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Category: Future Of Text

Continuing symposium on the future of text.

Liquid | Reader Browser Plugin

Liquid Web Browser plugin for Safari and/or Chrome and/or Firefox, depending on ease of initial implementation.

Liquid | Reader Browser Plugin

Main functions: Download PDF with citation information & Augmented Copying.

Preferences include simple on/off options:

‘Auto-Append Citation Information if found?[]’

‘Augmented Copy on regular cmd-c (•) or shift-command-c?()’

With brief descriptions of each function.

Download PDF with Citation Information

User visits an academic download site (initially supporting and searches for a document and finds one which the user then chooses to download. The downloaded PDF will automatically have all the citation information pasted as metainformation, ready for use by Liquid | Reader, Liquid | View and other applications:

The plugin checks all pages for citation information, such as BibTeX (the authors of the document, the title and so on).

If the user chooses to download a PDF the plugin shows a dialog to the user (same as Author’s citation dialog) which the user can OK, amend and OK or choose Ignore. Unless the user chooses Ignore then all the meta will be assigned to the PDF in the Get Info window, as though it was exported originally like this. There will also be an option to ‘Do not show this dialog in the future’ and stay with last used preference.

Liquid | Reader will use this information so that if a user copies text from such a Rich PDF, all the citation information will be automatically appended and if the user pastes into Author it will paste as a citation. The forthcoming Liquid | View graph application can also use this meta-information. Since this will follow the Adobe PDF Meta information standards, other applications are open to using it too, where supported:

Augmented Copy

The user can copy from any web page and the clipboard payload will also contain in-page addressability, where possible, and author name, also where possible, in a citation ready format. Christopher Gutteridge may support this effort.

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Do Androids Dream of Electic Text?

I was intrigued when my beautiful baby boy Edgar showed interest in pressing buttons, despite being less than a year old.

It turns out that humans have a separate mental model for tools than we have from other things in the world however. When an adult and a child is presented with an animal which is changed visually to look like another animal, such as a cat dressed up like a lion, we say it’s still a cat which temporarily doesn’t look like a cat. However, if shown a functional object, such as a table, which is changed into another, such as a chair, we don’t say it’s a table which looks temporarily like a chair, we say it is a chair, since a tool is what it does–we are cognitively primed to recognise tools as separate from all other objects.

This is because we have evolved from tool use, we did not evolve to use tools. Our great ancestors used tools far earlier than we evolve into Homo Sapiens.

I learnt about our innate sense of ‘tools’ from a book Howard Rheingold strongly suggested I read, by Joseph Henrich, called The Secret of Our Success (2015), with the sub-title: “How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species and making us smarter.” I further learnt how deeply our connection our tools go, a notion which I had previously come across in other writings, from McLuhan (1967) to Mazlish (1995). Joseph Henrich’s description of the transmission of knowledge through culture, which is powerfully important, also highlights the importance and centrality of tool use to who we are.

Our tool use goes back much further than our modern selves, with results we can read in our bodies as well as our minds: We have a greater capacity to cool our bodies through sweat than other animals so we can out run our prey thorough persistence over time. But we don’t have larger water-storage capacities. This ability developed because we could put water in containers. We have a smaller digestive system than other animals for our size, apart from our small intestine, because we use tools to start digesting our food before we eat it, through food preparation and cooking. The reason our small intestine is not reduced is that this is where the nutrients are extracted.

Our tools give us agency, they give us direct control over our world, through the simple act of a knife cutting through our food, shoes allowing us to walk for long distances and writing allowing us to freeze and re-arrange our own thoughts and those of others who may be separated from us by both time and space.

Joseph Henrich’s main thesis, and it is an important one, is that we are a cultural species and that we will readily use cultural knowledge with many mental traits for taking into account the knowledge of other people even beyond direct observation since we may not see all the aspects of what our group has seen over generations.

In other words, you could say that, in general, we are controlled by our culture and we control our tools.

This is not just an ‘academic’ observation but a key issue in the future development of our species as we move from focusing on tool design to augment our intellect (IA, Intellect Augmentation), to relying increasingly on artificial intelligence (AI) to do the thinking for us. Our cognitive apparatus has different means of handling situations presented to us as being controlled through a tool (direct control) versus presented to us via another creature (cultural control).

This puts an entirely different spin on Socrates concern about speaking and writing: When we speak with a person we can have a genuine dialogue, when we read we have a different ‘mindset’ to how we interpret the text and when we get our knowledge (can it be called knowledge when still in AI form?) from a non-human artificial intelligence, will we still ‘read’ this knowledge as we would from another person, with all the cultural filtering that involves? If so, we are heading towards dangerous and mentally constrained territory where we will instinctively trust the well-spoken machine as we trust a person and a community.

There is no question that AI will continue to provide powerful augmentations to us but we should not negate the intimacy of tools to who we are and how deep the opportunity for development of ever more powerful tools will augment us in very different ways from dialogues with machines.

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A Clear & Present Opportunity

Time for Better Literature Research

Universities and reading glasses were invented roughly simultaneously (coincidence?), during the 13th century. There were counties for students to have books copied for studying of which I won’t waste our time going through the details of how it wasted their time. It seems however, that not much has changed. Today’s academic is more likely to print out the sources for their literature review than to read it in digital form (Walsh, 2016), even though there are many different types of digital devices to read them on, from reflective to transmissive tablets and from laptops to desktops.

I am not writing about the pros and cons of paper versus digital for general reading but I do mean to highlight that there is a real opportunity to build an ecosystem where digital reading of professional material (someone one reads to learn, not for enjoyment primarily) can benefit from the potentially connected nature of digital text environments.

We will necessarily have to start with PDFs since they are the dominant form of academic knowledge transmission units, though of course support ePubs and other formats as well.


The suggested flow is simply this:


A user reads a document for their research and highlights interesting sections, writes notes in the margin and also generally about the document. The user also also jots down ideas as the reading and research process progresses. Furthermore, the reading applications gives the user a rich set of facilities to view the document as she sees fit, including flexible ways to access keywords, summaries, abstracts, links, references and connections and so on, some of which we have implemented in Liquid Author and Flow.


All the literature review the user has read is accessible through keyword search, including specifying whether to only search highlighted text, annotations, notes or full text. When the user copies text from a document and pastes it into the document their are authoring, all the salient citation information is included and is copied across (since this is not possible by default, they system will need a fast and elegant way for the user to help add this to the document on opening/at leisure and in future automatically use what authoring systems will append as meta-information).

All the literature review the user has yet to read is also accessible through searches and can be bunched based on keywords, citations and other criteria.

All the literature the user has yet to access, which is connected to the users work by being cited in current work is also accessible.

The visual space of connecting literature can be developed by anyone since the connectors will be made clearly available. The weblau is one direction which can be powerfully useful in this regard.

A more Liquid Reader

This could make the literature review process a truly liquid, smooth and rich affair. This is not rocket science or heading far out into the unknown, this can provide clear and immediate benefits.

We have started experimental work around this workflow, with the Liquid | Reader but this will require more investment to continue til completion, particularly since the standards of searching for academic document is so incoherent and therefore many searches engines will need to be strung together.

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