Foresight Update 4

page 4

A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Hypertext Publishing Progress

by Chris Peterson

Over twenty years after it was first envisioned, the goal of hypertext publishing is finally near. As late as a year ago interest in a system for publishing, not just swapping stand-alone hypertexts, was still confined to a few scattered proponents. As a last resort, FI was even considering trying to fund development of a system ourselves, since the commercial sector seemed so uninterested. But now this has changed.

Why has interest in the topic bloomed after so many years? Ironically, much of it may be traceable to a misunderstanding. When Apple Computer was ready to bring out a new software construction kit named "Wildcard," they found the name already taken, and the owner unwilling to sell it. (Files created by the final program are still labeled internally as created by "WILD.") Marketing settled on the substitute name "HyperCard." Long-time hypertext proponents were annoyed by the name and by advertising which touted the product as hypertext, since HyperCard is not hypertext as the word had been used. They correctly assumed that confusion would result. But as Xanadu hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson has pointed out, the publicity has been good for hypertext: people assumed that if Apple was interested in hypertext, it must be good. Suddenly it was all the rage, and in this avalanche of interest there were a few farsighted people who focused on the original vision. And those people are making all the difference.

John Walker of Autodesk, who had been interested in hypertext long before HyperCard, is said to have assumed that (surely!) some large company was funding hypertext development. He was reportedly appalled to find instead that the classical hypertext development group, Xanadu, was scraping along on volunteer labor. Fortunately, as chairman of Autodesk--a company best known for its highly-popular AutoCAD computer aided design products--he was in a position to solve this problem.

Arranging for Autodesk to acquire 80% of Xanadu Operating Company was a challenge: in its many years of struggling corporate existence Xanadu had accumulated many stakeholders and piles of confusing legal paperwork. Closing the deal became a task for Roger Gregory (longtime leader of the group) working with Phil Salin of the aptly-named consulting team, Venture Acceleration. The heartfelt thanks of all of us who've longed for real hypertext go to these three people.

Note: An long article published in Wired magazine issue 3.06, June 1995, reports the history of the Xanadu project through the end of 1994. "The Curse of Xanadu" by Gary Wolf is available on line, but you may first need to register at the Hotwired site. A response from Ted Nelson to "The Curse of Xanadu" is also available on line.

Foresight's current plans for Enhancing the World Wide Web.

A side note: we were pleased to hear from John Walker that FI's president Eric Drexler played a role in this as well: the vision of hypertext publishing presented in his book, Engines of Creation, helped convince Autodesk to proceed with the unorthodox deal.

Now Xanadu is rolling: the company has offices, equipment, and a programming team at work turning out product. At this spring's West Coast Computer Faire they announced plans to release their first product within 18 months. This will be hypertext software for individuals and small groups of under ten people, using technology of the sort needed for a full public hypertext publishing system, and providing a stepping stone toward the larger system.

The Xanadu system is divided conceptually into two parts, the backend and the frontend. The backend handles storage, retrieval, versioning, linking, and editing of data with no knowledge of the nature of the data being handled, and with no direct contact with the user. Frontends are advanced application packages that:

Frontends for Xanadu will be primarily produced by third party developers. Late this year, experimental versions of the backend software will begin to be licensed to researchers and advanced software developers interested in starting hands-on hypertext experience and thinking about design issues for front-end software. (The functionalities of the experimental version will be carried forward in the software product, but the syntax is expected to change.) Such developers should write for further information: Xanadu Operating Company, 550 California Ave., Suite 101, Palo Alto, CA 94306, Attn: Gayle Pergamit.

See above note.

Interest in hypertext publishing now extends beyond Xanadu. ON Technology--run by Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development--is developing an object-oriented software platform which could be extended to support hypertext publishing. ON is rumored to be considering this possibility, which may be within reach now that (according to MacWeek) they have obtained $3 million in venture capital.

Apple has formed a working group on "collaborative hypertext." Combine this with their existing efforts in hypertext and it adds up to real interest; Apple will have a big impact on this field if it chooses.

Keep an eye on Doug Engelbart & Co. too; as a hypertext pioneer he is well-placed to stimulate the creation of a valuable system. He and colleagues Howard Franklin and Christina Engelbart have not yet announced their plans, but if Doug doesn't build a new system himself, he will inspire further efforts by others.

In the nonprofit sphere, software developers are aiming to incorporate hypertext publishing features into USENET, the giant international computer network running on UNIX-based computers. Several brainstorming meetings were held in the San Francisco area in May, led by Eric Raymond (eric@snark.uucp or uunet!snark!eric).

Meanwhile Kirk Kelley at Sun Microsystems is working to ensure that the various hypertext systems will be able to exchange information. This is a critical effort--having conflicting standards in hypertext publishing would be like having conflicting standards for phone lines or fax machines: isolated systems would offer inferior service, hampering communication and the growth of knowledge (but eventually linking up or disappearing).

There is enough known activity that there are likely to be other hypertext publishing efforts still under wraps. We'll try to keep you up to date in these pages, since so many FI participants have an intense interest in this field. Another publication to watch is the new magazine HyperAge, six issues a year for $20 in the US. To subscribe using a credit card, call 800-682-2000.

Foresight Update 4 - Table of Contents


'Human Frontiers' Advances

Although its technical scope has been refined and its budget cut, Japan's proposed international Human Frontiers Science Program is still relevant to development of both nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. The Economist calls the planned effort "the world's first truly international government research program."

Originally budgeted at $6 billion to be spent over twenty years, with Japan contributing about half of the funds, Frontiers' initial goals were very broad and, some said, overambitious: from neural-style computing to "the elucidation of biological functions." Even Japan's former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a strong promoter of the program, criticized its vagueness. A one-year $1.4 million study to clarify these goals was completed in spring 1988 and reviewed by scientists from the Western summit nations and the European Community, who advocated an immediate start on the program.

The new refined goals are (1) to study the higher-order functions of the brain, especially its ways of visualizing objects and understanding words, and (2) molecular recognition and response functions. The new proposed budget is $60-100 million, to be spent on 30-50 three-year research grants, 100-200 post-doc fellowships, and 10-20 workshops.

Frontiers got a boost from the June 1988 economic summit of Western nations, when it was endorsed in the final communiqué: "We note the successful conclusion of the Japanese feasibility study on the Human Frontiers Science Program and are grateful for the opportunity our scientists were given to contribute to the study. We look forward to the Japanese government's proposals for implementation of the program in the near future."

Japanese officials had originally hoped to get the other six summit nations--Canada, Britain, France, Italy, West Germany, and the U.S.--to commit funds to the project at the summit, but not surprisingly these nations are waiting for Japan to make a commitment first. The communiqué's statement of support will strengthen the position of the program's advocates, the Science and Technology Agency and the Ministry for International Trade and Industry, when they approach the Ministry of Finance for funds later in 1988.

In a move unprecedented in Japan, these agencies propose that the program be run by an international foundation to be established in Switzerland, and to be funded entirely by Japan in the initial phase (at least $20 million in fiscal year 1989). The U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Community will provide experienced personnel for the administrative secretariat, and scientists from all summit nations will participate in the governing council and peer review committees.

Foresight Update 4 - Table of Contents


Books of Note

Books are listed in order of increasing specialization and level of reading challenge. Your suggestions are welcome.--Editor

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, by Doris Lessing, Harper & Row, 1987, paper, $6.95. A small book with high impact, as asserted on the cover. An eloquent plea for integrating what little we know of the social sciences into education, to help us primates stop repeating Milgram experiment-type horrors.

Moving Mountains, by Henry M. Boettinger, Collier Macmillan, 1975, paper, $5.95. A practical treatise on convincing others to share your ideas. "The first truly modern and truly searching essay on rhetoric--in the classical meaning of the term--in the last three or four hundred years."--Peter Drucker

The Social Brain, by Michael S. Gazzaniga, Basic Books, 1987, paper, $8.95. A neuroscientist argues that the brain is more a social entity, a vast confederacy of relatively independent modules, each of which processes information and activates its own thoughts and actions. This view has some similarity to Minsky's Society of Mind theory. The writing is anecdotal and enjoyable.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward R. Tufte, Graphics Press, 1983, hardcover, $34. A beautiful book explaining the right ways (and ridiculing the wrong ways) to present numerical information. Amusing and visually enjoyable, it inspires the reader to support Tufte's high standards. Fun to browse; makes a great gift.

How Superstition Won and Science Lost, by John C. Burnham, Rutgers, 1987, paper, $16. Tracks the decline in the quality of science popularization by the media over the past century and shows how this has undermined the impact of science and strengthened the forces of irrationalism.

What Sort of People Should There Be?, by Jonathan Glover, Pelican, 1984, paper, $5.95. An Oxford philosopher looks at the emotional and ethical issues raised by (hypothetical) advanced technologies able to alter the human form, control the brain, and create artificial intelligences. Covers such topics as possible abuse of the technologies, and what people will do once there is no need to "work."

Neurophilosophy, by Patricia Smith Churchland, MIT Press, 1986, hardcover, $29.95. Begins with the neurosciences, then proceeds through AI, connectionist research, and philosophy to give a picture of how the brain works. Skillfully written and very readable.

Evolutionary Epistemology, Theory of Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. by Gerard Radnitzky and W.W. Bartley, III, Open Court, 1987, paper. A collection of essays on a powerful theory of how knowledge grows: by evolution through variation and selective retention. Treats knowledge as an objective evolutionary product, and offers insights into evolutionary processes in general. Authors include Sir Karl Popper.

Neural Darwinism, by Gerald Edelman, Basic Books, 1987, hardcover, $29.95. Having won a Nobel Prize for his work in immunology, the author now examines how the brain works, presenting his theory of neuronal group selection. A difficult book with significant ideas.

Foresight Update 4 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 4, originally published 15 October 1988.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 4 to html for this web page.