The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Original Hypertext System

The current electronic literary structure and system is widely used. Because of its ease in accessibility and transferability, students, researchers and scholars rely heavily on e-documents for research. However, the present day system is limiting especially for knowledge workers. In the article “Xanalogical structure, needed now more than ever: Parallel documents, deep links to content, deep versioning and deep re-use” Theodore Nelson offers the Xanadu Project as an alternative that would maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages of the electronic document system.

Nelson describes the Xanadu Project as “an alternative paradigm for a computer universe, with its own alternative history of the computer field and alternative ideas of media, computer life and the nature of connections” (Nelson, 1999) and it is the original hypertext project; [however] it is often misunderstood as an attempt to create the World Wide Web” (Nelson, 1999). The Xanadu Model is more advanced than the world wide web in fact the world wide web was what Nelson was trying to prevent (Nelson, 1999).

In comparison to Nelson’s ambitious xanalogical model, the current electronic literary system operates on many flaws and implications that prevent users from making full use of the global internet system. Today’s e-document is simply an electronic version of the original document and nothing more. Even though the document is viewed online it does not offer any additional features that would enable further reading and understanding of the subject. As a result, the level of connectivity is low. As Paul Delany notes in “Hypermedia and literary studies” the “first essential capability of a good electronic document system is to provide a means of promoting the connection of ideas and the communication between individual scholars. The capabilities can be conceived of as a set of tools for creating a hypertext structure or the underlying framework of all electronic document systems developed” (Delany, 1995). In addition to the limitations, the electronic literary system fails to provide adequate information of related materials and resources used. Nelson believes “serious electronic literature (for scholarship, detailed controversy and detailed collaboration) must support bidirectional and profuse links, which cannot be embedded; and must offer facilities for easily tracking re-use on a principled basis among versions and quotations” (Nelson, 1999).

Nelson’s solution to these implications is by creating a parallel universe which begins with a basic interface model of parallel visualization. Parallel visualization is viewing documents side by side simultaneously as a result creating a web of information. This model will enable knowledge workers to have access to original documents and other related resources all at the same time. Furthermore, the origins of quotations will appear along with the electronic document. This is the result of establishing a permanent link between resources. Nelson also proposed a “valid copyright system … for frictionless, non-negotiated quotation at any time and in any amount” (Nelson, 1999). This will encourage more electronic publications for authors will be credited for their work.

Nelson’s xanalogical structure is practical than today’s one way hypertext structure. Critics such as Gary Wolf commented on Nelson’s model in his article entitled “ The Curse of Xanadu” where Wolf said the Xanadu Project “ was the most radical computer dream of the hacker era. Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project was supposed to be the universal, democratic hypertext library that would help human life evolve into an entirely new form” (Wolf, 1995). The Xanadu model would not only raise the standards of text representation but also transform the way of thinking and learning. Despite these advantages the Xanadu project was unsuccessful. Wolf notes that “the fact that Nelson has had only since about 1960 to build his reputation as the king of unsuccessful software development makes Xanadu interesting for another reason: the project’s failure (or, viewed more optimistically, its long-delayed success) coincides almost exactly with the birth of hacker culture. Xanadu’s manic and highly publicized swerves from triumph to bankruptcy show a side of hackerdom that is as important, perhaps, as tales of billion-dollar companies born in garages” (Wolf, 1995).

Nelson’s Xanadu Project struggles to achieve success against the widely used electronic literary system. In the forty years of development, Xanadu is still in its initial planning stage. Despite Nelson’s lack of success, the Xanadu Project received a great deal of attention and it continues to inspire numerous other software programs. The Xanadu model is built with knowledge workers in mind. This model strives to improve the uni-directional system and transform the ways people interact with electronic documents.


Delany, Paul. (1995). “Hypermedia and literary studies.”

Nelson, Theodore. (1999). “Xanalogical structure, needed now more than ever: Parallel documents, deep links to content, deep versioning and deep re-use.” Retrieved November 14, 2009.

Wolf, Gary. (1995). “The Curse of Xanadu” <> Retrieved November 13, 2009.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 8:42 am }

An interesting commentary

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