Project Xanadu: A New Digital Economy?

In 1960, many years before HTML or the World Wide Web, Ted Nelson founded a project called: Project Xanadu. Essentially, Project Xanadu was meant to be a universal library and a worldwide hypertext-publishing tool. (Sounds a lot like the World Wide Web doesn’t it?) However, Nelson wanted Project Xanadu to be nothing like the World Wide Web. In fact, he saw it as an improvement. Nelson believed that Xanadu was a superior form of the Internet where every user was identifiable, producers of information received automatic royalties for their uploads, and all information, quotations etc. could be traced back to it’s original contexts. I should also note that Project Xanadu has been described as the longest running vaporware project in the history of computing. (Which basically means it is the longest running piece of software that has been advertised but is not yet available to buy, either because it is only a concept or its still being written. I think in this case Xanadu is being described as “vaporware” because it’s still only a concept. One that will never and has never reached success… honestly speaking, who would want to pay to use the Internet?)

Keeping this in mind, I think it is really interesting to compare Project Xanadu to the World Wide Web in terms of Terranova’s Digital Economy. Imagine what the Internet would be like if we were using Xanadu instead of the World Wide Web. How would this change our society and the culture surrounding technology)? For instance, the gift economy would be non-existent. Every piece of information on Xanadu could be traced back to the original owner, and if you wanted to access or utilize this information, you would have to pay the owner in royalties. However, in comparison, Xanadu would resolve some of the issues Terranova discusses in regards to “free labor”. I.e. Knowledgeable consumption of culture would still be translated into productive activities… however, the owners/creators of this information wouldn’t be shamelessly exploited. What are your thoughts regarding Xanadu and its effects on free labor, the digital and gift economy?



  1. To start with, one would have to consider that every other part of society— culture, religion, education, family—would also be heavily affected by this shift. The anonymity of the internet is one of the factors that makes it such a valuable resource for information sharing. When you take that anonymity away, the dynamics shift. Everything you share and say will reflect back upon you and your environment that you live in.

    If the Xanadu software was created, we would be forming a new space to identify with. This space would likely end up mirroring reality over the virtual. Reality is shaped by our relations with other people, and it is heavily dependent on knowledge of the people you are communicating with. Xanadu would take on this same concept.

    As a result, Xanadu would be taking the economic values we uphold in real life and be mirroring them in a new space, a digital space. It will never completely replace the internet, but it could become a way to replace some of the constructs we have in reality. Thus, it would strengthen the digital economy. For example, many jobs would be shifted into this new space. What it also does is put limitations on a gift economy. There are obvious economic benefits to having software such as Xanadu. Even though it has not moved past the conceptualization stage, I feel that, if taken seriously, it could cause society to connect deeper into the digital world.

  2. One of the arguments of those who fear increasing restriction on copyright laws is that prolonging them unnaturally to keep a monopoly on the profit essentially cripples creativity–in music, for example, there are only so many pleasing combinations of notes that can be made before you’ve exhausted all possibilities. There may be a similar concern with Nelson’s Xanadu project. It would certainly reshape many of the common internet conventions. Who would get the royalties for a blog comment–the commenter, the original poster, or the blog provider? Each played an important role in the knowledge circulation, after all.
    On the other hand, if items in Xanadu really did exist forever, it would solve one of the problems of referring to information on the Internet, that things can be replaced or deleted without warning.
    It may be just a thought experiment–I honestly don’t see how you’d get people to willingly switch over to xanadu if the Internet still exists–but it’s a very useful thought experiment, and draws attention to how the Internet works as a medium.

  3. I think if people willingly switched over to Xanadu, or if we were using Xanadu to begin with our relationship with the Internet would be extremely different. For one, I think that Hacktivism would be a lot more prevalent than it is today. Freedom of expression and freedom of information would perhaps be the main goal of Internet “hacking” activity.

    The idea of copyright laws crippling creativity is also a really interesting one as well. If all the ideas on the Internet, every sentence, every photo and web page were copy written our culture would be extremely one-dimensional. The Internet is such a diverse and fascinating place because it has multiple origin points where similar, yet modified ideas and web pages can stem. Ideas are always getting bigger and better because millions upon millions of people have the ability to contribute to this growth. Perhaps this is why Xanadu failed so miserably (or rather would have failed if it was created). In Xanadu, we may have seen an end to the creation and sharing of new information. This is similar to the example of music mentioned above; when all notes are exhausted everything starts to sound the same. In Xanadu, when all methods and venues of creativity have been exhausted, does it all come to an expensive end? (Due to copyright laws?) The Internet has often been described as a complex labyrinth. I think that Xanadu would have been similar to a labyrinth, however, the passageways would be mapped out and we would find a clear finish line at the end.

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