Wiki Is Not Xanadu

[Moved from IsWikiXanadu?]

I was thinking about Wiki and Xanadu this morning. Back when TedNelson originally published about Xanadu, I thought it was the best idea. I'm going to reread the book over the weekend.

My recollection is that there were all these pages of info, and everyone's edits could be in there, and they could all be linked together. Xanadu also had the ability to view back to versions to any previous time, which might be a nice feature for the next version of Wiki, in Ward's spare time.

No one who actually studied Xanadu would entertain this thought for a microsecond.

Wiki is no more like Xanadu than is Microsoft Word (all three support editing and some kind of hyperlink; that's all, that's where the resemblence ends).

TedNelson and Xanadu both have faults, but it does them both an extremely grave injustice to say "well I never knew what Xanadu was, and I remember less now, but this here wiki thingie vaguely reminds me of what I almost remember."

Don't do that. It's technically wrong regarding Xanadu, and rude to TedNelson. And it can do nothing more than confuse the issue on exactly what was right and wrong with Xanadu and TedNelson, which is in fact a sporadically on-going discussion here and there.

-- DougMerritt

Did exactly that with CvWiki. In fact now I don't think it's such a good idea because it goes against WhyWikiWorks. If someone posts a flame, should it live on forever? Or should someone else be tasked with moderating endless archives? I think not. Perhaps everyone could be given the ability to zap archived pages ... but that couldn't possibly work. --PeterMerel

I'd like to put some links from my web site directly into wiki. I'd like to have a wiki of my own. I'd like there to be wiki pages all over. I'd like to buy the world a Coke... but I digress.

The reason I'm going back to Ted's bizarre book is to see what ideas are there that we could actually use here.

TedNelson is currently in Japan. --RonJeffries

Having now read the Wired article (TheCurseOfXanadu), I'm a little concerned that I was so excited by Xanadu every time I ran into it. But I guess I have to just live with myself. --RonJeffries

P.S. It was so nice not to have to read it in pink type on yellow and blue paper in some cartoon ZAPPO font. I almost like Wired on line.

Wiki is the closest thing I've ever seen to Xanadu. In some ways Wiki is better - there's no copyright, no locked text (so anyone can edit anything) and it's real whereas Xanadu is still a pipedream (but what a dream and what a pipe!). --SeanOhalpin

Xanadu had a payment scheme, which as far as I know was fundamental to its vision. It had transclusion where Wiki only has cut and paste, and some deep theory about addressing and tracking moving documents etc (which may or may not have ever worked).

Wiki reminds me most of the World Wide Web as it was originally conceived. The WWW was supposed to be writable - the protocol has a PUT method on a par with GET. Anyway, that is what I gather from various comments from its designer. -- DaveHarris

Wiki's payment scheme is a bit weak, but at least it's consistent. As Dave points out, however, I can't transclude Dave's comment yet, if I want to CommentOnTransclusion, but I can already link back from there. How hard could it be ... don't ask the Xanadu survivors. -- RonJeffries

It's not just payment; it's tracking authorship and credit. Wiki conventions leave some comments uncredited and communually owned, and others (like this one) signed (with the signitures easily forgable) (and deletable). -- DaveHarris

The difference between things which are apparently successful but with arguably weak theoretical underpinning, like DOS and the WWW, and things which attempt to be theoretically sound but which fail, like Xanadu, I find fascinating and scary. Is it better to do something wrong than not to do it at all? -- DaveHarris

"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

It is good to do something imperfectly than not to do it at all. TheBestIsTheEnemyOfTheGood.

Check out WorseIsBetter for more on this aspect of software. It is damned fascinating. -- MichaelFeathers

It's better to build something small and let it evolve to be useful. Any of us can order more than we can eat, and dream more than we can ever code. It should be possible to build something small and growable, so that it doesn't have evolve slowly or with too much revolution instead of evolution. I believe that it's possible, but I can't prove it. -- RonJeffries

Edsger W. Dijkstra (EwDijkstra) is supposed to have said that, "the effective programmer is keenly aware of the limited size of his own head." I'd probably add that s/he's also aware of their limited lifetime. -- MartinPool

The only thing WIKI misses is a good spell 'cheker'. Dang, too late, spell checking is automated, it works. Pretty neat. --RichardGregg?

WikiWikiWeb is not Xanadu. Xanadu is a life's work while wiki is the simplest thing that could possibly work.

I had in mind, actually, "is wiki near the center of what xanadu was trying to be", but that seemed too long a name ... an essence of Xanadu was the versioning, linking, free flow. Releasing a wiki-like thing might have kept Xanadu alive ... it still might. --RonJeffries

is wiki near the center of what Xanadu was trying to be

I doubt it. I haven't read the original Xanadu articles, but Ted Nelson recently gave a colloquium here at Stanford. And what he described, which he claimed was his original vision ("I've always said this; I've gotten better at expressing it") was very much unlike wiki.

Ted Nelson is really concerned with preserving original works, extending copyright to cover online usage (the notion of TransCopyright), and enabling massive reconstruction of documents (by hyperlinking at the level of thoughts or paragraphs, rather than "documents"). He's very much concerned about authors and authorial integrity. I got the impression that the sort of feel-free-to-refactor notions in wiki (group authorship, communal discussion, free reorganization of pages, including summarizing other people's contributions) haven't made it onto his radar in any big way.

All in all, the talk was rather depressing. I was far more impressed when I didn't know anything about him (other than the vague "father of hypertext" title) than I am now.


Ted Nelson is really concerned with preserving original works....

WikiWiki is more of a policy than a technology. I'm sure WikiWiki would also work with and benefit from Xanadu. -- ManuelSimoni

It would be simpler and still work if it didn't have the search or spell checker facilities. I've used WikiClones with neither. One can also argue that it doesn't work as is, because it has so many flaws. (Eg inadaquate protection against simultaneous update, no revision history, no good way to indent text.) This is an example of how the phrase "that could possibly work" is vague. -- DaveHarris

Yes. The simplest thing is a judgment call, not an algorithm. It is an exhortation to, when considering alternatives, choose the simplest one you can think of that isn't entirely stupid, rather than the biggest most robust amazing one. It's a mental trick to avoid always being six months from done. --RonJeffries

Xanadu has been released as OpenSource, called Udanax

As all great failed projects are . . .

To me it feels like TedNelson evokes negative emotions and judgements among many people, as you can see on this page. I don't think this is good, take a look at ZigZag. Ted is really trying to push things further. -- ManuelSimoni

I love bananas!

I read the article about TheCurseOfXanadu... and then I said, "Hey, wait a minute, doesn't Wiki embody a lot of those values? I mean, I can go and write something, and then link to it from lots and lots of other pages, and it's a big public forum where discourse happens and information is distilled and saved..." You get the idea.

So I was about to write something on that page about it, and then I realized that quite a few people had already thought of it. One FullSearch later and I was here.

So yeah. Here I am, writing about Xanadu on the thing that, in my opinion, is most like Xanadu in all the world...


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