I was shocked to read [Ted Nelson’s] justification for why Xanadu must be built from scratch, completely and perfectly: “Existing systems do not combine well; hooking them together creates something like the New York subway system.”
The New York Subway system?!
In my System Design class, we lauded this as one of the most functional examples of emergent design ever. New York could’ve suffered from some clunky, overdetermined, shortsighted, top-down transportation plan. Instead, a number of transportation companies competed to get the people where they needed to go. Competition between companies and the lack of an overall design vision led to a shift in emphasis: not what makes sense, but what works well.
These posts are long (I must have spent ten to fifteen minutes this morning reading this one) but I love the insight into what he’s thinking about. This part in particular of a longer set of thoughts on Ted Nelson’s Xanadu and similar systems was well worth the read.
(See also: A Big Idea Called Legibility, by Venkatesh Rao:
- Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
- Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
- Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
- Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
- Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
- Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
- Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly