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Category: Notes On…

This category is for writings I consider fuller articles than the very brief glossary terms or other posts.

Socrates and Text

TL:DR

Much has been discussed about the concerns Socrates had about reading. Here I make the point that the act of authorship is Socratic in ways that reading is not, and that this has implications for how we design writing systems.

Reading

Socrates argued against text because he felt that reading was a superficial process where the reader does not have an opportunity to question or interact with the author. This argument has held water over the last two millennia but with thee advent of digital text there is a call to make text a more socratic medium, with richer interactions to support a deeper and more active reading, as Alan Kay illuminates in The Future of Reading Depends on the Future of Learning Difficult to Learn Things (2013).

So yes, analog substrate reading has to answer to Socrate’s issues. Digital reading can be improved to a deeper level of interaction.

Writing

The act of writing is the opposite of the act of reading, not only for the obvious reason, but also because the act of writing is highly interactive with the author–the author interacts with their own thoughts when they write–the very act of writing is an interrogation of the text of the author. If neuroscience has confirmed anything over the last few decades it is that the human mind is a storymaking machine; a highly creative one but also a lazy one: Our richly connected synapses allow us to think of myriads of things, but we only fill in the details and see the connections when we have to, which our brains present us with as aspects of what we already knew but in reality are inventions made up on the spot. For an excellent overview of this I can recommend Nick Chater’s The Mind Is Flat (2018).

Authorship

Authorship on the other hand, is a seriously interactive process of linearising and connecting initial thoughts with those which develop over the course of the process of authoring, resulting in a coherent ‘authored’ whole.

Simply writing something down as one continuous transcription will not suffice for anything of any substantial length or depth, a fiction only those who have never tried it believe. The truth is that even a shopping list can require revisions once it’s seen by the optical eyes and not only by the mind’s eye. The mind’s eye has but the smallest canvas compared with what the optical eye can offer–and little of the permanence.

Authoring by thinking with text is similar to thinking with another person: Something is stated and once it’s out of the author’s mind it can be examined and commented on, either immediately or at a later date.

Augmented Authorship

What the minds eye has in abundance is the ability to associate between richly woven connections accessible to us through our association cortices, as described in Elastic (2019) by the renowned scientist Leonard Mlodinow. To truly leverage the power of connecting our minds to an external workspace, the challenge becomes how we can also make the optical view as flexible and interactive as our mental view while keeping its permanence and exploring its potentially capacious size. This, I believe, is the central challenge of interactive, digital text: The ability to fix thoughts has been possible since the dawn of writing but now we have the opportunity of also allowing the author’s mind to fluidly move around the text and re-arrange it at will.

Writing then has always been Socratic–the dialog Socrates said was missing from the written word is there when it is being written, it is the dialog with yourself.

Considering the volume of dialog we have through the written word and the repercussions when we do not or can not interrogate what we read and the brain capacity lost when struggling to author clearly, we should, as a society–as a species–invest in augmenting text for truly powerful reading and authoring.

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Liquid Information Environment for Literature Reviews

How the Pieces of the Liquid Information Environment Connects to the larger workflow for Literature Reviews

My single biggest surprise for how literature reviews are done is that there is no best practice or taught system and there is no digital ecosystem to support literature reviews. There are systems for reading and annotating PDFs (the primary substrate for academic knowledge transmission and storage which, in most cases, simply acts as ‘pictures’ or scans of documents, without even the meta-information of the title and authors’ attached to them) and for organising lists of them (citation management software such as Mendeley and EndNote) and nothing widely used to see how all the documents connect.

I have such a hard time working in this piecemeal environment that I feel I need to address this very basic act of research. After all, this is a Clear & Present Opportunity and as an Old Man Navigator I can’t see my soul has a choice. I therefore propose building the following:

Liquid | Author, Reader & View

A word processor which features a rich environment for adding citations as well as other rich interactions for the user and publishing the result as a Rich PDF (with complete meta-data, original document embedded as well as an XML file of information). This is of course what I am already doing with Liquid | Author.

A PDF Reader which will allow the user to read any PDFs and highlight text and then later choose to search based on all text, only highlighted text, annotations etc. (currently Citation Managers cannot search based on highlighted text). The user should also be able to write notes about the whole document and add tags. When it comes time to cite the document the user should be able to simply copy text from the document and paste it into a word processor which will then have the full citation information–the user should not have to go back and forth to manually create a connection–the digital environment should do that for the user. This is what I plan for Liquid | Reader, which will work on macOS and iOS.

A visual thinking space, ideally for large monitors, tablets and VR, where all the users literature review documents are available, visible in any way the user prefers, listing and laying out by keywords, highlighted text, citations, time, author etc. I call this the Liquid | View. I have collaborated with Christopher Gutteridge on a version of this, which he created and called a Webleau.

These components will allow the researcher (academic, business, government or any curios individual) to read and cite documents easily, while having a good overview of how they connect. I further want to support repositories so that the documents are actually findable easily by users searching by various criteria and I agree that we should support PDFs as a reality of the way the world is today but also ePubs and other, more flexible formats.

Open Ecosystem

‘Author’ should produce documents readable by any PDF reader. ‘Reader’ should be able to read and annotate any PDF documents created by any app and save with annotations for any other app to see. ‘View’ should be able to import any documents and save the views in ways accessible from inside apps.

These changes may seem incremental and not very exciting but I believe strongly that by making knowledge more liquid at every stage becomes something more than a sum of features, something it seems uses agree with, since Author is now the 21st most popular productivity app on the macOS App Store.

Who wants to join me in this process and how?

I want to collaborate with anyone who either produce or read any of the components along this workflow. What do you do and how can I integrate with your work?

I am in the process of compiling a list (a literature review of sorts!) of what components are our there and how this can integrate, such as Mendeley and EndNote but also citation visualisers, PDF readers and initiatives to improve or replace PDF. Please do not hesitate to tell me any which you think I may miss.

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