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The Road to Xanadu
Jul 08, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

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, 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.

  • Multisource News Feeds / Home Pages. While MSN has already introduced a personalized home page service, they have the overhead of gathering the news headlines, the weather report, the sports scores and the stock quotes that you're interested in. Transclusion could enable a single page to include headlines and information directly from the appropriate sources: headlines and images from CNN in one corner, your company's stock quote from Networth in another corner, the lead New York Times editorial in another, and just for spice, a random Yahoo category in another.

  • Ad-Free Surfing. While the folks at PrivNet have already written a clever add-in to the client-side of the web (Netscape Navigator), transclusion could be a method for a server based ad filtering. A PrivNet competitor could offer a service (for a fee, of course) which enables subscribers to surf through their servers which runs an ad-filtering transclusion script. Instead of having to code, update, maintain and support a client-side piece of software, they only have to keep their servers and scripts up-to-date. Similar technology could be used to filter web sites for frightened parents and their sheltered kids.

  • Web "sampling." Audio sampling created a new musical art form, practiced by Carl Stone on one end of the spectrum and the Fugees on the other. Transclusion could open up opportunities for a new breed of web artists, sampling content from a variety of sites, modifying it, creating interesting juxtapositions, etc. (imagine the front page of, mixed with images from the NRA's site, mixed with results of an Alta Vista search on "Freudian dream theory"). And with more of the web moving to daily or real-time content, the work created by the "transclusionist" could be continually updated to reflect the current state of the "art."

Transclusion obviously raises difficult copyright issues. When original source material is included or "sampled" by a third party, there's a fine line between "fair use" and theft. The music industry has been dealing with the sampling issue for quite some time -- maybe the Fugees' lawyers could lend us a hand.

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: