Skip to content

Potential Futures of Text (Kung Fu!)

The history of text has not been written.

Why work on the future of text, particularly interactive text and particularly how text connects? That is the question this post would like to address a little bit. 

Please also note: I won’t be adding citations to easy to look-up sources like Wikipedia in my documents since using my application Liquid | Flow is faster than clicking on a basic one-way, one-destination link anyway, so I hope that if you read this you use Liquid. If not, please have a look:


The Alphabet :  The English alphabet is 26 characters long has encoded everything from Shakespeare to descriptions of quantum physics to a teenagers’ shorthand txt msgs.

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Our Genetic Code :  Our genetic code is composed of only four letters yet it resulted in all of you and all of life.

c t a g

Digital Binary :  Binary code is just on or off yet it powers everything digital.

0 1

As I wrote many years ago in my unpublished and unfinished book, Liquid Information:  The alphabet, genes and digital binary – three information systems of symbols with incredible power. This power clearly cannot reside in the symbols themselves. The power is in the interaction between them and their environments and the richer and more flexible this interaction – the more liquid – this interaction is – the more powerful these information systems will be.

Doug Engelbart used the term ’symbol manipulation’ for much of what he wanted to do with interactive computing. Doug also coined the nice term WYSIWYG for What You See Is ALL You Get – meaning that computers could power much more than a preview of a non-interactive print out…

Multi-Media & AI

Please note that this is not at all a way to de-emphasise the importance of other media such as sound and image, but these other media are already being invested in by research organisations and companies. Similarly, AI is invested in heavily but I would like to work on IA, not AI, that is: Intelligence Augmentation, rather than Artificial Intelligence. 

Please also note that it is very clear to me that the black lines on a white screen basic symbols is not the end of the line for text, richer visual representations are most definitively an important area for improvement. 


Let’s go back a bit in time and look at the pivotal time of paper entering Europe:

“The Europeans initially had no use for paper until more than a thousand years after the Chinese invented it. It was not that they had only just discovered the existence of paper, however. The Arabs had been trying to sell it to them for years. But it was not until they began learning the Arab ways of mathematics and science, and started expanding literacy, that parchment made from animal — their previous writing material – became too slow and expensive to make in the face of their fast-growing demands.” (Kurlansky, 2016)

Arab paper making made its way into Europe via the Iberian peninsula, where architecture could now reach a new level of complexity because of the paper Iberian architects could use to sketch ideas and experiment – a tangible result of increased freedom of ‘mental movement’ afforded by an improved augmented thinking space. (Nerdy words but I’m trying to be accurate here.)

The move to a cheaper and more flexible writing material was as much of an improvement as any improvement in writing implement. The substrate matters.

Digital Substrate

Fast forward to the 1950s when Doug (and others, to an extent) came up with the notion of writing on CRT screens, where an electron gun would paint on a phosphorescent screen at phenomenal speed, catching up with the first bit of irradiated phosphor before it would noticeably fade, generating any geometry on the fly, same as it did with the landscapes a radar beam would capture in the world and it would transfer to the same phosphorescent screen except what was represented now was knowledge, not simply the physical world. 

Whereas with paper and all previous substrates, the digital substrate allows for unlimited re-representation of information, entirely changing what the written word is, and can be. And this is the revolution which we are less than 50 years into, this is where the excitement and opportunity comes from; not just the representation of information, the re-representation, the interactive opportunities. 

Symbols On Digital Substrates

Having symbols in a digital substrate changes the media again and the primacy of interactivity comes even more to the fore: As I have rambled on about elsewhere, the most fundamental aspect of the universe is not information, but interaction, since interactions give rise to information in the first place so let’s really work to get to grips with what interactions are possible through computer systems. 

Deep Literacy

The second point worth extracting from the history of paper is how knowledge technologies do not progress and result in a more literate society, but a more literate society demands better knowledge technologies. As a ’tools’ builder this is to an extent a bit depressing, but it is also a reality worth keeping in mind front and centre. 

My goal is to allow for a deeper literacy, where writers and readers have much richer opportunities to ‘interrogate’ and present knowledge, particularly in the form of symbols. I therefore try to espouse the benefits of ‘deep literacy’ and talk about ‘rich interactions’ in order to illustrate better the benefits of tools such as Liquid | Flow and those made by others, including developing a high skill level at using the commands available in the operating system and mainstream applications, such as more advanced keyboard shortcut use. 

Kung Fu

In closing then, I’d like to talk about Kung Fu. I recently re-watched the powerful movie Hero, starring Jet-Li, which encompasses themes of love, unity, martial arts and calligraphy. This time what stood out for me was the value of extreme skill. I toyed with the notion of using Kung Fu for knowledge work and lo and behold, when I looked up Kung Fu it simply means ‘work’ and ’skill/accomplishment’ and there you go, a perfectly clear notion of what I am working for. 

I want to build richly interactive symbol manipulation environments for knowledge kung fu masters, stretching their ability and having their demands stretch my ability to make ever more powerful tools and environments for them.

Visual applications such as Photoshop, Lightroom, Final Cut and so on have an expectation of mastery, but text based applications not so much, neither when authoring nor when reading. This is just a phenomenally ripe opportunity to cultivate a deep literacy, a ‘kung fu’ of the written word, including developing environments where rich interaction and visualisations tools can really take root and extend our reach. 

So hey, how about a Text Kung Fu , or Wénběn Kung Fu?!

Published inThoughts

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.