In Search of Xanadu

CARA SPRING-GARDNER describes a vision for interactive publishing.

First published in "THE MESSAGE", issue #8 October 1994.
Reproduced with permission.
What comes to mind when you consider the word "Xanadu"? Citizen Kane's sprawling bachelor pad, perhaps, or Olivia Newton-John belting out a breathless title song? Xanadu Australia, a company with goals that are radical, exciting, and which may require some heavy contemplation, hopes that you're thinking open hypermedia publishing.

Hearkening back to Coleridge's poem Khubla Khan, Ted Nelson (the creator of the Xanadu in question) strives to create "the magic place of literary memory where nothing is forgotten". It's a beautiful concept, and if you've got a modem or if you're on the Net, it's a concept you can take part in.

The Xanadu service, which operates out of Canterbury, Australia under the coordination of Andrew Pam, presents to the online community a system that makes Ted Nelson's concept a reality. Xanadu allows a contributing author or artist to store data on a system that is, essentially, a series of sites all over the globe connected via a network like the Internet.

Users of the Xanadu system come in with the aid of a point-and-click program. They are able, through the Xanadu site of their choice, to request and buy bytes of data from published works - or the data as a whole - to use in their own work. The customer pays for the information that they copy by the byte, and royalties from this payment then go back to the author, artist or publisher who owns said data. The person buying the data gets to do so with no copyright infringement worries; in paying for the data, the customer secures the right to reprint it.

Let's say Olivia Newton John has written a novel called "Xanatwo, the sequel." Her manager, J Travolta Esq., decides that the world of standard media is a dead-end; he wants a genuine multi-media, inter-connective experience for the reader. He would contact Xanadu and arrange to publish "Xanatwo" on the Xanadu network, much the way a publisher would arrange to publish a paper copy with a standard media service. Mr. Travolta pays fees for at least three years' storage on at least three Xanadu sites (for safekeeping), and agrees to abide by the laws of the land.

Viola! "Xanatwo" is available, in part or as a whole, to anyone with a connection to Xanadu. Marketing of "Xanatwo", and other usual functions of a producer are assumed by Johnny T. However, whereas in the world of paper publications Mr Travolta would now need to pay for manufacture and distribution of the novel, both of these aspects are handled the moment the data is stored on the Xanadu network.

Now let's say that an author writing a biography about Olivia wants to publish on Xanadu himself. He wishes not only to quote part of Olivia's novel in his own work, but also to put some information in his piece that will "point" readers to her novel. After buying the data he intends to use by the byte, and with the "pointer" leading the reader back to "Xanatwo" so that there is no possibility of misquotation or quotes taken out of context, he has in effect published a good example of what Xanadu intends to supply; information that is linked, sideways, to more information.

Getting your head around the concept of how Xanadu works, and what it actually is, is probably the trickiest step.

Imagine, if you will, a chain of video-rental stores called "Pleasure Dome Video". This is a metaphor for the entire Xanadu Network of globally spread distribution sites. In the case of a chain of stores, a customer goes to the nearest branch. Similarly, with the Xanadu network, a customer picks a certain connect point, and works from there. For the purposes of this example, our Pleasure Dome is located just across the road from "Superfish" in Tolworth...

On entering the Pleasure Dome, by flashing your video rental club card (you need an account to connect to the Xanadu service, and special point-and-click software to use as an interface) you are allowed to view entire films, or parts of films, in any sequence you wish. Some of the films may have scenes in them taken from other films, which you can skip to. If you yourself are making a collection of bits of films you particularly enjoy, you can buy data and pay per frame (per byte). If you are publishing a film, Pleasure Dome will put it up on the shelves for other customers to rent, and they'll pay you royalties each time it's rented. Best of all, if they do not have the film you want in your local Pleasure Dome, you can just ask Frankie behind the counter to get it for you (make a request at your local site). Thanks to the Xanadu network connection, it's in his hand before you can say "Relax."

If you managed to follow that analogy, try doing it again. This time, the Pleasure Dome is a book store, or a newsagent, or a music shop, or an art gallery, or a software manufacturer. Xanadu is in fact a virtual, on-line adaption of all of the above, hence the term Multimedia.

Xanadu, it seems, takes its mission of creating the "magic place of literary memory" to heart. Perhaps "Utopia" would be another apt name for Ted Nelson's vision.

The Xanadu solutions to the copyright problems that arise in publishing are radical - all of the contributors to this system publish with the understanding that their work must be available for unrestricted re-use and quotation. To gain popularity among authors and artists with those conditions is quite a goal for a new company to set.

Taken from the Frequently Asked Questions list put out by Xanadu Australia, the following quote explains more concisely what Xanadu hopes to accomplish...

"The Xanadu Australia formal problem definition is:

We need a way for people to store information not as individual "files", but as a connected literature. It must be possible to create, access and manipulate this literature of richly formatted and connected information cheaply, reliably and securely - from anywhere in the world. Documents must remain accessible indefinitely, safe from any kind of loss, damage, modification, censorship or removal except by the owner. It must be impossible to falsify ownership or track individual readers of any document.

This system of literature ... must allow people to create virtual copies ... of any existing information in the system regardless of ownership. In order to make this possible, the system must guarantee that the owner of any information will be paid their chosen royalties on any portions of their documents, no matter how small, whenever and wherever they are used."

With that in mind, it can be said that Xanadu presents an idea whose time has come. It is a certainty that for Xanadu to meet the goals that they have outlined will be a challenge. Considering the wealth of talent that is dotted all around the globe, and the ability of a system like Xanadu to let that talent break through into recognition, let's wish them well in their mission. And let's hope that the prices of publication, membership, and data reproduction are affordable for the many eager minds waiting for this Pleasure Dome to be available to them.
Cara Spring-Gardner

To contact Xanadu...
Post: Xanadu Australia
P.O. Box 4234
Croydon Hills VIC 3136