Years and years ago I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Ted Nelson and his team at Project Xanadu, an important precursor to the World Wide Web (albeit one that never saw the light of day, as far as I know). Nelson is one of the early computing visionaries, the author of the seminal work Computer Lib/Dream Machines, and one heck of an interesting chap to talk with.
As best I can recall, Project Xanadu was built around the original vision of Vannevar Bush’s Memex “information space”, where text would be “linked” to other text in a manner remarkably similar to what we call hypertext today. Only better. But I digress…
What stuck with me from our afternoon was the imagery of “flying through information space” as a metaphor for Xanadu. Compared to the “sheets of paper connected with little strings” metaphor of the existing Web, information space sounds far better and far more appropriate.
As I’m skimming through my RSS aggregator this evening, I came across a smart posting from popular author Cory Doctorow entitled Why you should love Google’s Toolbar. If you haven’t kept up on the brouhaha, Toolbar 3 Beta offers a bunch of nifty new capabilities including the ability to automatically create relevant hyperlinks if the toolbar sees that you’re viewing a page with specific types of information that isn’t already linked. Like street addresses to maps, ISBN numbers to Amazon pages, etc.
Robert Scoble misses the point in his own blog posting when he rhetorically asks Cory, do you really want to open this pandora’s box? As best I can tell, Robert is concerned that having software that automatically modifies the contents of a Web page would open things up to all sorts of abuses. But, of course, this already happens and you need but Google things like “affiliate hijacking” to find out that viruses, spyware and even more seemingly innocuous software changes the very nature of the Web you surf.
Indeed, I’ve heard it argued convincingly that even pop-up blockers and parental filters are subtly altering what you’re viewing without making a big deal of it. Is that the Pandora’s box that we should be concerned about?
By contrast, Cory points out that it’s (pardon the fractured quote) “it’s the utility, stupid!” and that having the ability to automatically link content on a Web page in ways that I want would be darn helpful. Imagine: if you’re not sure what a word on this page means, you could just click it and have it defined at the online Oxford English Dictionary. Not sure about someone’s place in information space? Select their name and click that: Poof! You’re reading the Wikipedia entry on them.
But what excites me about the Google toolbar isn’t the toolbar itself (after all, it’s not even available for the Macintosh platform) but the idea that the Pandora’s Box has been opened because I’m ready and waiting for some new tools:
1. Dictionary: I want to be able to click on words I don’t know and have them defined or translated into my previously specified default language.
2. Affiliate Links for Charity: here’s one that I think would be fabulous: I download a plug-in or toolbar, specify the Amazon Affiliate ID of my favorite non-profit, and whenever I click on a link to Amazon that doesn’t already have an affiliate link, it automatically inserts the charity’s link. It could even change the color of the book title link or otherwise alert me, fine, but what a wonderful way to sidestep all the awkward and unsuccessful charitable shopping solutions to-date.
3. See Also: If Google can extract context from a Web page for its Adsense engine, why can’t someone else do a similar trick and offer me related articles from sites I watch, RSS feeds I like, etc. This would work really well for news too, wouldn’t it?
So in the end, I want to circle back to the “flying through information space” metaphor because I think it’s much more apt than that of a cautionary fable. I have the craft to fly through information space — my Web browser — and I have the rudimentary ability to customize my ship, through plug-ins, extensions and toolbars. Why not let me take the next step and let me define what it means to fly?