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The Road to Xanadu
Before the plugin, before the browser wars, before the web, there was Xanadu. The dream of Ted Nelson -- coiner of the term "hypertext" -- Xanadu was to be the ultimate computer program -- a single system which would store all the world's information in a dense latticework of links and references. As a "product," Xanadu never saw the light of day (or the marketplace), despite significant funding from Autodesk founder John Walker and others. But as a concept, nothing even comes close. As Gary Wolf wrote in his Wired history of 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.... And, on the very hackerish assumption that global catastrophes are caused by ignorance, stupidity, and communication failures, Xanadu was supposed to save the world."
The web we live with is a long way from Nelson's Xanadu. Many of the issues we're struggling with related to copyrights, hypertext reference tracking, and micropayments for intellectual property would have been "solved" with Xanadu. Of course, Xanadu never made it to market, and you're reading this on the real WWW -- so which one is better?
But even though Xanadu never shipped, small pieces of it are starting to appear on the web.
Paul Haeberli, editor of SGI's Grafica Obscura (and it's outpost), has written a CGI script which accomplishes one of the main goals of Ted Nelson's Xanadu project -- transclusion. Transclusion is the act of "quoting" another document on the network, without having to actually "copy and paste" content. With transclusion, an author can quote original source material on the web, from the server on which it resides.
For example, I could quote from an article on Hotwired, and instead of storing the text and layout on theobvious.com, I could just have my document reference a portion of their document (stored on their server). It's more than a simple hypertext link, the actual document returned to the user would include both my HTML and the quoted text (or image or sound or video clip). The user experience would be seamless -- one document, only pulled from two (or more) servers.
If you're having trouble imagining a transcluded page, check out some of the examples that Paul has hacked together. Here's a document with multiple sources. Combine a multipaged web document into one HTML file (easier to read, easier to print). Or how about a whole week of Suck at once.
While dull on the surface, transclusion opens up all kinds of opportunities for clever web publishers.
While the web continues its evolution, I'm struck with the realization that the foundation that it's built upon -- HTML & CGI -- is strong enough and flexible enough to support creativity and small breakthroughs on an almost daily basis. While not architected to be as complete as Nelson's dream, we nevertheless seem to be on the road to Xanadu.
Other pieces about server-side software: