A meditation on the future of text

A meditation on the future of text, by way of comparison with speech and a look at core attributes, further attributes, highlighting why text is important, then looking a the different characteristics of text in different media, looking at different forms of text and culminating in a list of desired characteristics.

why text is important

Text is a visually compact and digital storage compact way of recording information which can be manipulated visually to re-organise and interpret. Further importance of text is that it can be read at the user’s speed, simply by choosing how and where to move one’s eyes; every word and statement can be lingered upon and queried, digested, internalised or rejected.

First a note of precaution for anyone who might feel I am too text-centric. The integration of different media to make them augment each other is a separate (and very important) discussion. For now, the question is what text really is and how can we look at the way text is incarnated in different ways, in order to build more powerful interaction systems, is my focus. Let’s look at the spoken word first:

by way of comparison with speech

Speech differs from animal sounds in that it affords grammar so that meaning can build up beyond the capacity of any one single sound or short vocalisation so grammar is one of the main benefits of both spoken and written language.

Speech can also contain nuances in pronunciation which animals can not make, and notably, which is not carried over to the written word directly. Nuances of speech, that is to say intonations, tempo, emphasis and so on, is codified onto written text using font techniques (bold, italic, bold & italic), text size, layout and type styles. Such codification has a translatory effect, with accompanying change of projection and comprehension.
This is one of the big losses of going from speech to text – the loss of subtle nuances – and this is one of the attributes of text which should be addressed. It is also a gain, in that non-relevant nuances are stripped away and words and sentences flow as the user can understand them, in a unified way.

Recorded spoken words as audio must be (in all current media) manually paused for reflection and once it’s paused it is only in the listeners memory. A recorded spoken media which required constant user action to continue would likely be cumbersome and would require significant cognitive load.

core attributes

The most basic attributes of text are:

“Communication through a non-verbal record of a human cognitive expression”

information is being transmitted rather than being stored without emphasis on later retrieval.

through a ‘non-verbal’
not spoken language so does not intrinsically contain auditory attributes beyond the words and basic emphasis through type and punctuation, but can employ non-verbal cues such as symbols.

the reader does not have to be present when the text was written, but I do not mean that text needs to last for any specific period of time.

of a ‘human’
not a ‘natural’ event, such as a glacier carving a terrain, leaving an ‘imprint, is not text. This point bears further contemplation as it should surface the question of human physiology and psychology.

‘cognitive expression’
there has to be a conversion between what goes on in the persons head to how it’s recorded, as in ‘finding the right word’ rather than simply putting knuckles to a wall to record anger.

further attributes

Text is primarily visual, which gives text part of it’s augmented processing power – our ability to scan large areas of text in a non-sequential way, though chunks of text (sentences, paragraphs) must be read sequentially to extract meaning.

Text is not ‘drawing’ however. Drawings re-present a visual as it is on the world, with a degree of visual or functional/schematic fidelity.

Charts, maps and graphs are not text, they visually and concisely re-present relationships in space, time or value.

Symbols can be textual, such as £ and * as well as %. Other, less used symbols include: ±~<>?‡°∏»◊

Logographic writing, where each mark refers to a concept (such as the Chinese, Japanese and Koran writing systems), is also text, as much as phonograms which refer to sound (what we have in the alphabet).

Text can also be tactile, such as Braille, which is today employed primarily by the blind, but whose predecessor was invented by the military under Napoleon to let soldiers communicate without light at night. Bluetooth enabled watches which communicate with smartphones to buzz in different ways depending on what type of message is received is also a tactile text in this sense.

The visual, non-alphabet, components of text seem like a ripe area for improvement. This means annotations, connective lines such as Ted Nelson’s ZigZag and so forth.

The alphabet I am sure, also is ready for improvement, it’s just harder to see how at this point.

characteristics of text in different media

Text imprinted by hand on a markable substrate carries the subtlety of the authors hand, much as speech carries subtlety by the authors mouth.
Text imprinted on a markable substrate by machine makes the text more uniform and therefore easier to read by anyone familiar with the type-writer’s type of writing.
Text written on a markable substrate can furthermore be highlighted, annotated, crossed out, as well as linked with drawn lines and references by the reader.
Text written on a markable and tearable substrate such as paper can also be torn up – cut- and organised on a flat surface to the users content and placed or pasted in a new order, should the user so wish.

Printed and bound in a book form, text achieves a status of self-containment (without glossing over* texts’ interconnected nature) which allows the reader to feel that authority and point of view is separate from each other. This is something digital text can take bette advantage of. This makes the text collapsible and easier to handle as physical and mental objects – “that book says so and so”.

Basic digital text can do all the above, with the addition of containing links.
Basic digital text can aid the process of writing by automatically being spell checked, which also aids future access by more completely providing a single spelling for each word, aiding search and navigation.

Advanced digital text can also provide immediate searches and references to gather further information as well as translations and conversions as needed, plus instant sharing with other people for further dialog.
Advanced digital text can also be manipulated and re-written, re-laid out, moved around away from the default ‘column’ of text.
Advanced digital text can receive manual and automatic meta-information as required.

Advanced digital text can and should inherit more of the characteristics of other media of text, including the collapsibility of books, beyond and further than the document model we have today, as well as also increase the connected nature of text.

different forms of text

This is where the threshold to what my professor at UCL, Harold Thimbleby⁄ called ‘political positions’ in one’s career kicks in. My person priority is augmenting dialog text, primarily long form (documents, books). Shorter textual and other communication, such as text messages through portable devices are important and useful, but this is receiving a lot of attention and I feel that these short-form communications are ripe for non-text enhancements, such as vibrations on your wrist telling you what message you have received. Other text includes text which are either transcriptions of voice where the tone and sound is important, or text which aims to mimic this. I am also not (currently) prioritising this type of text.

I am simply focusing on augmenting dialog text, primarily long form text. By this I mean text written to provide information which the reader is responsible for actively interacting with, as contrasting with text for entertainment where the author is not necessarily charged with anything beyond passive reception.

To start, I’ll work with blogs.

Exciting summer. New blog theme.

This is an exciting summer; the future of text is now scheduled for the 6th of November and will be hosted by Google at their HQ in London, though it’s not decided which campus yet. An amazing roster of people have already agreed to come, which is wonderful:

Dame Wendy Hall of The University of Southampton, Tom Standage of The Economist, George P. Landow of Brown University, Michael Joyce of Vassar College, Jane Yellowlees Douglas, PhD of the University of Florida, Timothy Donaldson of Falmouth University, Pierre Lévy of the University of Ottawa, Ren Cahoon of Reynolds Cahoon, LLC, David Jablonowski Artist, David Brin Author and Steven Connor of the University of Cambridge. If you are a current LCC student or alumni, you are very welcome to join us. If you are not, please get in touch and I’ll see what I can do.

Author, my Mac OS X word processing application is moving along, slowly but surely and I’ve started to experiment with WordPress themes. Initially it was simply to give readers a similar experience when reading Author documents as the writer has when writing them, but the opportunities for rich interaction on blogs is surprisingly, to me anyway, large.

This theme, which you are seeing this text in currently, has collapsible headings, but unfortunately only the very top title, but headings in the text, which kind of defeats the point, but it’s a start. You can mouse over to the left of the screen to read other posts.

My main work at the moment is to put together my presentation for Future of Text 2014, which is actually quite very difficult indeed since I am using it both as an opportunity to simplify and clarify what I am on about. More on that later :-)

Urgent Complex Problems

Doug Engelbart used to say that mankind is coping with problems of ever increasing complexity and urgency. Here is is when we talked in the mid-90s: invisiblerevolution.net

This has now been measured: “Complexity Rising: From Human Beings to Human Civilization, a Complexity Profile”  necsi.edu

I think part of Doug’s problem was that his intuition was just so keen that he saw so much as being obvious without necessarily having to bother with a lot of the data and communication about it. He also foresaw Moore’s Law, and told Moore about it. To Doug it was simply too obvious to put a name to it, he told me.