The Xanadu Dream


I’d just like to thank Ted Nelson for creating an idea which is helping to tell millions of people about God.

Thanks, Ted.


Perhaps vaporware is best referenced through the works of the Electric Light Orchestra not by “Xanadu”, but by Twilight:

“It’s either real or it’s a dream there’s nothing that is in between”, plus to presage the advent of window-like GUI, "

Is it semiautistic of me to have the lyrics from a 1981 song pop in my mind at seeing the logo of Xanadu, the movie? Survey says… yes.

Ugh, just on a lark I googled it up while writing this. I didn’t even know the song became a cult favorite of otaku. Now I need to wash.


cool story, bro.


Hey Now Jeff,

  Thx 4 the info about Xanadu!

Coding Horror Fan,



Please, enough of that romantic drivel already. If I see another post about how great Xanadu could be and how much the current Web sucks, I’ll probably cry for real. Setting aside Ted Nelson’s arrogance and higher than thou attitude, he failed to produce anything usable and real for 30 years yet for some reason he continues to bitch on about his little pet peeve. Meanwhile some folks got something working back in 1991 and it went on from there.

If something sucks and you think you can propose something better, then you shut the f** up, get to work and make something. And don’t get me started on that whole “3d demo” thing, if you have even bothered to download, and try to use it, you would see that its a farce.

But hey, apparently you get to be hailed as “the archetypal borderline autistic, non-conformist, free-thinking technologist”, if you bitch about something for a really long time while waving your hands.

P.S.: And I don’t even like the Web.


They released some source code in 99, descended from the original:

Nelson has spun off some related ideas into smaller software experiments, see:

If you can find a used copy of his books ‘Literary Machines’ and/or ‘Computer Lib’, get em and read em. ‘Literary Machines’ describes the goals and design of Xanadu, and the philosophy/motivation for hypertext. ‘Computer Lib’ is about what personal computers could do for culture and society.


I forgot to note that there is a very partial Xanadu implementation in Python at, and I should have noted what was at each link I gave:

Zigzag is a sort of multidimensional spreadsheet.

Transquoter is a transclusion ( implementation for the WWW.

Xanarama shows text in 3d.


Looks like Google have been drinking from the same magic fountain but with their slightly more pragmatic approach in their new Google Wave technology.

and ‘are often poisoned by explicit commercial affiliation, such as Facebook Connect’ sounds a little harsh for a system that 300 million people freely choose to use for free ;o)


It amuses me that someone can loudly proclaim that most people are fools and most authority is malignant…

…and yet be a malignant, foolish authority all at the same time.

It’s a beautiful design. Too bad it didn’t work on Real People. Or get released.


Google Wave is coming…


@Anonymous Coward

“Setting aside Ted Nelson’s arrogance and higher than thou attitude, he failed to produce anything usable and real for 30 years yet for some reason he continues to bitch on about his little pet peeve. Meanwhile some folks got something working back in 1991 and it went on from there.”

I think that was the point Jeff was trying to make. It’s the point Dare Obasanjo was making rather more clearly.


I remember reading Ted Nelson a long time ago. He was an inspiration to many, I would think including the people who hacked together the current web.

His vision was never going to be implemented as stated; systems that large can’t be, and always have bad assumptions in them. (For example, people hate micropayments, and people want to do things anonymously, whether to surf pornography or to leak information or study up on embarrassing medical conditions.) However, the modern WWW is recognizably a version of Xanadu, and implements its more important features.

In particular, almost anybody can publish on the web, and it’s extensively hyperlinked. It’s possible, if clumsy, to set up access controls, and micropayments are largely replaced by advertisements.


It’s the pareto rule right?

20% of your code meets 80% of your requirements.

The key for me was learning to seperate the important few requirements from the trivial many. Release the app at this point.

It’s then optional to spend the rest of your life trying to code the remaining reqs, go insane or quit your job.

BTW nice site :wink:


The Web vs Xanadu is a stunningly compelling example of worse-is-better.


In an odd coincidence I spun an LP of the Xanadu soundtrack for my sister when she visited this past weekend. Uff-da! Magic it is not!

  1. most people are fools
  2. God does not exist

Technology exists to help us improve the conditions of life, but it’s not a replacement for the spiritual life. God exists and His natural creations abound all around us. Technology is another tool man developed, born of the free will He gave, enabling more time to worship and contemplate the Creator. Pull your head out of the sand and read Pope Benedict XVI’s Encyclical ‘Charity in Truth’ which touches directly on the problems of the idolatry of Technology:


Instead of comparing Xanadu to the Internet as a whole, it’s probably better to compare it to something like Wikipedia. It’s not really an Internet – it’s a centralized document control system. It’s the sort of system you’d imagine the FBI would use to store reports… before it started using Wiki-like systems.

It’s a lousy model for knowledge in general, though. And its disadvantages should be, by this point, fairly obvious. It’s the sort of thing you think up before you see how the uncontrolled chaos of the actual Internet served both to increase its accessibility (i.e., it is democratizing) and push its creative development (entirely new forms of expression have popped up and some have even become ubiquitous – blogs, tweets, whatever). It’s the system you toss out the window after you realize that all of that “granular” attention to detail isn’t actually necessary at all, and is probably counterproductive.

Xanadu has no room for any of that. Any system whose specs that throws around the word “secure” probably doesn’t have much room for that. The Internet isn’t very “secure” – and that’s what makes it work, for the most part. (Some little segments of it, we hope are secure, like our online banking. But we don’t want the entire Internet to be that way.)

And the idea that simply putting information out there will cure scientific ignorance and produce political harmony is a fallacy that should have been stamped out fifty years ago, yet is still blissfully held on to. There’s no reason to suspect people work in this way, and much evidence to show quite conclusively that they don’t.

Xanadu is not a joke… but it is a failure, and a rightful one.


Xanadu has problems built into the 17 rules.

  1. “Every Xanadu server is uniquely and securely identified.” Please define “server.” Does it include multiple machines used for load balancing? If I bring a backup online is it the same as the original server? Sharding?

  2. “Every user is uniquely and securely identified.” Different groups have different security models. Each person has different roles, with different security requirements. And since before the days of the Federalist Paper’s there’s a recognized benefit to anonymity. That’s not saying what we have is good, I’m saying that this rule does not reflect reality.

  3. “Every document can contain a royalty mechanism at any desired degree of granularity …” How can that even work? And if the local laws (“fair use”, “copyright term extension”) disagree, is there any workaround? Plus, don’t trust anything which includes “once we’ve solved the micropayment problem.”

  4. “Every document is uniquely and securely identified.” I’ve been trying to understand this one, especially in the face of versioning. What’s a “document”? I assume that using the document itself as an identifier isn’t appropriate. Does each edit of my blog get its own identifier? Does a page which tells the current date and time get an identifier for each moment? What about included ads, esp. those localized based on the user’s country? Documents which include a current webcam shot? Synthesized views from multiple different servers?

  5. “Every document is automatically moved to physical storage appropriate to its frequency of access from any given location.” Well, we’ve got that. Pay someone an “appropriate” amount of money and they’ll do it for you. Otherwise it’s not appropriate to move the data. Well, except for some caching.

  6. “Every document is automatically stored redundantly to maintain availability even in case of a disaster.” I know my web server provider makes backups of my files. But if the Xanadu server is “operated independently” then what happens? And again, what is a “document”?

  7. Every transaction is secure and auditable only by the parties to that transaction." What’s a “transaction”? What’s a “party”? Is my ISP party to the transaction between me and my bank?

The current web may be “fundamentally broken” but the ideas of Xanadu are far more broken.


So, you could choose the crappy Olivia Newton John reference, or the superb Rush reference…Jeff, I am so disappointed.

I’m playing Xanadu right now to spite you. Can you feel it?!

“Searching…for the Lost…Xanadu!”


Jeff, it is one of the things I love about your blog. You always place an excerpt of the page you are linking. At first I liked it because it meant I didn’t have to follow the link (admittedly, but I try to follow links when I can). But now, when I re-read your older articles, it really helps because those links are often broken.

Perhaps this is the best one can do in a world of link rot.