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Category: Lit Review: Hypertext

Origins of the Dynamic View in Author

In Doug Engelbart’s demo he showed the power of having different views on the same information, such as when he viewed his shopping list by various criteria and then changed the view to a map:

I am not sure if I had seen that when I designed a concept for being able to drag text around on the desktop in the mid-90s which I called the System Wide Scratch Area but the idea of putting things out on a space to work on the relationships seems pretty self-evident. We do it as children and my father did it with his documents in his pre-digital workflow.


Joseph Novak, who has of course been invited to the Future of Text Book, formalised concept mapping and Tony Buzan was inspired by this and developed mind mapping. In the 1940s Alex Faickney Osborn introduced brainstorming. Thinking on a surface either with marks straight not he surface or using some kind of cards goes back a long time, at least to Carl Linnaeus during the 1700s.


What I am investigating though is the ‘magic’ of digital representations above the flexibility of thoughts on cards, but there is still a lot to be learnt from cards, at least until we have digital desk sized desktops.


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The market leader today for word processors is Microsoft Word, a general word processor first developed by Hungarian Charles Simonyi, a Xerox PARC veteran who had previously developed Bravo, the first GUI word processor in the modern sense back in 1974, on the Alto. From the very start the goal was to produce a document to output on paper and with that goal in mind it was a real innovation that what you saw on the screen was the same as what you would print. According to John Markoff’s article  Karen Thacker, wife of Chuck Thacker, a legendary Xerox hardware designer, saw Alto running Bravo, turned to him and said, “You mean, what I see is what I get?” Doug Engelbart would later proclaim that what it really meant was: What You See Is All You Get.

This focus on print as a the focus of the digital interaction upturned Doug Engelbart’s notion of augmenting our intellect to solve urgent, complex problems, collectively and twisted it into a means of production of static artefacts only. Doug was my friend and mentor and as such features heavily in my story and the story of Liquid | Author, even to the point of the name ‘Author’ being coined in honour of his ‘Augment’ since they share etymological roots. For clarification, his first system was referred to as  H-LAM/T system (Human using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, in which the person is Trained) in his seminal 1962 paper Augmenting Human Intellect. Ted Nelson asked him how he pronounced it and Doug replied he had never said it out loud. Ted suggested ‘Hamlet’. The system Doug implemented was initially called NLS (for oNLine System, since the computers he used before could not support more than one user) which was later renamed Augment when SRI sold the system to Tymshare in 1977.  

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I have had a look at what’s called ‘IText’ in the paper IText, Future Directions for Research on the Relationship between Information Technology and Writing (IText Working Group, 2001) by Cheryl Geisler of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the rest of the working group.

I find their enthusiasm uplifting:

These texts form a new page in the story of the coevolution of humanity, culture, and technology in ways that give them new function and significance. Texts, already technology for communicating at a distance, are deeply embedded in cultural, cognitive, and material arrangements that go back thousands of years. Information technologies with texts at their core—the blend of IT and texts that we call ITexts—are, by contrast, a relatively recent development … In a few short years, however, these ITexts have initiated social and material changes that appear to be altering the very character of texts and the interactions of those who use them.
Geisler, 2001

Their research agenda builds on research activity in the areas of rhetorical theory, activity theory, literacy studies, genre theory, usability research, and workplace writing. Quoting the descriptions from their paper:

•  Rhetorical Theory. Rhetoric is a design art, a goal-directed activity similar to engineering and architecture in its regard for practical effects in the future and in its need to be socially responsible and ethical.
•  Activity Theory. Activity theory, based on the work of Lev Vygotsky and Alexei Leontiev, provides analytic tools for studying how ITexts function within human activity. Activity theory is particularly useful in examining the text-mediated interaction of multiple participants as organized in the patterned social relations of activity systems that vary according to the practices and cultures of social collectivities.
•  Literacy Studies. Literacy studies examine how reading and writing are used and function in the daily mental and material lives of individuals, in the work and interactions of social groups, and throughout large cultural movements.
•  Genre Theory. Texts link readers and writers by using typified generic forms, or genres, that signal texts’ function and meaning.
•  Usability Research. Working with IText requires us to reevaluate and rearticulate our understanding of textuality. Although all texts, strictly speaking, are technological artifacts, ITexts lie on the far end of the technological spectrum—the bleeding edge, where the two ends of the terms technology and communication overlap each other in critical and exciting ways.
•  Workplace Writing. In the workplace, texts are stereotypically treated simply as one of the means by which communication occurs.

Literacy Studies:

  • Literacy studies suggest that to be literate does not mean to possess a set of discrete skills but rather refers to a way of doing, a way of functioning within complex communicative situations. Literacy is in fact a complex of abilities and knowledge that enable individuals to function and contribute in specific situations.
  • The course of literacy development is complex and life- long.


    I am not sure of what the actual work product became from their effort, but I have emailed Cheryl Geisler and told her about The Future of Text Symposium.

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