Foresight Update 3
A publication of the Foresight Institute
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 Robin Hanson's
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
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
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 publishing system.
article in Update 4.]
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.
for news on the Xanadu hypertext project.
Fiction and Advanced Technologies
by Eric S. Raymond
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
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.
David's Sling, Marc Stiegler,
Baen Books, 1988, pb, 346 pp.
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
Voyage from Yesteryear, James P. Hogan, Ballantine,
1982, pb, 377 pp.
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
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
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
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.
[See also John Cramer's technology
fiction article in Update 8.. A current bibliography
of nanotechnology in science fiction is available on the
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.
article in Update 4]
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 Web version of Engines of Creation was announced
in Update 25. The scanning was done by the Boeing
Company (see The
Web Introduction to Engines of Cration).]
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 and
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
From Foresight Update 3, originally
published 30 April 1988.
Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 3 to
html for this web page.