October 23, 2004

Wired and the vision thing

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 3:49 pm

It’s a sad fact that, in the mid-1990s, as the field of digital media anticipated by Ted Nelson’s 1974 Computer Lib / Dream Machines exploded in size, the book was out of print and many new to the field were largely unfamiliar with Nelson’s work — and quite a few even with his name.

Wired magazine, the most prominent publication for new and aspiring ’90s ‘digerati,’ ran a story in June 1995 that introduced many to Nelson’s work. Unfortunately, the piece was dedicated to making Nelson out in the worst possible light — beginning with its title, ‘The Curse of Xanadu.’ Nelson was called ‘the king of unsuccessful software development.’ (I won’t link to the article, but you can find it via web search, if you’re looking for drivel.)

There are many ways of disputing the presentation of Nelson in Wired‘s article, but at this moment it might be more interesting to make a comparison with a figure from digital media’s history that Wired has presented rather differently — Nicholas Negroponte. Wired has identified Negroponte, among many glowing appellations, as ‘the Media Lab’s visionary founder.’ My question here is: What made Nelson ‘unsuccessful’ and Negroponte ‘visionary’ in Wired‘s estimation?

We can start by looking at the influential mid-1970s books written by the two. Nelson’s is Computer Lib / Dream Machines, and Wired correctly identified Xanadu as Nelson’s biggest dream within it. Negroponte’s book was the 1975 Soft Architecture Machines, a follow-on to his 1970 The Architecture Machine. As one might guess from the titles, the Architecture Machine was Negroponte’s biggest dream outlined within his book.

Wired was perfectly correct to point out that Nelson’s Xanadu never shipped. The Architecture Machine — also never shipped. So clearly this is not where Wired‘s difference lies between unsuccessful and visionary.

Another possible difference we might identify is in the level of effort expended. Xanadu has never shipped after tens of person years invested, many with funding from Autodesk. The Architecture Machine, on the other hand, has never shipped after thousands of person years invested — by the MIT Architecture Machine Group and Media Lab — with funding from MIT, the Department of Defense, the Walt Disney Company, Philip Morris, and a list of additional sponsors that once famously required a tiny font to fit on the Media Lab’s promotional notepad.

One can’t be but a bit surprised that, given this, Wired describes Xanadu as ‘the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing — a 30-year saga of rabid prototyping and heart-slashing despair’ while calling the Architecture Machine ‘a great example of interactivity’ that ‘obviously faced a few short-term fabrication constraints.’

But perhaps if the word ‘visionary’ is on the table we might do better to examine the substance of the visions of Nelson and Negroponte. Nelson’s Xanadu imagined personal computers as portals into a world-wide hypermedia publishing network. Negroponte’s Architecture Machine imagined personal computers as artificial intelligence-driven hyper-personalized assistants. Nelson’s vision, of course, now seems prescient — since the explosive growth of the Web and other forms of network media. Negroponte’s vision, unfortunately, hasn’t fared as well.

So who’s the visionary?

Of course, that’s the wrong question. And much of the above is a collection of red herrings. Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad never shipped, Doug Engelbart’s NLS never shipped, Alan Kay’s Dynabook never shipped — and yet we’re agreed that these were founding visions for the field of digital media. The same is true for both Xanadu and the Architecture Machine.

No, the real question is when we will recover from the mid-1990s ‘Curse of Wired‘ and the distorted view of digital media’s history that this overly-influential publication offered.