CTO Compass

Is your business leveraging its brainpower? Tap into the Xanadu dream with modern tech tools.

CTO Compass series

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor, and science administrator known for his work during and after World War II.

In July 1945, he published an essay titled “As We May Think” in “The Atlantic Monthly,” which has since become highly influential in the development of computer science and information technology. Bush’s essay imagined a future with sophisticated devices enabling users to store and retrieve information efficiently. He described the “memex,” a theoretical machine that would use microfilm to store vast amounts of data linked in a manner that mimicked the associative paths of human thought. This concept of associative trails laid the groundwork for hyperlinks—fundamental to today’s World Wide Web—and influenced another great thinker, Ted Nelson and his brainchild, the Xanadu project.


Hatched in 1960, Xanadu was conceived as the ultimate digital library—a sprawling, seamless nexus of documents interlinked much as the neurons in our brains. Nelson envisioned a world where all written knowledge could be interconnected through a universal system, each piece of content linked to its references, quotations, and annotations.

Xanadu sought to provide a new structure for the written word, going beyond the linearity of the page and allowing ideas to intertwine across documents. The intent was to break free from the constraints of traditional writing, enabling readers to explore topics in a dynamic, non-linear fashion but also accurately attributing all content, providing due credit and context for each sliver of information.

For a long time, Xanadu’s grand vision was unrealised. The hurdles of technology and adoption at the time were insurmountable. But, the seeds of non-linear and networked thinking were planted.

Connected Thinking

Fast-forward to today and the spirit of Xanadu is reborn. Kickstarted in 2019 with the release of Roam Research, there is now a myriad of applications that have sprung up to capture many of Xanadu’s aspirations, including more mainstream applications like Notion. These applications enable you to easily connect ideas together, marrying seamless note-taking with the power of networked thought.

Personally, I use Roam Research; there is still nothing that rivals it for its ability to take notes and create connections to other notes fluidly.

One of the key features of these tools is bi-directional linking. Much like Xanadu’s vision, they enable a mesh of thought, connecting disparate ideas through references that work both ways. What this means is that each link created between two pieces of content is reciprocal. Not only can you navigate from the first piece of content to the second, but you can also navigate back from the second piece of content to the first. In other words, both pieces of content reference each other directly.

For example, Note A contains a meeting summary with important points discussed during a team meeting, including the decision to pursue Project X.

In it, it mentions Sarah’s analysis of marketing strategies, linked to `Note B`, which offers a detailed breakdown of her report. In Note B: Sarah’s Marketing Strategy Analysis, she explores various marketing approaches for Project X and their potential impacts.

When you click on the link in `Note A`, it takes you to `Note B`. Conversely, when viewing `Note B`, you have a backlink pointing you to the `Note A` discussion, ensuring that you can always trace the context of ideas.

Imagine you’re researching a broad topic like climate change. With Roam or similar modern tools, you can take notes from various articles and fluidly link to sources and related concepts as you do so, creating a web of information. By dynamically interweaving facts, hypotheses, and data, you build a more comprehensive understanding of the topic.

Further, you are then able to visualise and browse those connections, which can help you see emergent patterns leading to fresh perspectives, insights, and solutions.

Dialogues with your past self

One of the most profound impacts of Xanadu’s vision realised in tools like Roam Research is the capacity to create a symbiotic thinking partner of your own mind. It’s like partaking in a dialogue with your past self, revisiting past thoughts and ideas and seeing them evolve or take new shape in light of additional information and experience.

For me, one of the unexpected benefits is a much greater understanding of myself. Roam, especially, lends itself to frictionless journaling. The outliner style of bullets and the ability to quickly link to prior thoughts and concepts means you can later explore and see patterns in your thoughts and behaviour, which helps you make connections so you’ll take action to change for the better.

Networked Thought

These Tools for Thought, as they’re often known, are still early in their development, and there’s a lot of promise yet to be yielded. Roam’s ultimate goal is to be a place of ideation for multiple people, each building on their own earlier and others’ thinking – truly networked thought.

For companies to grow and thrive, it’s critical that they can effectively and efficiently create and use that knowledge to generate value. To facilitate this, it’s incumbent on leaders to think about how knowledge is retained and shared within their organisation. Digital technology now plays a huge part in that.

Companies who learn how to do this well will have a huge advantage over others. I believe it is essential to be at the forefront of understanding and using this new wave of knowledge management tools, beginning by using it for yourself. See for yourself how it can help you to lead more effectively but have a longer-term vision in mind for creating your own organisational Xanadu.

⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

Knowledge and information are the lifeblood of many organisations, but are you paying attention to how it’s stored, managed and utilised to create value?

Digital storage is now common, but just how in control of your data are you?

This week, use your Thinking Time to consider how your organisation organises and manages its knowledge.

Reflect on the current methods your organization uses to create and capture knowledge. Are these processes well-defined and consistently followed across different teams and departments?

Consider the technology and systems in place for storing organizational knowledge. Are they secure yet accessible to all relevant stakeholders to enable the team to share and surface ideas and insights that can help the company thrive?

CTO Compass series