how to battle the tech messiah complex

July 24, 2012

When you’re a professional "technologist," as poly sci majors like to call engineers and scientists, it’s awfully easy to develop a sort of messiah complex. Since you’re used to coming up with solutions to problems, every problem out there looks solvable and all you need is to have people do what you tell them to do so they could solve whatever problem they’re having under your sage guidance. We know that doesn’t work in the real world because a) humans are not always rational beings, b) those who are rational are often faced with a far more complex decision-making calculus than technocrats envision while making their grand designs, and c) new technology is not always a panacea and rather than solving the problems, be a half-measure or make things worse with the trade-offs its implementation will entail or mistakes in its design. But surely, when it comes to making software, most of these restrictions disappear, right? After all, code is just chunks of logic doing what you tell them to do, so couldn’t you go forth and implement your grand vision more or less as you wish?

Actually, no, not really, and a story of a dead teach company written back in the era when the web was still just a new cool thing rather than an ubiquitous necessity for daily life in the post-industrial world, the year 1995, is a perfect example of why a fanatical messianic vision is a terrible place to start a project. Much of the tale focuses on Ted Nelson, an eccentric technology evangelist who coined the idea of hypertext, the backbone of the modern web that gives you the ability to click on links and follow ideas as they spread across the world, in the 1960s. With no web on the horizon and the internet being a novelty in a DARPA-funded lab, he imagined a massively distributed application that would manage all of human knowledge and content he called Xanadu, writing thesis after thesis on how hypertext would change the world. And to be perfectly fair, it did. He saw the potential for electronic organization of content long before many others, and we could arguably credit him with spreading concepts for the rudimentary web, and trying to develop one of the first SOA architectures. But all of Nelson’s grand ideas had been implemented by others, usually with very little or no direct input from him, not because these ideas were stolen mind you, but because Nelson failed to make Xanadu work for 40 years.

Today we have large parts of what was meant to be Xanadu in social media, web-based apps that allow users to collaborate and revise their ideas while tracking every change, hyperlinks, and cloud services, all of which can now work in concert to preserve and index text, image, and video content for many years. The designs floating around depict things similar to Microsoft Office and Google Docs in their execution with an unstructured NoSQL database accessible by a RESTful service. It’s hardly innovative now, when such things are a dime a dozen, but ideas like this were certainly a radical novelty in 1970s and 80s, when Xanadu had its day in the sun. Maybe if it were shipped on time, it would’ve become the web we use today because it has the same functionality and the same features, but Nelson’s penchant for giant, rambling, passionate treatises on his visions of the future of technology and human society started Xanadu off with a major handicap. He saw a lot of potential for his product, which is of course a positive, but he went so overboard with it that he attracted a small sect of converts to his vision rather than a professional team that would build a product he could slowly but surely expand into the grand, sweeping Omni-App that he wanted Xanadu to be. Instead, they tried to turn the grand vision into a single, self-contained product they said would completely change the world.

Is it really surprising that a project advocated by an IT philosopher who wrote books that seem like renditions of metaphysical treatises found peppered throughout in The Illuminatus Trilogy, but composed earnestly and with Xanadu taking the role of the ancient secrets empowering human transcendence, were ignored by many would-be backers? It’s not that they "didn’t get it," it’s that they didn’t see a path from grand ideas to execution, especially for something so grand and so complex, or examples of practical use, just a lot of utopianism that so permeates the technology industry. And I should also point out that Xanadu was based on a concept that would’ve made it a nightmare; the notion of transclusion, a link to an original block of content in all future data which would keep this information from mutating and enable Xanadu to charge users fees for using the data that was included in their document. I can only imagine how many millions of dollars I would’ve had to spend on my blog were it composed using Xanadu’s transclusion system. Every hyperlink, every image, every quote would carry a fee because it would reference the One and Only True Copy of The Content, to nickel and dime those who use it to death. It’s like RIAA’s and every copyright and patent troll’s wet dream come true. One on a massive scale, it would strangle innovation with computer, not help promote exchanges of ideas.

If this is the utopian vision that Nelson and his fellow sectarians saw; an enormous database holding all the bits of human knowledge in electronic form, charging a fee for every attempt to build on previous work, or cite, or modification, or critique, or praise, thank the FSM’s noodly appendage for Wikipedia. Did they simply not grasp the lifecycle of information? Did they not understand that they created a recipe for the kind of educational disparity that would make Medieval Europe look democratic and fair by comparison? Perhaps it’s a good thing that the end of Xanadu was pretty much certain and it was only by the raw tenacity of a handful of individuals, literally, that this concept endured in one form or another for more than four decades, finally going out with a whimper by the end of 2007 or thereabouts, when it had nothing new to offer? One wonders if Nelson would defend the project with the same zeal as he denounced the story of his failure, but I’m thinking that he’s more into new manifestos than trying to do what would now be the equivalent of reinventing the wheel, still oblivious to why a perfectly good idea, or at least what he thought was a perfectly good idea, came undone.

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  • Brett

    That’s a fascinating historical anecdote. Thanks!

  • Andrew

    Wow, utterly fascinating. I really dig your library pic too it’s pretty dreamy fantasty looking, is that from somewhere specific? Gonna read up on this Xanadu thing, sounds like the stuff movies are made of :)