Discussions at the Hypertext '87 workshop at Chapel Hill, North Carolina,
revealed some common confusions and misconceptions regarding hypertext publishing.
Some of these lead to underestimation of its difficulties, others to overestimation.
Underestimation of difficulties chiefly resulted from failures to understand
the difference between a distributed publishing medium with two-way links
and the distribution of hypertexts joined (at best) with one-way references.
The issues raised by true hypertext publishing are explored at length in
Hypertext Publishing: Issues and Choices in Database Design," published
in ACM SIGIR Forum, vol. 22, no. 1,2 (Winter '88).
Overestimation of difficulties stemmed in part from an assumption that hypertext
publishing, to succeed, must reach a large fraction of the population and
contain a corpus of knowledge on the scale of a major library. These grand
goals are inappropriate for a new medium (though one should seek system
designs that do not preclude such achievements). A hypertext publishing
medium could reach the threshold for usefulness and growth with a small
community of knowledge workers, and could be of great value while used by
only a minute fraction of the population. With this realization, the fear
that hypertext publishing must be an enormous, long-term undertaking seems
unmotivated. No positive arguments were advanced to support this fear.
Overestimation of difficulties also stemmed from the notion that the challenges
of hypertext publishing must include all the challenges of lesser hypertext
goals--that a publishing medium would be of no value unless isolated hypertexts
had proven their competitiveness with books, magazines, movies, schools,
or whatever. This seems mistaken. Isolated hypertexts compete with authored,
organized documents; a hypertext publishing system would compete with the
disorderly tangle of material found in journals and libraries. One can imagine
that linear textbooks are always superior for organized presentations of
established knowledge, while simultaneously believing that the linked, non-linear
organization of a scientific literature would greatly benefit from computer
support. This shows the difference of the goals, and the lesser challenge
of certain aspects of hypertext publishing.
At the workshop, recognition of the benefits of hypertext publishing for
the evolution of new knowledge was scanty; most participants focused on
the utility of isolated, carefully-authored hypertext documents for transmitting
established knowledge. As familiarity with the challenges and benefits of
hypertext publishing grows, so should interest and activity.
This is a postscript taken from a draft paper entitled "Hypertext
Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge." It and a draft version
of the Hanson paper cited can be obtained on request from FI. Please include
a donation of at least $1.50 per paper to cover our costs.
The prospects for hypertext publishing brightened considerably with the
recent announcement by the Xanadu hypertext group (Xanadu Operating Company,
Inc.) that they have entered into an agreement with Autodesk to develop
products based on their proprietary software technology. Autodesk produces
AutoCAD software (a major product line in the IBM PC market), and can supply
the funds, management know-how, and marketing expertise to help Xanadu grow
into a profitable entity able to implement the ambitious Xanadu hypertext
Partly boosted by the name of Apple's HyperCard software, partly driven
by an outbreak of good sense, the idea of hypertext is finally becoming
accepted some twenty years after the term was coined by Ted
Nelson, author of Computer Lib/Dream Machines and Literary
The enthusiasm showed at the first large meeting on the topic, Hypertext
'87, which was heavily oversubscribed. Yet despite the standing ovations
given to both Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart, there was virtually no coverage
of the hypertext publishing concept advocated by Nelson and implemented
in part by Engelbart in his Augment system. The conference focused instead
on short-term uses of stand-alone hypertext systems [see above].
Discussions suggested, however, that this omission would not be repeated.
Another sign of interest in hypertext publishing came from Apple Computer,
which invited Eric Drexler to speak on the subject; contacts within Apple
report enthusiastic results. Drexler covered the same topic in his closing
talk at this year's PC Forum, a meeting of the personal computer industry's
top business leaders, and on a "Hypertext and Electronic Publishing"
panel at the Office Information Systems Conference.
HyperAge, a new bimonthly magazine, will cover the burgeoning
field of hypertext and hypermedia. Charter subscriptions are $19.95 for
one year (six issues); call 800-682-2000 to subscribe.
See above for news on the Xanadu hypertext
Science fiction has been called the best preventive for future shock. Its
tradition of grounding stimulating speculation in scientific fact has often
inspired scientists, and has not infrequently proved more predictive than
formal futurism. The classic example of this is Cleve Cartmill's 1942 fictional
extrapolation of the atomic bomb from the work of Meitner and Frisch in
the late 1930s--one sufficiently exact that the FBI was moved to investigate
the matter on behalf of the then-secret Manhattan Project.
Among the tremendous variety of futures projected by SF writers in the last
fifty years, a few have assumed the kind of cheap control over matter and
energy implied by mature nanotechnology. Many others have investigated the
implications of computer networking and AI. In this article I will cite
some SF novels that include scenarios that bear directly on the potential
of nanotechnology, fact forums, and the social mechanisms needed to adapt
to abundance and ultra-rapid technological change.
This excellent and thought-provoking novel centers (despite its military-SF
cover) on the uses of a type of hypertext-based fact forum Stiegler calls
a 'decision duel,' and the potential of public-access computer networks
to transform politics. Strongly recommended for anyone interested in the
politics of technological change and appropriate social institutions for
the information age. And the inside back cover includes a fascinating factual
Voyage from Yesteryear, James P. Hogan, Ballantine, 1982, pb,
This novel turns on a confrontation between representatives of a hungry,
militarist Earth and a human colony at Alpha Centauri that has developed
a society based on the kind of material abundance that a mature nanotechnology
and AI will imply. Hogan's portrait of a society in which everything but
human talent and attention is effectively free is inspiring, and the details
of their form of warfare-by-cultural-seduction make entertaining reading.
Marooned in Realtime, Vernor
Vinge, Baen Books, 1986, pb, 312 pp.
This magnificent sequel to Vinge's earlier The Peace War projects
a future in which the development of nanotechnology-like abilities has sent
all the technological trend curves vertical and thrown the human species
through a massive phase change he calls the
Singularity. We see the traces of the Singularity through the eyes of
a band of refugees in time, the few that missed it because they were in
temporal stasis from earlier periods and have awakened on a world from which
humanity has vanished. The book is a fascinating multi-leveled whodunit
with more than a little to say about the implications of abundance and freedom.
Vernor Vinge's previous work (notably The Peace War and various
stories in the collection True Names and Other Dangers) is
frequently built around the possibilities of intelligence increase, freedom
and material abundance, and is generally recommended.
If anything, SF--like the scientific establishment--has generally been far
too conservative in its predictions; for example, almost no one in the SF
field predicted a Moon landing as early as 1969. Nevertheless, it has generated
a lot of thinking about the consequences of technological change that should
prove useful and may even turn out to be of vital importance in coping with
the implications of nanotechnology.
Eric Raymond is a software designer living in Pennsylvania who is now
working on building fact forum networks.
The first formal course in nanotechnology is being offered at Stanford University
this spring quarter. Entitled "Nanotechnology and Exploratory Engineering"
and taught by FI president Eric Drexler, it is sponsored by the Computer
Science department. The series of interdisciplinary lectures and discussions
covers the fundamentals of nanotechnology and the engineering of molecular
devices. The course is expected to result in a textbook at some point.
Topics include: physical principles of molecular machines; the nature and
methodology of exploratory engineering; implementation strategies for nanotechnology;
nanocomputers, nanorobotics, and molecular assemblers; thermal noise and
the thermodynamics of computation; applications of nanotechnology to computation,
medicine, and large-scale systems.
Attendance at the first meeting of the class was high, with over three times
as many students as had been expected. Many sat on the floor, some stood
in the hall throughout the two-hour class, while one enterprising student
climbed in the window.
A Nanotechnology Study Group would like to scan Engines
of Creation into machine-readable form for uploading into a prototype
hypertext system they are developing. If you have access to a scanner and
can help with this, please call the FI office.
The third nanotechnology retreat was held in late January outside Seattle.
Sponsored by a local study group and led by FI president Eric Drexler, it
was an intensive weekend of discussion of nanotechnology and its policy
implications. Since the group already had a good understanding of the basic
issues, we were able to move immediately into advanced topics, both technical
FI plans to develop a series of these retreats, designed for 10-12 participants
and directed by one of the other FI leaders. We are not yet ready to launch
into this, so please don't request information yet. However, if you are
interested in organizing such an event in your area, drop us a note to that
effect--we will send you more information when its available.
The Foresight Institute has received an advance ruling from the IRS stating
that FI is exempt from federal income taxes as an educational and scientific
organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.
It is classified as a public charity which is not a private foundation and
is entitled to receive tax-deductible contributions under Section 170(c)(2)
of the Internal Revenue Code and related statutes.
The ruling is retroactive to our incorporation, so contributions made in
1986 and 1987 are also deductible in the year made, as permitted by law.
FI has also received a similar favorable ruling from the state of California.
Again there are too many people who deserve thanks for all to be listed
here, but we will include a representative group not mentioned elsewhere
in this issue: Hewlett Packard for a generous contribution; IBM, Apple,
Esther Dyson's EDventure Holdings Inc., and the MIT NSG for sponsoring talks;
Technical Insights for donating their nanotechnology Delphi survey results;
A. K. Dewdney, Bill Joy, Karl Hess, Prof. Leland Allen, Prof. Lester Milbrath,
and Future Trends for helping to spread the word; Prof. Nils Nilsson for
talking Eric Drexler into teaching the Stanford course; Gayle Pergamit,
David Veres, Dave King, Pat Wagner, and Leif Smith for advice; Jim Palmer
for legal help; T. Toth-Fejel, Dale Dellutri, Arel Lucas, and Michael Anzis
for sending information.