This is an attempt to highlight the inherent interactivity of digital text, the value which can be extracted by realising the interactive potential and areas of investigation.
To look at how we can advance the power of interactive text to augment our knowledge work, we need to look at what text is; how text encodes knowledge, how we decode knowledge from it and how text in a digital substrate is different from text on an analog substrate.
Text, whether a single character in a word or a word in a sentence, achieves meaning from other text. This makes text a rule-based ‘nodal’ medium (the word ‘node’ originally meant ‘knot’ and as such only exists as intersections of connections) and this highlights the inherent interactivity of text: Text has no meaning without connection and to extract the maximum utility from text we should investigate what further interactions can be powerfully useful.
Writing is flexible enough to handle all the spoken words in the language they represent and coherent enough that the text may be reliably ‘read’, based on rules. Without the first there would not be much to write down and without the second the ambiguity threshold would be too high and would make the text ‘unreadable’ and un-dependable to be a witness to the authors thoughts.
The connections in text include:
• Connecting different characters using ‘vocalisation’ rules to provide a huge vocabulary.
• Connecting different words using ‘grammar’ rules provide a huge potential of knowledge expression.
• Connecting to external sources through implicit links to give us a wide web of context shared with the reader to tap on.
• Connecting to external sources through explicitly presenting addresses giving us a potential credibility for assertions and arguments if they ‘stack up’ for the reader.
This ‘readability’ is what makes textual even more powerful when it exists in a digital substrate where the screen is only a re-presentation of the symbols in the system, interacted with through layers of pre-designed manipulations from the digital native zeros and ones to the beautifully high resolution lines forming elegant type on your screen–in order to reach your screen the symbols must be interacted with but this is usually pre-done. The power the user can get from giving the user control over the interactions with the symbols is vast.
With the reservations of some specific tasks and professions, working with knowledge on computer systems is primarily ‘literally;’ the act of looking–at and for–the connections of textual nodes of knowledge, reforming connections between nodes and packaging them to share new insights, which can all be seen as acts of weaving knowledge.
I don’t use the term ‘information’ since I think it’s important to keep in mind that authored text is primarily from an author’s mind, not neutral information somehow objectively placed into a document. For the textual knowledge looked at here, we are not looking at ‘dry’ facts but liquid opinions and perspectives of authors and readers and how they can influence change in perspectives or solidify prejudices.
The act of authoring is to linearly encode connections between nodes into a linear, frozen text and the act of reading is to decode them and to investigate the logic and credibility of the connections in the text (logical & cited) as well as seeing how they connect to wider, non-explicit contexts. As such, the symbols, the ‘stuff of knowledge’, serve very different purposes when authoring and reading:
• When authoring the text are nodes in various levels of visual linearity which the author needs to linearise.
• When reading the nodes are in a linear order and the reader needs to re-order them to better understand all the connections.
The act of authorship is the act of choosing which symbols (expressing fresh thoughts, recorded notes or linked citations) should appear in which order in a linear presentation.
This act of choosing and arranging can be done in one fell swoop when writing something the author knows well and which does not require further investigation or thought. The more the author needs to learn about the subject of the text, the more editing will naturally occur as the author thinks while glancing over what she has written so far. With digital environments, thinking and editing becomes an intimate round-trip from the space of symbols via the computer screen and trackpad and keyboard and the users mind.
Basic support for this process include the ability to drag and drop text and cut and paste. The opportunities to improve the authorship process remain immense however: Means through which the author can contract and expand lengths of text for easier overviews and manual and automatic concept-map like layouts which deliver interactions only digital text can make possible.
As any author who has written anything but the shortest document will know, is mentally taxing, with different elements needing to be made available somehow for the author to string together and then re-position while thinking further and while seeing how the pieces actually fit. Research questions include working to find out the best representations of text for different views and interactions.
Potential Benefits of Improvements
Using the processing power of the author’s visual processing occipital lobe to augment their short term memory and higher level thought prefrontal cortex can free up more creative thinking and open up mental space for more critical thinking. This is just the start of what can be done and what we understand. Further research can point to ways higher and lower pathway visual processing can further augment visual thinking.
The use of text to store knowledge is an imperfect and non-complete attempt to freeze the knowledge into a fixed set of rigid symbols in a non-fixed context. We venerate text for it’s objectivity and longevity but anyone who has read anything from an older generation, let alone from someone who authored a few hundred years ago like Shakespeare, is firmly aware how the context has moved while the text stayed still.
The fixedness of the lines of text and the solidity this proffers on what is written, as well as the vast majority of the history of writing associating well-formed (printed) text with great expense and therefore worth, gives ‘authority’ beyond what is reasonable in a digital environment where writing and distribution can be cheap but consumption expensive, given that the ratio of sources for a reader will always vastly outstrip the individual readers ability to consume and to reply.
For a reader to approach a text with ‘an open mind’ but without the passivity which would simply ‘brainwash’ requires a mental space for the reader which is outside the scope of discussions of interactive text (such as the removal of mental loads of different kinds of worries and the educational supplementing of mental tools for interrogation and self-awareness) but it is clear that people are much more amenable to ‘changing’ their minds if they make discoveries on their own rather than being told by someone else. This is a primary reason why providing as rich tools to interact with text as possible is crucially important, to be able to deal with the readers curiosity when sparked, as quickly and easily as possible, before the spark fades, making the text itself so interactive that Socrates would have approved.
The interaction the spark needs to be met by is an interactive reading system where the reader can somehow handle the text fluidly to see different aspects of the text or to navigate through the text’s explicit and implicit connections.
How the reader can most powerfully see different types of connections and interrogate the text provides a wealth of important research opportunities. One experiment I have already done on this is making implicit links effortless to follow, through the Liquid | Flow utility: www.liquid.info which highlights the real benefits of simple additions to the readers interaction arsenal and gives an indication of what can be done with real research and testing.
Potential Benefits of Improvements
To break through this initial visual frozen text (even the most interactive text is visually still until the reader interacts with it) is to set the text free for the reader to literally dive deeper into the texts authored and environmental connections and to more quickly and correctly assign relevance and value to the text and to better understand the expressed meaning of the text and it’s wider context.
This rich interaction will be crucial to build a better informed, better connected, more harmonious society, though of course not in isolation from other also crucial efforts.
In order to do the reading and the writing – in order to weave and unweave, the text must be ‘somewhere’, it must be somehow addressable. A key aspect of interactive text then is addressability, since you cannot interact with something which isn’t ‘there’, where ‘there’ is defined as specific space which can be addressed, where this space of the address can be very local or more universal.
The most local and basic addressing is simply having something interactable on a computer screen so that the user can put their cursor over the text, double click (or equivalent) to select it and choose to Copy the text, Spell Check it or something else. Without local addressing the computer would not know where the users cursor is or where the text is.
Networks of text, colloquially referred to as ‘hypertext’ in our community, relies on wider access addressability afforded by domain name systems and the world wide web system, where text can encode the location of a document on another physical or virtual computer with an address, such as www.liquid.info and can then further specify the directory of the document by adding / and the name of the directory and further the name of the document, ending with the type of encoding is used, such as .html. If the author of the document has taken care of if the authoring software does it, the address can end with a hashtag denoting an anchor placed inside the text, allowing the reader to follow a link to that very location.
This is a rich opportunity for research and practical implementations since it literally opens up new possibilities for knowledge representation and connection–in short: how we can connect determines the size of the representation of our mental worlds.