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Month: June 2017

Preamble to PhD, 23 Jun, 11:27

My friend and mentor Doug Engelbart sent me the following email:


I honestly think that you are the first person I know that is expressing the kind of appreciation for the special role which IT can (no, will) play in reshaping the way we can symbolize basic concepts to elevate further the power that conditioned humans can derive from their genetic sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities.

Engelbart, 2003

My intent with this PhD project is to pursue this legacy by pushing as far as I can beyond what current text interactions are, towards a state of richer text-interaction systems resulting in a deeper literacy for the user. The work will centre around a software system developed quite literally from a blank slate, where a major work output will be the continuous exploration and research being written up and made accessible to others who are also wrestling to get the most out of the written word.

My initial user community will be scholars who are interested in improving their textual document interactions, not simply following the paper-like models we have inherited quite blindly. I have already starting connecting with such individuals and building a nascent community. 

The areas of inquiry will then include areas outside of computer science, since it is of course the user I aim to augment, not the computer systems. There will be limits to the depth of research I can do in the other fields of course, so I will focus primarily on the implementation and testing on the software system, inspired by the insights gleamed from other fields. 

My direction therefore mirrors Doug’s own, though this is a different project and I come at it from my own point of view:

The conceptual framework we seek must orient us toward the real possibilities and problems associated with using modern technology to give direct aid to an individual in:

comprehending complex situations, 

isolating the significant factors, and 

solving problems.

Engelbart, 1962

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Liquid View : Where, What & Wonder.

I plan to build a Liquid View addition to the macOS (and later iOS) Liquid | Author word processor I am currently working on, where the author can instantly toggle between the regular word processing view and the Liquid View. The Liquid View is being developed to primarily show the document’s headings in clusters, so that the author may arrange and re-arrange the document in a non-linear fashion, allow new connections to be seen and hints at what might be missing to appear.

The reasons why and the implications are outlined below:

For an author a blank sheet of paper both represents opportunity and a bit of dread; how should I approach removing its pristine whiteness with my marks? The writer Sidney Sheldon put it pithily in a quote I cannot attribute to anything other than quote websites, (which highlights one of the issues to be addressed): “A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.” For a software developer a blank ‘sheet’, or a blank screen, similarly presents opportunities and a bit of dread; how can I learn from the history of interactive text and interactivity in general what will be useful to do and what of our current legacy systems should would be best to reject?

Since it is well established that our writing and reading tools are tools to think with (Keith Oatley, Maja Djikic, 2008), the augmentation for how we interact with written information is crucial to support aspects of all other intellectual activity.

With my PhD project Liquid View, I aim to develop a digital blank sheet of paper specifically for; academics to use when authoring scholarly documents. This focus considerably helps constrain what would be useful to provide in the Liquid View.

The reason I am developing a new ‘view’ is that while computer systems are highly flexible, as can be witnessed by modern computer games and highly specific scientific visualisation for example, authoring and reading still works with primarily textual documents within the constraints of the previous technology of print, as black characters in rectangular blocks delineated by ‘pages’, severely under-utilises our powerful visual processing capabilities. I believe that we can move far beyond the current visual paradigms for working with text and the Liquid View project aims to demonstrate this.

The need for more powerful views of our information comes from seeing the ancient, and perhaps humanly inherent phenomena of ‘bias’ which has previously appeared as ‘propaganda’, has now exploded into what is dubbed ‘fake news (James Carson , 2017)’ since the threshold of publishing and propagating partisan information with neutral appearance has become frictionless through low cost and low effort required. It is particularly important in academia and business since there is also a profusion of published papers making it increasingly harder to stay on top of all the relevant publications in ones field (Pietro Della Briotta Parolo, Raj Kumar Pan, Rumi Ghosh, Bernardo A. Huberman, Kimmo Kaski, Santo Fortunato, 2015). The profusion of fake news and the massive rates of publication puts further strains on our abilities to comprehend, question and think honestly and creatively, while also communicating clearly and honestly ourselves – without simply passing on convenient prejudices.

The Liquid View project addresses this concern through developing a digital system with much higher bandwidth between the user and external information and their own thoughts by taking advantage of the availability of large, portable, high-resolution screens which can take better advantage of our powerful visual-cognitive systems; the processing capacity of the human visual system is about 12 million bits per second while 16 bits per second is the bandwidth of consciousness (Norretranders, 1999). The human visual system is not an objective, neutral image surveillance system, but an active processing system based on the evolution of layers of capability.

Where, What & Wonder. Two primary neuronal pathways are worth highlighting; the ‘where’ and ‘what’ systems (Margaret S. Livingstone, 2014). The ‘where system concerns motion and depth perception as well as spatial organisation and figure/ground segregation. It is colourblind, fast, has low acuity and is high contrast sensitive. The ‘what’ system deals with object recognition, including face recognition and colour perception. It is colour selective, slow, has high acuity and features low contrast sensitivity. Something which has fascinated me since childhood has been what ‘better’ vision would ‘look like’. A basic answer to this can be given by looking at text on a traditional computer monitor and then on a high-resolution ‘retina’ display and it feels like your vision has improved. Digital systems have improved human vision in other ways, such as through thermal imaging and other ‘false’ colour displays. I believe that I have found a way to look at improved human vision when looking at digital worlds and that is by adding to the Where and the What system by adding an interactive dimension and calling it the ‘Wonder’ dimension, since it can produce a sense of wonder if done right and it’s job is to answer the question the user has of ‘I wonder what it will look like if…’ in an effective manner.

There are of course other ‘wonder’ systems, including all interactive computer systems, but I introduce the term here to elevate interaction to a foundational element of how we literally and figuratively see our world.

In order to design, build and test such as system, aspects of human vision along with human thought must be consulted to build a powerfully interactive ‘wonder’ dimension to document authoring, along with a survey of the technological environment in order to design a build a system which can be implemented. Furthermore, a richer view of the history of interactive text and of the deep history of visual communication can help frame constraints, highlight current prejudices and open further inspirations. This will need to incorporate modern information, communication and link theory.

A successful implementation will result in a system which promotes deeper literacy to reduce Cognitive Rigidity (Coplan, 2016) and increase Cognitive Fluidity (Mithen, 1998) to a measurable degree.

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