Explaining & Defending Author
My friend Livia posed these issues to me and I will try to address them here. I wrote a significantly longer piece, with citations from many and addressing a lot of issues in detail but I lost it when my prototype build of Author froze. Such is the perils of development. This new version has very few quotes, and does not use Author’s advanced citation systems, something which would not be accessible when reading this outside of Author anyway.
I start with a quote from Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is The Massage:
“All media are extensions of some human faculty- psychic or physical
the wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye, clothing, an extension of the skin,
electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system”
What I am trying to do here is to augment who we are, by improving the infrastructure through which we interact with the written word.
As I wrote on the front page of my website, liquid.info:
Writing is an act of persuasion.
From small and insignificant to large and world-changing or something in between. Just like a pop tune’s job is to be a jingle for itself to persuade you to buy it, the written word’s function is to persuade you to buy into what it proclaims.
With myriads of perspectives vying for our attention and our agreement it becomes an important necessity for us to to question what we read in an instant – to immediately view the text from other angles, to check quotes and references. The other side of the argument is to augment your ability to write with more credibility.
These are the reasons why I started the Liquid Information Project, with Liquid | Flow, the interactive text utility for macOS and Liquid | Author, a minimalist word processor with advanced controls for academics, which will feature the Liquid View.
• What problem are they really designed to solve and how much overhead for a digital author is involved in using these programs to solve that problem?
• I know they have something to do with better handling of citations, but are there other benefits to using these systems and where in the authoring workflow would interacting with these interfaces be useful?
I’ll start my reply to this by making a few assertions which I have many times previously backed up and would be happy to do again if there is disagreements. The specific ways Author deals with the problems or augments the user in general will be in different sections and I would appreciate it if you have a look at the very quick video guide to see exactly how some of these actions are carried out:
Preamble: The Target User
Before dealing in, a reflection on the target user. Author will not be for those who are not inherently interested in looking into new tools, Author will be for this who are curious about the tools they use for their work to make an effort see if this way will benefit them, rather than dismissing it outright. Author is for those who care about speed and learn keyboard shortcut but not those who are happy clicking buttons in Word.
Marketing of Author will be to graduate students, while building every more focused version for their needs, starting with our team at Southampton and growing slowly initially.
The Philosophical Position
Our human ‘knowledge’ is an intimate part of what we as humans are – it is not something stored coldly in a box in our minds. Have a look at the etymologies of ‘knowledge’ and ‘to know’ to see more of what I am referring to. Please feel free to use my tool Liquid | Flow to do this quickly and pleasantly, making the act of looking this up part of the pleasure of reading.
Knowledge is an active part of the human experience, of who we are. We canto separate any part of our knowledge from how the whole of our stored knowledge, our experience, our ‘schema’ shapes how we ‘see’ the knowledge. How one person experiences a statistic on a issue such as Donald Trump, immigration, sexual equality, nationality or even the notion of a good meal, is a richly textured tapestry of activated neural nets with wire together or decay over time.
The written word holds a large part of of human knowledge. It is core to our future happiness and indeed, our survival, that we develop the means to interact with the knowledge stored in text documents.
Knowledge in the form of text is also part of the ‘texture’ of knowledge in other texts and in other minds.
Currently much of this text is frozen, but I aim to turn it into Liquid information, making text are richly interactive as possible, perhaps even to the point of satisfying Socrate’s reservations of text:
“You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.” Reply from the king to Thoth, the mythical inventor of writing, when Thoth presents writing to the king and hopes for blessings, as told by Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC, written down by Plato, since, unsurprisingly, Socrates never wrote down anything).
We need tools to help us interrogate and weave the knowledge we have in text.
“The greatest crisis facing us is not Russia, not the Atom bomb, not corruption in government, not encroaching hunger, nor the morals of young. It is a crisis in the organization and accessibility of human knowledge.”
Robert A. Heinlein
The most fundamental aspect of existence is interaction since it is interaction which gives rise to information. Therefore it follows that we should make our information as interactive as possible to get as much benefit from it as possible.
Furthermore, information is built from connections; both explicit and implicit, to use Doug Engelbart’s terminology:
Explicit connections are what we today call Web Links, where an author or editor has tagged a piece of text with an address which a reader can interact with (usually through a click) in order for the Web Browser to send a request to the location indicated to send back a document of some sort. Please note that the document may or may not be there, which is why this is an address, not a link.
Citations are a type of explicit connection, where the most pertinent point, according to the author, has been ‘drawn in’ to the document, leaving an address of some sort for the reader to use to check the veracity, relevance and basic correctness of the quote.
As such, a citation becomes the scaffolding connection on which the author’s arguments rest, they become the document’s bond with the rest of the discourse in this particular academic field. Using this language, of ‘connections’, ‘building’ and ‘framework’ might inspire you to feel the information as a real ‘web’ of knowledge, far beyond what we see on a printed piece of paper.
The current way of handling citations is to give them a number in the document, or a name and year in brackets and present references at the end of the document. This does not allow for quick checking of the citations and it is cumbersome to prepare.
In the Author model the author has fast and effective ways of creating citations, whether from the Web, academic articles, books or videos as can be seen in the video User Guide referred to in the introduction to this document.
When reading the user also has powerful means to go beyond what the states citation says, to check on what is behind it. This includes showing video citations inside Author at the exact moment in the video the citation refers to and to search the Web for Web citations to make sure the originating source in the document is correct and to show any other issues with may come up.
Pull on the thread of the citation and ask yourself how it adds to what is cited. Instantly – as the citation and all other information is as accessible to you as the information in the document.
A document is a framing of a human perspective and as such will not go away anytime soon, though current hype is very much about ‘collaborative’ writing, which my colleague Mark Anderson calls ‘combative writing’ since it’s often not about everyone building but about competing.
However, the notion of a document being a frame also reveals the urge to connect what is in the document with what lies beyond its borders and for the user it should be as effortless to navigate between documents as it should be within a single document.
Implicit connections include a word and it’s entry in a dictionary – they are logically ‘bound’ but there is no coding for a reader to click on the word for the dictionary entry to appear.
Liquid | Flow
Considering that connections are the building blocks of information, unleashing the power of implicit connections becomes a priority, which is why I developed Liquid | Flow: www.liquid.info which allows the user (either author or reader) to select any piece of text and, within half a second and without spending any perceptible mental effort, realise the implicit connection to see the text’s entry in any of a myriad of references or through doing searches. This means that Fake News becomes harder to hide and non-credible citations are instantly revealed.
Liquid | Flow can also search on images so you can quickly see if that quote on Facebook is true or not.
Furthermore, Flow allows you to convert numbers, translate text, copy in many formats and share on social media including WordPress.
An in hereunto quality of the digital substrate is that a person cannot directly see anything stored in a digital format so there has to be a series of decisions by the builders of the system as to how the information should be shown. This even applies to ‘plain text’, which will appear with the default font, colour and layout in the default frame the developers have chosen.
This means that the developers should take great care in choosing the default views of the information and that they should provide powerful ways for the user to change the view, or the ViewSpec to use Doug Engelbart’s terminology.
There is no ‘native’ or ‘always best’ view of the information, the optimal presentation changes depending on what the reader needs, hence the need for powerful view options – the reader should be able to view the information (in this document I will be primarily be referring to textual information of course) in many powerful ways:
Author Feature: Show only sentences with a selected keyword.
This is a feature we have in Author now which I think is powerful: Select any text and do cmd-f and the document view changes to show only sentences with the selected text. Very useful when you are trying to get something specific out of the document. If the keyword you are interested in is not on the screen, do cmd-f and type it it.
Author Feature: Instant Outline.
The reader can pinch the document vertically with two fingers on the trackpad to hide all body text and only see the Headings, changing the View effectively into a Table of Contents. The Table of Contents is not tacked on at the side, it’s the actual document just seen in an instantly accessible view. The reader can now click on any heading to have the document instantly open up again and jump to that heading in the document. The reader can also click in the margin or ESC to go back to the regular view.
Author Feature: Liquid View.
This is the main project for my thesis where the goal is to give you an ‘incredible interactive multidimensional thinking space’ where you can move your information around at will and see connections and relationships which might otherwise elude you, giving you a more powerful ‘view’ of your knowledge.
The work of Swiss clinical psychologist Jean Piaget (1896 -1980) provides the basic underpinnings for this work with an important perspective of how we learn:
We first ‘assimilate’ all the information we come across, simply accepting and integrating it all into our internal mental map – our ‘schema’. The other stage happens when we come across information which either contradicts what we have already learnt or which lays outside it to the point where we have no reference to hook it onto our existing schema, a stage he called ’accommodation’.
Accommodation is the real heavy lifting of thinking – it’s not simply adding another bit to something we know. = It is figuring out how something complete new can somehow be added to our scheme or, even worse, it is the process of evaluating something which contradicts what is already in our schema.
At this point we have to make a real cognitive effort to reject the new information as wrong/useless or irrelevant to our understanding or to accept that we should modify or delete aspects of our current schema. To do this all ‘in-brain’ can quickly become a momentous task, with too many variables interacting and this is where visualisation can support our ability to ‘see’ parts of our schema and ‘visualise’ how it fits with the competing information.
“Being able to move information chunks around, to group them and connect them makes “the process of making knowledge explicit, using nodes and relationships, allows the individual to become aware of what they know and as a result to be able to modify what they know.”
For a visual mockup please see this short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InMcFp7zMNE&index=1&list=PLYx4DnFWaXV_S4r_FJsVOOFnqom93i2Oe
The Current Reality
The effort to read current academic documents is much higher than it needs to be.
PDF documents are designed to be printed and allow for very little flexible digital interaction. They are a legacy of the work of XEROX park which provided useful human computer interaction improvements but which was basically a printing company and as such the end-product of digital work was implicitly understood to be printing and the WYSIWYG perspective was born: What You See Is What You Get, rather than the earlier DOS style commands such as <Bold> to indicate that the text should be bold. Doug Engelbart, whose lab at SRI invented the initial breakthroughs, felt that this really was better described as WYSIAYG: What You See Is ALL You Get.
If you reply to the previous paragraph with the thought that ‘it’s so much easier to simply print out the academic article and then go through it with a pen or a highlighter’ then I will automatically scream, wherever I am, whatever the time is – I’ll be telephonically linked to your thought about that paragraph.
If you really feel that the best way to read non-entertainment text is to print it, please also consider writing your Facebook feed before you read it. Please also consider printing your emails and writing replies by hand, then ‘entering’ this text into your computer when done.
There is no question that the actual substrate of paper is easier on the eye, but the substrate of paper is dead and offers no interaction and we are not far away from developing high resolution, fast updating digital paper – look at the amazing advancements of high-resolution computer screens now, higher resolution than 90’s laser printers.
If your concern is how badly the current digital reading systems are at handling even the most basic annotation, I am with you, this is part of what we are working on.
The Statement of Opportunity
There is indeed a lot to be done with improving how we interact with our written knowledge – the history of text has not been written.
In order to deal with a complicated situation we, that is academics and other ‘knowledge workers’ need to operate at a high level, same as with any other high-powered profession, such as being a fighter pilot, research scientist or top performing athlete.
In order to achieve this high level of performance we need powerful tools and the training to become deeply literate at using them.
(Other media, such as mages, audio, video etc. are getting a lot of development attention but software for reading and writing is getting very little)
Humans are good at rich interaction, just look at any sport. Knowledge workers should be provided with powerful, flexible tools as well, so that they can build interaction literacies as impressive as any skateboarder, skier, BMX biker or gymnast.
Facebook as increased the literacy of the general population so even though there is a strong need for deeper literacy and this will be real work for the user, at least there is a generally increasing computer and information literacy in the general culture.
More on How Author Addresses The Issues
Author is designed around the most basic aspect of what text is: A visual shape on a contrasting background, which encodes information. This means trying to throw away a lot of non-digital baggage such as the notion of a page, page numbers, references at the back of a document, non-interactivity (apart from the ability to read the text and make marks on it) and the notion that the headings in the table of contents should be different text from the actual headings themselves.
Whom To Augment First
Doug Engelbart rhetorically asked in his 1962 paper; whom to augment first? He suggested programmers, since they deal with structured information and could improve the system itself. I am suggesting academics since academics aspire to a high level of honest discourse.
The Process to Augment
The full potential of the Liquid | Author Project will be to augment the full cycle of creating an academic paper, from research/Literature Review, through to Thinking/Developing the Thesis through to Authoring, Collaboration & Review and finally Publishing the document in a powerful way to fuel the next person’s Literature Review.
The Literature Review
A large part of Author is devoted to helping the user read documents in the native format for Author, is which the .liquid format.
The point of a literature review is to allow the reader to better understand and analyse the source material in the literature review in order to develop a deeper and wider up-to-date understanding of the field, to go from “I reckon to I know” as Les Carr put it, while keeping an open mind as to the limit of attained knowledge as highlighted by Chris Stringer and the limit of the space of knowledge possible to interact with, as Alexander Laszlo noted.
This means that literature review is not a process of reading through documents while giving equal weight to all documents and all the text in the documents, it is a process of ‘active reading’, as Craig Tashman puts it. Christopher Gutteridge uses the example of the real meaning of an academic paper being presented in the last sentence in the Summary, meaning that the process should maybe highlight this sentence, perhaps even when looking at a citation to the document.
Active reading means moving around the document to check different parts and Author contributes to this in two ways:
Developing The Thesis
Augment the postgraduate student’s freedom of mental movement in order to achieve a more integrated, analysed and intellectually honest understanding of their thesis. This is the process my PhD project Liquid | View aims to improve.
Producing a Thesis Document with more clarity and credibility. This is where Author comes in with more specific authoring tools such as:
Author Feature: Cuttings.
Anything you Cut in Author is stored so you can keep Cutting and do cmd-shift-v to see a list of everything you have Cut, in order to paste or permanently delete.
Author Feature: Warm background.
Not a white background, a warm background to be easier on the eyes.
Author Feature: Keyboard Shortcuts.
Most commands can be issued in Author through very fast keyboard shortcuts, such as cmd-b for bold and cmd-1 for heading level one.
Author Feature: Edit & Read Modes
Edit & Read Modes so that you can ‘spacebar’ to scroll down a full screen in Read mode and select text and spacebar to hear the text read out loud.
Author Feature: Quick Full Screen
Belie it or not, to me this is an important feature, since it speeds up the process of focused writing: To go in to full screen mode use the ESC key instead of clicking on the button in the window bar.
Collaboration & Review
Have more efficient collaboration through feedback from within the community, reviews from supervisors, and finally, from external examiners.
This will necessitate the building of a rich annotation layer. Work has not started on this. BTW, in this context the language used is that the author can add Comments and anything a reader adds, whether a doodle, underline, highlight or text is called Annotations.
Publishing the academic paper as a useful literature review resource for others. In many ways this is the end goal; to produce a highly understandable, interactive and readable document to help the next reader along.
The notion here is to introduce a series of Publishing Modules which will run on export, including Plagiarism checker, Auto Summary to help the author know if what the author thought was being communicated actually was communicated, with an option to click on a sentence in the summary to see only the sentences in the document which contributed to that summary sentence (as suggested by Livia Polanyi) and more, such as checking for writing level and so on.
An Advisor or teacher will have similar modules for import, where a quick analysis of the document can find common issues and the Advisor can then choose whether to open or to send an automatic email to the student listing the issues.
In summary I would say that Author is but one ‘candidate’ as Doug would put it, and that it needs to be developed in an open ecosystem where different approaches can compete and support each other.
You may agree with my philosophy or not. You may like my implementations or not. That’s ok. I’ve struggled with this since the mid-90’s and made very little progress so it is indeed likely that I am simply deluded and making a toy only I would like for myself.
Livia asked what the problem Author is designed to solve and the brief answer is making the knowledge in written academic documents much more accessible and useable to read and more flexible and credible to produce.
She asked about the overhead and I would say that beyond the initial ‘getting to know you’ period there is significantly less overhead in using Author than something like the complication of Word and PDF.
As I started, so I will finish, with a quote from Marshall McLuhan, reminding us all of our common responsibility to work on myriads of ways to better communicate and interact with our knowledge:
“On spaceship earth, there are no passengers, only crew.”