Quoting Out Of Context

Transclusion For Fun, Profit & Failure

Via the always-entertaining Yoz Grahame‘s del.icio.us feed comes news of the latest issuance from Ted Nelson‘s Xanadu “project”; finally the wonders of transclusion are available to mere mortals.

Transclusion, in case you didn’t know, is:

Or any variation on any of those themes.  But, naturalmente, the word itself means more than the actual definition(s).  If you haven’t yet done so, go read the… educational[0] Wired article on Xanadu (and even my blog entry about meeting Ted, linked above from his name).

So in this context, transclusion means an essential part of transcopyright: “a copyright scheme where the copyright holder grants the public a permission to refer to any portion of a given document and publishes the document in a permanent location. This way, anyone can quote the document by referring to it and the reader’s browser will then go to the originator’s server for the original material so that a micropayment can be made to the original author of the material.”  And as such, I believe it suffers from two rather deep and fatal flaws.

Firstly, it’s utopian.  And just like Ted’s words mean more than the definitions, so does that one (hey, anyone can join in this semantic game).  By utopian, I mean that it’s part of a Huge And Grand Project that will fix Something That Is Deeply Wrong.  It’s a boil-the-ocean project; as long as the whole world changes to accommodate it, it will deliver.  But that’s the minor failing.  The worst part is that it’s based on an old-fashioned and outdated notion of what the Net and/or Web are.

In the beginning[1], there was this idea about interconnected content.  All sorts of ideas grew up surrounding it, such as “information wants to be free“, or “the Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it“.  One could publish anything, and link to anyone; all was simplicity and all was clear.

But it ain’t like that anymore, even if it once was.  Consider this; one of the recent updates to the Floofs website is to provide links to products on Handango for people who aren’t in the UK and who can’t buy via text message.  To do this, I’ve had to carefully pick apart the long, complex Handango URLs to find out what’s vital to pass and what isn’t[2].  And I know, for absolute sure, that those links are going to break when Handango roll out their shiny new look and feel to Handango Europe.  The key point here is that the source of my quotation/destination of my link is not under my control.

Let’s make an artificial example, because we can and it’s fun.  Suppose I were to put a quotable sentence here.  Let’s choose one of my favourites:

Against stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in vain

Now, I leave it a while, and it gets transcluded all over the shop.  And now I go and change the source, so that it says something else, such as “people who transclude other people’s comments are well known for having dirty underwear”.  All the documents that reference my quote change, magically, all over the world.  This goes on even now, with images.  Webmasters who find their images being relinked without their permission (and hence stealing their bandwidth) often modify the source image to show something either obscene or comical (occasionally both) so that the “thief’s” page is thereby defaced[5].

Of course, the above is a daft example; people aren’t inclined to edit their own quotes[3].  But you and I, as software techie people, know how precarious it is to build any sort of construct on assets controlled by other people.  I don’t want to have to maintain the URLs on my site indefinitely just for the convenience of anyone who’s transcluded my text[4].  What if I die?  Or lose my income and decide that webspace is a costly indulgence?  The web is not a single entity and does not maintain a stable state.  Bits of it are always vanishing.  The last link above (about image stealing) was to an eBay forum page that has now vanished, so I linked to the Google cache instead.  Content on the web is transient.

So, the Web has moved on from its beginnings, as have we all.  Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.  Nowadays it has been overrun and changed deeply by commerce; by content intended to sell you something right now, or give you the news of the moment, as it happens.  None of that will be around in six months; some of it will be gone by tomorrow.  And Xanadu is still based on a vision from the 1960s or 1970s, a vision that’s old and faded now, dimmed by the bright light of the flashing banner adverts that change every page view.  And no amount of proof-of-concept code can bring it back.  And micropayments? I didn’t even go there…

[0] I pause before choosing the adjective “educational” since feelings about Ted N run deep and strong and I wish to attempt to retain a precarious ambivalence on the subject.  Or rather, I’m scared of flames.
[1] Please feel free to choose your own definition of “beginning” when we’re talking about the Internet and/or World Wide Web.
[2] And Handango’s “Partner Support”… don’t get me started.
[3] The reader is invited to pause at this point and consider the nature of the politician and the spin doctor.
[4] It’s enough hassle making sure that old Google links to parts of floofs.com don’t break when the site structure is changed.  At least I try…
[5] It’s worth reading 🙂

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