Can You Help Me?
I seek to build a different way to view text in a document, in order to augment the users insight and mental agility, first for post-graduate users, then for an increasingly wider audience.
In order to do this I will need help. I will need rich dialogue on issues ranging from technical implementations to the characteristics of the human visual system – from the target academic (initial) user and experts on different kinds of reading, writing and thinking systems.
The very first question is whether you believe the medium at all influences how we access and deal with information. Do you agree with Marshall McLuhan?
“The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye,
clothing, an extension of the skin, electric circuitry,
an extension of the central nervous system” (Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, 2001)
Do you remember your first Macintosh? Do you remember the sense of libration, the sense of power and fun? Do you remember the energy behind the potential PC revolution of the 80’s and 90’s? Please have a look at this Macintosh commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOKE0SiDcjI
This was followed by the excitement of the smartphone and we have somewhat become blasé about the fantastic high resolution on our desktops (sharper than early laser printers)
If you do not feel that the media impacts your ability to interact with information, if you do not feel that the personal computer and the smartphone and so many other devices have changed your life then this is all ‘academic’.
If you do feel that the medium we use matters and that academic is a prime area for augmentation, then it becomes imperative that we work to develop ever more powerful ways to access information media, does it not?
Furthermore the question of who should be in charge of developing our information media comes to the fore. Should the evolutionary environment where different types of information media succeed only be fuelled by commercial goals or should there be a balance with systems built to augment our species as well?
I do not hold any answers but I dearly hope you will agree with me that this is one direction worth pursuing. That is what this website is all about.
Us humans are good at learning things which fits in with what we already know, fits our world view – our internal maps (or, technically, ‘schemas’).
Let’s make it clear at this point that ‘to know’ and ‘knowledge’ does not = ‘reality’. It simply means something we have internalised from a source in the world or from our imagination.
We are not so good at analysing and questioning what we know and we are poor at evaluating new information which contradicts what we know or which falls outside of our current maps, which we are prone to dismiss as wrong or ‘too complicated’.
For our species to thrive we need to developer more powerful means of dealing with the information in our heads and new information. Prejudiced stumbling along ignorant lines, such as much of current political ‘discourse’ will not further collaboration or deeper insights.
I accept that it is a real challenge to understand how the information we have internalised onto mental maps/schemas (what we like to think we ‘know’, which may be an accurate reflection of what is in the world or not) is organised, how it relates to other information, and what our own intellectual blind spots are, on a particular topic.
It is furthermore a challenge to decide to reject or accept new information which either does not map onto our internal maps or contradicts our maps.
In order to augment our tiny working memory space, we can bring our visual system to bear (augment the CPU with the GPU if you are a tech nerd).
A walkthrough of the rationale follows:
Area of Concern
The area of concern is higher education initially, particularly “augmenting the student’s ability to do research and write research papers.”
This project addresses the student’s understanding of a particular topic, not their whole world view.
In order to move safely and efficiently through an environment we need to be able to propel ourselves forward, to look around the environment in order to understand what is going on and what is where, in order to generate an internal ‘map’ – and crucially – we need the ability to change direction based on our best understanding of the environment and our needs.
It’s not enough to simply move. It’s not enough to simply move and passively look.
The act of moving, seeing and changing direction must be done in concert. If not, then we are not navigating, we are simply stumbling around.
These are perhaps the most primitive and foundational principles of life on planet Earth, yet when it comes to moving through our information environment we spend most our effort on the first component, simple motion itself. We spend some effort on enhancing our ability to better understand what’s going on in the environment but we spend almost no effort on augmenting our ability to change direction.
By changing direction as a creature in a physical environment I mean having the agility to continuously update our internal maps and then twist and turn and use our muscles to go in new directions, jumping, running, walking, making turns, re-tracing steps and so on.
By changing direction as a creature in an information environment I mean having the agility to continuously update our internal maps and then twist and turn and use our brains to go in new directions.
If we do not apply this most basic principle to how we deal with information (or simply: Our understanding and perspective of this world) that would be insane, and insanity is how we choose to live: We move based on old impetus, we glance at the information to see whether it fits with our preconceptions so we can decide to ignore or use it as a foundation for our direction and we simply very rarely use our ‘potential’ view to augment our ability to change direction.
From Physical to Virtual
The question then becomes how we can update our internal maps of the world with enough agility to move through our environment with a high enough fidelity to let us avoid running into trees and being eaten by predators while having an excellent understanding of opportunities to eat, procreate and be safe.
The analogy then becomes how we can update our internal maps of the world with enough agility to move through our information environment with a high enough fidelity to let us avoid making prejudiced decisions and to have a clear understanding of opportunities for our work.
Towards a Solution
Moving towards directions to fix this is not hard, it’s not expensive and it does not require magic. We can go back to Piaget’s insights about how a child learns and we can take useful directions for this. Jean Piaget uses the term ‘assimilation’ to describe how a child takes in information which fits with the child’s internal map, or schema.
When something does not fit the child’s map, the process is referred to as ‘accommodation’. This can of course be a very taxing thing to do mentally when dealing with complex new information and this is why we simply don’t accommodate as much as we can, we often just choose to disregard the new information which doesn’t fit our mental maps – it’s simply too much work to try to modify our present understanding to make it fit or to reject it based on a thorough understanding of multiple aspects of the issue.
Joseph D. Novak took Piaget’s work into the visual realm and invented Concept Mapping in 1972 as a result. The idea is very simple though there are conventions which add to the power of the system and which constrains it, such as adding labels and arrows to the connecting lines.
The basic idea is to let the user put whatever knowledge they have on an issue onto cards (physical or virtual) which can then be laid out in patterns and lines can be drawn between them.
This then allows the user to organise their information visually and to see where there might be gaps and contradictions – using the powerful human visual processing system to augment their (relatively) tiny working memory.
This allows us to ‘see’ our own thoughts, which is a powerful tool to help us understand our own thoughts and how they relate to the available information about the world.
The result of this process is revelatory and useful, but it has a few downsides which need to be addressed: This view does not easily convey a narrative to guide a secondary reader, it does not support long-form writing and there are no common document formats to interchange the layout.
We should therefore make this type of view not it’s own piece of software but a view of text in a document, allowing the user to move between this ‘concept map’ view and the traditional word processing view.
It’s not enough to create a powerful visual mind map space living on its own, which takes time and effort to convert into and out of again, but like the agile creature moving through the forest, we need to be able to switch views without any perceived effort.
The result can be an ‘incredible’ thinking space where the user can really map out their understanding of their work and as a result more easily accommodate new perspectives and new knowledge.
The result is that assimilation and accommodation becomes much closer, as the user can better ‘see’ their own internal map laid out clearly before them and can manipulate it without the cognitive load it would take to do it all ‘in-mind’.
The result is we become quicker at changing our minds and hence increasing our capacity to better understand and act in the real world, not in the world of our prejudices, social, scientific or cultural.
I believe that we cannot afford to not invest in this direction.
I propose that we put real time, money and effort behind increasing our ability to see our own thoughts – and therefore have the ability to change them.
I’d like to invite you to Let’s invest in this through supporting my Author project where we are building a Liquid | View to provide such a free-form, multi-dimensional view of your information: http://www.liquid.info/view.html
Furthermore I’d further like to invite you to participate in our annual Future of Text Symposium http://thefutureoftext.org
Let’s give ourselves a better view of our information and ourselves.