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Category: Future Of Text

Continuing symposium on the future of text.

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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The Old Man

old man inventor?

As my first major software application reaches 16th most popular Productivity Application on the macOS App Store I reflect again on what Alan Kay said over lunch: “But you CAN do anything!”. I know he was being sincere, it’s the same thing I would say to a curious and passionate student. My concern is that my brain is fully myelinated, all the fatty optimisers have been laid down, my axons and dendrites are not as much in the dating market as before. I have now managed to produce one instance of my vision in Liquid | Author, which includes Liquid | Flow. It’s a different type of word processor where I had a few medium sized ideas (tag for meaning such as for headings, a different Find command and so on) and did a lot of polishing on use, reducing as many button presses and unexpected frustrations as I could see.

So now I have a smidgeon of credibility, which is great, but what I have produced is only a very small incremental step in a different direction. How can I possibly move symbol manipulation along at a usefully large step? How can I invent something amazingly powerful? This is the question any inventor or artist would ask. And my stodgy old brain, is it still able to fluidly create new and useful connections?! I have noticed that my memory has gotten better over the last few years, which worries an artist-type such as myself. I should be able to be flexible and see things afresh. So I worry.

old man navigator

But my worry gives way to perspective. It’s not my ability to invent something which is why I must keep working and why I invite others to join me. It’s not what I build, it’s about where I am going. I am a navigator, not an inventor.

My work is to augment our ability to orient ourselves in our information, to see and make connections. These are all navigation metaphors and they apply to the process of building the tools as well.

I take responsibility of the question, of the goal, not the answer or a particular way of getting there. Sure, my world is that of visual symbol manipulation (text and associated visual communications) but to navigate we must first choose which world to venture forth into.


My future work will be to further improve the navigation and display of text in Author and on the web, including through compressed scrolling, dynamic views and more atomic authoring, including though the user of hyperGlossaries. Much of the work will be to implement small, incremental changes to make the information flow more liquid. The reach of my research and implementation–the twins of progress–will venture as far as my mind will stretch and collages will entertain.

In the distance I see a more liquid information environment where users can become deeply literate because their tools are powerful and they can view and interact with their knowledge in visceral ways, like moulding magical clay.

This is not a solo effort. It is an effort in building dialogue in addition to systems and approaches. This is what I have been doing for almost a decade now with The Future of Text Symposium and look forward to continue.

My premise is simple: Continue to work to employ the occipital lobe to support the prefrontal cortex–to use our eyes to think. And that is my journey.