fix these…

Over the summer, since I was bored with Scrivener, I have been playing with experimental authoring tool FOLD:

Here are the changes and additions that I think need to be done if this is going to be a truly useful tool — for me, at least:

  • First and most important: allow for the “remixing” of cards — the use of cards from one project in another — including allowing remixing Main-Narrative cards from one project as Context cards in another project…
  • Second: allow for the use of the markdown engine rather than just bold an italic in text…
  • Third, in addition: refine the Link Context cards so that they possess four author-choosable elements: (i) author’s title, (ii) author’s comment, (iii) clickable URL, and (iv) search string. The Link Context card should then display (i) the title, (ii) the comment, (ii) the clickable URL, and (iv) a glimpse of the linked-to document beginning with the appearance of the search string.

If all this can be accomplished, then I think that FOLD would have a real chance of solving (1) and (3), and its use of a “card” metaphor already means that with the proper responsive-display engine (2) is a piece of cake — cards are very well-suited for both mobile devices and desktop screens.

There is also, largely orthogonally, the loss from the move from the webloggy to the evanescent social-media web. I see this loss as in some sense a result of our human propensity to engage with other minds — to learn about the world in large part by listening to others, figuring out how they think, and then constructing our own sub-Turing evocations of their minds to run on our own wetware and thus turn us, to a certain degree, into highly-imperfect anthology intelligences.1 The webloggy web had a very natural fit with this human propensity. The social-media web does not appear to, at least not yet…

Originally published at on June 29, 2015.