Letters to the Editor
First Monday

Letters to the Editor

From: Katherine Phelps, muse [at] glasswings [dot] com [dot] au
To: ejv [at] uic [dot] edu, gisle [at] hannemyr [dot] no, xanadu [at] xanadu [dot] net
Date: Fri, 12 Feb 1999 11:56:36 +1100 (EST)
Subject: The Pleasure of Xanadu

Edward Valauskas
Chief Editor
First Monday
ejv [at] uic [dot] edu

Gisle Hannemyr
gisle [at] hannemyr [dot] no
xanadu mailinglist
xanadu [at] xanadu [dot] net

Dear Edward Valauskas,

Though I was very pleased to see an article in First Monday covering the history, definition and culture of the hacker, I was nevertheless disappointed with both the inaccuracy and unfairness with which it reported Ted Nelson’s part in hacker culture. I am speaking of the article, Nelson“Technology and pleasureNelson” by Gisle Hannemyr in volume 4, issue number 2.

“Nelson’s failure in getting people to Xanadu may nevertheless serve to illustrate the hacker idiom that rhetoric is inferior to practice.”

Hannemyr seems to have bought into the Wired judgement that because Nelson has not produced million dollar making software, that his ideas are failures and not just that he has so far been unable to create a lucrative business.

Nelson has never been a programmer. His degree is in philosophy. Nelson is a philosopher who is interested in the sort of abstract information structures that map well onto the computer. The concepts of Xanadu have never failed and even Tim Berners–Lee has acknowledged his debt to these ideas in helping him to form the World Wide Web.

The problems that Ted Nelson has met since 1960 (think about that date, think about the state of computers at that time and who was using them) is that his ideas were in advance of the technology, people’s ability to grasp them and came in a single inter–related lump which might have been more swiftly implemented in pieces.

Undoubtedly, Nelson would like to make good money and receive recognition for his work. He has repeatedly chosen in favour of his ideas, over the easy paths that have been presented to him to those other goals.

“The name “Xanadu”, the Xanadu software and Xanadu group’s servicemark, the Flaming–X symbol, are all copyrighted, trademarked and jealously defended by Nelson and his cohorts. And at the very core of the Xanadu system is an incredible complex scheme for keeping track of ownership to, and extracting royalties for, intellectual property.”

Hannemyr seems to have taken the position that the saying “information wants to be free” means that information should be without charge and thereby condemns Nelson for the commercial aspect of Xanadu. I am a published author by Reed Books and various literary magazines. I teach creative writing for digital media for the creative writing department at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and I am completing a doctorate in digital storytelling. Programming is a well paid field. Programmers can afford to give programs away because with only a few contracts, they can potentially make enough to live comfortably throughout the year. Creators within artistic disciplines have not traditionally made much money for their endeavours. Most of the money has gone to the publishers and distributors. What Nelson has proposed is a system whereby creators can become their own publishers and distributors, and get paid for it!

Programmers do not generally understand what it is like to struggle to have the opportunity to create, and frankly I find the snobbery around the thought that information should be given away insulting. I appreciate the volunteerism and generosity of many programmers and hope they continue in their efforts. The point, though, is that it is done by choice. Enforced volunteerism is equally as egregious as enforced corporatisation.

I would also like to point out that through the efforts of Andrew Pam and a team of young programmers, Nelson has released a part of the Xanadu vision in a program called ZigZag which offers access to its source and is available as shareware.

Finally, I find most Ted bashing cheap, ill–considered and unfair. Kicking a multi–millionaire who has deliberately and repeatedly acted in bad faith is one thing. Kicking a person with a vision, who has given up much of his life for it and is still working toward its realisation, is another. Yes, Nelson may be difficult to work with, but that is not an adequate basis for discounting his ideas. Yes, some of his ideas may not be as golden as others, but given the obvious benefit of many of them, it is wasteful to discount them all together. And judging his ideas based on whether or not they have yet produced a product is just plain dumb. Do people judge Leonardo da Vinci or Charles Babbage in these terms?


Katherine Phelps

E–mail: Katherine Phelps, muse [at] glasswings [dot] com [dot] au
BA (Hons), MFA, PhD (candidate)
Nothing can withstand the powers of love, laughter and imagination

From: Gisle Hannemyr, gisle [at] hannemyr [dot] no
Organization: Only speaking for myself
To: Edward J. Valauskas, ejv [at] uic [dot] edu
Date: Mon, 22 Feb 1999 23:40:26 +0100
Subject: reply

I was saddened to learn that Katherine Phelps construed my essay on hacking as a means of software development in First Monday’s February edition to be an ad hominem attack on Ted Nelson.

I have a lot of admiration for Ted Nelson, and would be among the first to acknowledge that he is a man of vision. I am well aware of — and have the deepest respect for — his many significant contributions to the theory and the ideas concerning hypertext.

My essay, however, was not about theory or ideas, nor was it an attempt to write the history of hypertext. It was about the development of software, and specifically, it was an attempt to critically examine the process of “hacking” as a means to get usable software created. Given this specific setting, I think it is prudent to compare and contrast Ted Nelson’s failure in getting his Xanadu system implemented and widely deployed with the phenomenal speed Tim Berners–Lee’s World Wide Web was coded and put in production.

I do not believe that doing so in any way diminishes Theodore Holm Nelson’s stature as a visionary, or lessens the power of his ideas.

— Gisle Hannemyr (gisle [at] hannemyr [dot] no)

— gisle hannemyr ( gisle [at] hannemyr [dot] no — http://home.sol.no/home/gisle/)
“Use the Source, Luke. Use the Source.” — apologies to Obi–Wan Kenobi


Copyright © 1999, First Monday.
Copyright © 1999, Katherine Phelps and Gisle Hannemyr.

Letters to the editor
by Katherine Phelps and Gisle Hannemyr
First Monday, Volume 4, Number 3 - 1 March 1999

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