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Category: Deep Literacy

Digital Substrate

Digital interactive text shares its orthography, the lines and shapes, with all previous substrates but where the interactions afforded by all pre-digital substrates are limited or expanded the utility–the interactability–of the materiality of the substrate itself, such as paper making the text easier to annotate and carry than stone or clay, the digital ‘substrate’ (“to spread underneath”) is uniquely powerful and useful:

• On non-digital substrates the textual meaning is contained on the surface of the substrate–in the orthography–the shapes of the text.

• With digital text the orthography is only a representation of the text–the text itself is stored within the computer system.

It’s important to note that digital text is inherently interactable since the very act of summoning the text to be displayed is an interaction (at runtime there is not necessarily a human specifying the steps of the interaction, many are pre-set and pre-assumed). Thus, in the same way that the computer can and must interact with the symbols to display them (must have an address for the text in storage somewhere and must have a specification for how the text should be displayed), the user can, with appropriate software systems, further interact with the text, changing the specification for what text should be displayed by somehow providing an address for the text and changing the way the text is displayed (there is no inherent, only legacy reason that documents on computers look like virtual copies of text on paper) and what operations are done on the text’s symbolic meaning.

This difference goes far beyond the philosophical and into the core opportunities of digital text: The phenomenal potential of vastly increasing our abilities to interact with knowledge through the digital text.

This is crucial because we get the surface meaning from reading the surface and we have always needed to further interact with the text in order to go beneath the surface, through reading several reports or books on the same subject, through annotating and scribbling down our insights–we have always interacted with text to the best of the ability of the substrate–digital text provides a whole new, powerful set of dimensions through which we can go deeper. It is through interaction we ‘get a handle’ on the meaning behind the text and this is how we can ‘change our perspective’ and ‘gain deeper insights’, all terms which reflect our age old experience of physically being able to move around our environment. Now that we increasingly live and work in a digital environment access in large part through digital text, we need to create the means for us to interact with the text as fluidly as we can pick up an object with our hands but as richly as only digital technologies can allow.

This is not just a philosophical point and I am not just playing with words about how interactivity gives us deeper insights, helps us get a handle on things and helps us change our perspective, it is deeply rooted in who we are. An illustrative example is what happens with ‘tactile vision substitution systems’ where someone who is blind has a camera connected to actuators on their skin which allows them with some experience to ‘see’ through their skin. What is revealing is that this ‘vision’ is only achieved when the user can move the camera–interact with what they are seeing by changing their perspective.

If ‘seeing is believing’ then ‘controlling what you are seeing goes beyond superficial belief and generates understanding’.


‘Kindle Opens The Book with deep-links’ (proposal)

Kindle books have revolutionised reading on tablets and computers but I would like to point out an area of potential great improvement with a relatively small and well protected investment: 

Pointing is a way of communicating we have had since childhood and which originates much earlier in our evolution than even homo-sapiens. An important type of pointing is a citation, where an author points to a specific section (such as a page, in a printed book) to refer to a specific point. Although printed citations were slow to follow, since the reader would need to find the book cited and then the page number, this is actually more convenient than with digital books; A digital book does not have page numbers and a commercial book, with copy-protection, does not allow a citation to point inside it. This means that not only does the reader need to find the book as before, it also means that once the book is found the reader will have to trawl through the book to find the passage cited. 

This constrains the dialog between books, one of the fundamental building blocks of intelligent, reasoned conversation. Not only can authors cite incorrectly, they can also ignore the context of any citation with impunity due to the effort to check.  

This opens up opportunities for what has become called Fake News. An author can make an assertion and bolster the assertion with multiple citations which gives courage to the converted yet no access for analysis for the critical reader, not only for the first citation, but also for the citations cited in the source–the network of discourse becomes opaque and intellectual curiosity constrained.  

The reasons for this deficit in intellectual capability comes from the copy protection of the books, which is an important aspect of their production and distribution so is not an issue in itself. The proposed solution offered here does not interfere with copy protection because it will be a solution built in to the Kindle reader, not by third party reading systems. 

The proposed way it would work#

The core functionality would work like this: 

    • The user comes across a section of text which she would like to cite and she selects the text and a new option appears: Copy As Citation.
    • The user then goes into her word processing application or web design application and Pastes this Citation which appears as text in quotes with a URL appended, to make sure it will be active/clickable in any reader application.
    • Once she publishes, a reader can then click on this citation and it will appear as a deep-link into the Kindle book and the user’s software will ask the reader if he would like to open it in Kindle. He can choose to do this (with the opportunity of purchasing the book if not already owned) and the Kindle reader will interpret the coded deep-link information and jump to that part of the book.
    • Kindle books could optionally show a larger section around the cited text as a preview before the purchase, allowing the reader to look inside the book, as is possible when purchasing the book through the Amazon store.

A software extension to open the book further could then add this: 

  • The URL which is Copied As Citation would always include all the bibliographic references to the book (encoded in plain text after the main address for any software to be able to read it, separately from the proprietary and protected Kindle location) so that if the book is no longer sold by Kindle or is available through the users library, the user can still click on the link and choose to open another instance of that book.
  • Therefore the Kindle deep-link becomes a convenient and value-added feature, but does not preclude access to other means of accessing the book and would therefore be more politically valuable.
  • The way the internal link would work in this scenario would simply be as a keyword search based on the cited text.
  • For this the reader software would need to be updated, something that an ‘Open Kindle’ system would encourage and show leadership with.



The end user benefit for the author would be more credible writing, since citations can be accessed instantly and provide the full context (in a purchased book) and for the reader it would make it much more efficient to really get to grips with the text. 

The societal benefit would be an increased standard of intellectual discourse. 

The benefit for Amazon would be doing something concrete to fight Fake News and support clear and open academic and political dialogue.  

In Summary#

In summary, I am offering this as an academic at the University of Southampton and a software developer who is working with the co-inventor of the Internet, Vint Cerf, on making electronic text ever more powerful.  

We host an annual Future of Text Symposium and this year we are putting together a special Symposium honouring our late friend and (practically speaking) inventor of personal computing, Doug Engelbart If this is agreed to then the 50th Anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s ‘mother of all demos’ event could be a great announcement day for this, since what he called high-resolution addressing was core to his philosophy. 

We have discussed this approach with numerous libraries, including representatives of the Library of Congress with the response always being that this would be a capability of great social and intellectual value. 

Frode Hegland, 



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