Alex Wright


June 20, 2006

I've been playing around with Ted Nelson's Transquoter, the first working component of his Transliterature project, the philosophical successor to his storied, star-crossed Xanadu project.

Transquoter demonstrates Nelson's vision for moving beyond one-way, Web-style hyperlinks, by letting you embed "live" quotes from one page to another, as seen in this unfortunately clunky demo. Like much of Nelson's work, the design execution comes across as half-cocked and a bit impenetrable. But the whole thing makes a lot more sense in writing, where Nelson argues passionately for a new way of thinking about "documents" that moves beyond today's alphabet soup of deterministic file formats. Not only are most current document formats still proprietary to corporate interests, he argues, but even "open" formats like HTML and XML nonetheless reflect a subtle hierarchical determinism that, Nelson believes, holds the Web back from reaching its potential.

Nearly every form of electronic document- Word, Acrobat, HTML, XML- represents some business or ideological agenda. Many believe Word and Acrobat are out to entrap users; HTML and XML enact a very limited kind of hypertext with great internal complexity. All imitate paper and (internally) hierarchy. I propose a different document agenda: I believe we need new electronic documents which are transparent, public, principled, and freed from the traditions of hierarchy and paper. In that case they can be far more powerful, with deep and rich new interconnections and properties- able to quote dynamically from other documents and buckle sideways to other documents, such as comments or successive versions; able to present third-party links; and much more. Is Transquoter the answer? Much as I admire Nelson, I have to doubt it. But it seems like the germ of the right idea. Just as it took Tim Berners-Lee to translate Nelson's ravings into the comprehensible reality of the Web, perhaps some enterprising developer will take Nelson's latest refrain as the starting point for something the rest of us can understand.

see also: Slashdot thread on Transquoter

File under: Informatics

« Little Green | Unplugging »


Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

Mastering Information Through the Ages

New Paperback Edition

“A penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on the information age and its historical roots.”
—Los Angeles Times     

Buy from