Bitterness from the halls of Xanadu
I'm a little late on this, but I just read an BBC interview with Ted Nelson this weekend. I don't know the man, and am familiar with his work in only the most cursory way - I've read a bit about Xanadu, skimmed some articles on its history, but I've yet to download the code finally released a few years ago and see what's what. Having said that, this interview reads like the bitter mutterings of a guy who wants to slug TimBL and the rest of us web hackers for making him all but obsolete.
From what I've read, the body of work surrounding Xanadu seems to have a lot to say for itself, though some of that - the assorted collection of almost psychedelic jargon invented to describe its convolutions - seems almost self parodying. The history of Xanadu and Nelson's work with hypertext systems looks to me to be yet another proof that ideas are fucking worthless, and another vote in favor of bazaar- over cathedral-style development.
Maybe it's the fault of the interviewer, but Nelson comes across as a bit self-aggrandizing in trying to puff up how creative and multi-talented and immersed in media - I mean, he made his own rock opera for cripes sake! So I guess this should set the stage for his authority when he dismisses HTML as "a degenerate form of [hypertext] that has been standardised by people who, I think, do not understand the real problems" and the web as "... trivially simple ... massively successful like karaoke - anybody can do it."
But y'know, for all his criticism of systems here and now, and claiming that the people involved with the web don't know what they're doing - he has a surprising lack of working software out in the world. That's what I consider success - working and well used implementation. Who doesn't understand the real problems? One can only build architectures of vapor for so long up in the ivory tower before one must pit it against the world. I don't suppose he's ever tossed around the idea that maybe, just maybe, Xanadu hasn't stormed the world because it's too big and cumbersome and amazingly convoluted for anyone who hasn't worked with it for 30 years to put into use? There is much to be said for the benefits of Karaoke-simple technology.
So yeah, maybe on some Platonic plane of ideal forms, compared to The One True Hypertext, HTML is crap. Okay, maybe right here on my hard drive, HTML is crap. But it's on my hard drive, and I use it. It's been learned from, and attempts are being made to improve upon it. As far as I know, Nelson's ideas of perfection have never seen a pounding from the world of imperfection. That's the crucible in which things are really formed. You get your software in reasonable shape, toss it to the wolves, and see how it fares. Realize that some of your prized pet theories and designs were bullshit, and rework the thing for the next time around.
Okay, that's my rant. Now I'm back to work, and possibly maybe off to check out more things Xanadu and Nelson on my lunch break.