On The Future Of Text

I am passionate about the future of text because I take as self evident that the written word is a fundamental unit of knowledge and as such, the richer we interact with our written word, the richer we interact with our knowledge.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that reading and writing, the written word – literacy – is important. But it might be controversial to say that the written word needs to get better. It’s too important to leave the written word simply as a digital replica of ink on paper and let other, more ‘fancy’ media take priority of development. The thing is, beyond the hyper-link, keyword search and spell-check, what innovations have we seen over the last 30 years? Not many.

It’s clear however, as we enter the 21st century, only 200,000 years into our history of being modern humans, on a planet orbiting a sun with another 5,000,000,000 years to go, for us humans, there is a lot more future than there was past.

Of course, that is the optimist position. For the pessimist we’re about to make ourselves extinct.

Personally, I try not to take either position, it’s simply too much to even start to think about in any serious way for me to be useful.

What I think is useful is to think about is the future of ways we can record our knowledge, communicate and access knowledge through augmented text.

By augmented text I mean text integrated with other media, where the different media; diagrams, pictures, video, 3D and what have you, can act as a cognitive multiplier. By ‘cognitive’ multiplier I am making an analogy to what the military call ‘force multipliers’ where something, such as a better radar system, improves the performance of a weapon. The radar does not deliver force by itself, but it multiples the force of what it can serve.

By augmented text I also mean richly interactive text.

This is something I think is crucial to our future. The future of text is very much about the future of ourselves. How we deal with knowledge matters and we simply cannot afford to let traditional evolution be the main force of change. We also need to look at directed co-evolution, as championed by the great Doug Engelbart. Let me clarify what I mean by that:

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution takes place in environments which apply pressures on actors which evolve by having successive generations which are to some degree different to each other, where there is a higher chance of reproduction among some of the offspring and the offspring which best ‘fit’ the environment reproduces more than those who don’t.

Evolution is like a grain of sand rolling down a mountain, forever settling on the nearest, laziest point – it does not have any vision of improvement – it is what happens. The sand rolls wherever it’s easiest to get to from where it is. If there is a bigger pile of sand just over the next ledge, forget it, the sand won’t know about it and won’t reach it, just like evolution. If something works then it won’t fix it to get to a evolutionary more advantageous position. The actors only ‘evolve’ if there is a pressure to and if there is variation. If there is pressure and no variation there is extinction.

Evolution is therefore the lazy, dumb, death-brought change.

Directed co-evolution is the opposite, it’s the proactive, positive, smart and vital change. Directed co-evolution is when we pick up binoculars and look past the next valley, it’s where we look beyond and build an aqueduct to take us where we need to go.

Directed co-evolution is where the progress we make allows us to pick up ever better binoculars, with further views and wider understanding, where the aqueducts move us faster along. With the concern of stretching this analogy much too far, when we get together and talk about where we should go, in a wide, deep and dynamic dialog (that’s the directed part), and we use our shared knowledge ever more wisely (the binoculars) we can pull all of us along to a healthier, more sustainable, inclusive and, well, happier future.

So take this as a line in the sand. I have worked on interactive text in many ways over the years, first under the name of Cynapse, then Hyperwords and now simply Liquid, the name of my over-arching philosophy. I’ve been doing the Future of Text Symposium at The British Library and London College of Communication. I will now also work directly on the issue of the future of text, working to outline what the opportunities are. It’s invigorating!

Frode Hegland
Milde, Norway
March 2014

Engelbart’s Law

One of the things I learnt in conversation with Doug is the importance and power of networks and powerful tools, so maybe we do something like multiply Moore’s Law with Metcalfe’s Law and call it Engelbart’s Law?
Moore’s Law * Metcalfe’s Law = Engelbart’s Law
What do you think?

Shadow boxing in the sandbox.

I believe strongly that we need to work on making text more richly interactive since the written word is a fundamental unit of knowledge, so the richer we interact with our text the richer we interact with our knowledge.

More richly interactive text interactions will require a more interactive environment where the different capabilities of the system can be brought to bear in the most convenient ways, creating a more powerful user experience and thus a more powerful user.

Apple’s policy of sandboxing is understandable from a security point of view, but it goes against this idea completely.

The term sandbox used to mean children’s play area, a constrained area for action where the participants needed to be controlled and the definition in computer security is very much related: “… a sandbox is a security mechanism for separating running programs. It is often used to execute untested code, or untrusted programs from unverified third-parties, suppliers, untrusted users and untrusted websites.” Wikipedia.

The need for greater security is understandable and the need for greater interaction is important. How can these two goals be reconciled?

I propose Apple establishes a service which could be called a Trusted Developer Program, where developers (us), can provide Apple with our source code and verify our identity. We can then interact with the system and other applications in a richer way than if Apple knows nothing about us. I don’t even mind paying Apple a small up-front fee for this and a slightly larger cut from App Store revenues.

Please tell me what you think, I would really appreciate your perspective on this.

Fire, questions

OK, so I have sent out four emails to researchers about the circadian shift fire control provided to see if they feel it supports my idea that it might have given us more creativity.

VC told me to hold tight on Liquid this weekend, which is good.

So, back to the book. Working at Milde, coffee all ready, fireplace burning even though it’s quite bright, listening to nice and quiet jazz. Loudly.


Thoughts from the book:

Before Controlled Fire

Think back to what it must have been like on the African plains before 400,000 years ago. Sometimes when the evening came the heavens wouldn’t always have been as dark as we we city dwellers are used to today, with our cities producing a large amount of light pollution. When there were no clouds the milky way with the stars sprinkled all over the sky and the moon would have been our companions.

Wether or not it was cloudy or clear at night, it would not have been enough light available for us to do much productive work in, and of course moon and star light does not warm us.

Before we could control fire we could stay up late, but there was likely little incentive to do so and in darkness we would soon tire.

Early Use of Fire

We have used fire to burn off unproductive vegetation and encourage new growth which in turn also encourage more small animals to come for longer than records can tell us. You could say that our use of fire was ‘fire-stick’ farming.

Controlled Use of Fire

400,000 years ago we control fire – we can create fire at will, with profound consequences for our further evolution:

Fire reduced the harshness of winter, allowing us to occupy cooler places and thereby become masters of larger parts of our planet.

Fire helped improve toolmaking by allowing us to harden blades. Fire would also help us make functional pottery, heat rocks to free metals and later bake tokens and tablets for the first writing.

Fire changed our diet by allowing us to cook food, making pieces of meat we could previously not eat tender through the heat, making meat last longer after cooking and reducing parasites (which may have had very far reaching consequences beyond reducing illness from hostile parasites, considering that our healthy, functioning bodies today are host to a very large number (by some measures it could be 95%) of bacteria in a commensalistic (non-harmful to the host relationship) relationship).

Fire also became used for signaling using smoke which contributed to inter-tribal communication and collaboration – when you have a longer range means of communication it pays to use it by making allies of those you can reach, to help you prepare for attacks by those further away. There is speculation that this may have been a key to us winning out over the Neanderthals – wider cooperation made possible by fire smoke signaling.

Sociability & The Creative Mindset

Now we not only manage fire for changing large swathes of forest, now  we have fine enough control over fire to bring it home and huddle around it, stay up late in close proximity, socialize, and think different – firelight had pried open the conscious part of the circadian rhythm we had evolved in – we stayed awake longer, with a new mindset.
Our own eyes are not nocturnally optimized so there is not much hunting we can do late in the evening.  We put idle hands to good use working our tools but not to a significant degree (which didn’t evolve much for thousands upon thousands of years).
In the evenings, fire would foster sociability within the tribe as we would huddle up and stay in close proximity for extended periods of time, something there would be little value to do during the day. Henry le Lumley points out in ‘Becoming Human’ that “fire was mainly a factor in inspiring conviviality. Group spirit was surely kindled around the hearth. This was the birth of the first myths. It is at this point that the first regional traditions emerged: the first cultural identities, showing styles and design in the manufacture of some tools”.

We build hearths and start to see the world in a different light, visually as well as metaphorically

The Games People Play

Maybe we create the first ‘games’ on such evenings? Maybe it started with more controlled play? Maybe we added ‘game pieces’ later, in a mirror of how we invented counting and writing?  I would like to suggest that the difference between sports (team or individual) and games (card games through chess etc.) is largely that sports are daylight activities with emphasis on competition but games are evening purists with emphasis on sociability. Can it be that games made us more social, rather than gaming coming from our sociability? Maybe, but it’s clear a different social interaction would take form in such closely huddled, warm and safe settings.

Whatever the stages of social evolution, the animal which spreads out at leisure during the day and goes to sleep when the sun goes down, is a very different animal from the one which huddles closer long into the evening, around a warming, illuminating fire, bringing the individuals closer.

The Rhythm

Over the eons, all life evolved in the pulse of light and dark, lasting a day and a night, with varying lengths depending on the time of year (which is why Circadian Rhythm, derived from the Latin words ‘circa dies’ meaning “approximately a day”.) The timing of the sun moving across the heavens and disappearing was always with us. Our eyes evolved… “… from a simple light sensor for circadian and seasonal rhythms around 600 million years ago to an optically and neurologically sophisticated organ by 500 million years ago.” Trevor D. Lamb.

The Rhythm : The Light

As the circadian rhythm changed with the control of fire, the sunset period would last as long as we had fire wood. The sunset darkens over the horizon and the flames come out, the colour of burning wood have a similar colour to a sunset (6-700nm wavelength or so), so fire indeed draws out the sunset, it does not disrupt it.

With fire, there was reason to stay awake longer, and we did: Humans historically spend about 8 hours a night sleeping, whereas our closest cousins chimps, rhesus monkeys, squirrel monkeys and baboons spend 10 hours in bed (thinkquest.org). Gorillas 12 and owl monkeys spend 17 hours sleeping per day. Fire definitively seems to have lengthened our waking time.

As we stay awake longer, most of the predators we fear are kept at bay by the firelight so we can relax more than we can during the day or during the night before the time we  controlled fire.

The Rhythm : The Chemicals

Our bodies change daily in concert with the rhythm of the colors of the light changing from reddish in the morning to whitish blue and back to reddish, changing our state of alertness, body temperature and pressure, metabolism, and reproduction.

Joan Roberts explains that: “Because of these hormonal changes, the circadian dark/light cycle controls and modifies the sleep/wake cycle, blood pressure, metabolism, reproduction, and the immune response.”

Let’s look at Joan Roberts list in more detail: Light exposure in the morning increases Cortisol, the stress hormone, Serotonin which deals with impulse control, Gaba – available to calm us down and Dopamine perking up our alertness levels as well as modifying the synthesis of follicle stimulating hormone (reproduction), gastrin releasing peptide and neuropeptide Y (hunger). As the day progresses we are showered by strong blue-white light, stress and alertness increases and is controlled.

The sunset period allows for the  production of Melatonin which promotes sleep and dreaming. World Of Molecules reports on research by Alan Lewis (Melatonin and the Biological Clock 1999) that some hallucinogenic drugs emulate melatonin activity in the awakened state and that both act on the same areas of the brain.

Controversial as it may be that Melatonin may have hallucinogenic properties, it’s clear that we are chemically different during the morning, noon, evening and night and with fire twilight has been stretched beyond what was available before – we become relaxed, yet there is reason and opportunity to stay awake for longer.  This is a new chemical state of mind, brought about by the new, longer evening light.

The Creative Mindset

Picture the difference between the wide-eyed, clear thinking and discussion you might have when going for a walk during the day vs the deep, perhaps mystical, conjectures discussed over an open flame in the late evening.

Picture further how fire would allow us to shine flickering lights on cave paintings, giving life and ‘animating’ the lines we mark.

Being tired during the day you have the sun’s signals telling you to wake up. Being tired at night you are in synch with your body chemistry and you can think looser, without the stress of reality in the form of stress and alertness hormones shaping the meanderings of your musings.

Dreams are made when we are safe, free, warm and relaxed.

Dreams are realized in the cold glare of reality.

Together we have a harmony of progress.

Prioritising Social Networks

An interesting question is wether all networks are social.

Martin Hanczyc’s TED video shows how quickly social interactions form.

Chris Stringer emphasises how important social networks have been for our success.

This is then a fundamentally important reality: Networks are what makes things happen and this is then why I think that it’s so crucial we enhance the inherent networks in texts.

Wikipedia refers to the interaction when defining social: “The term social refers to a characteristic of living organisms as applied to populations of humans and other animals. It always refers to the interaction of organisms with other organisms and to their collective co-existence, irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, and irrespective of whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary.”

I would say that this means that all networks are social, since a network where information is transferred without any kind of interpretation or analysis, is not a network – it’s a transfer between two points only, since nothing is passed on further.

Any comments? (Please email me, comment form is off due to spam. frode@hegland.com)

When ancients became modern

I had lunch with Chris Stringer today, which was a real treat.

When did visually modern humans appear and when did mentally modern humans appear? I asked Chris Stringer when our ancestors would look modern and when they would think like us.  He suggests you wouldn’t think an ancestor from 150,000 years ago very out of place in a restaurant, though this ancestor would be much larger than us, like a rugby player. The furthest you’d want to go back in time to not be fooled by an ancestor who came for a job interview would be just 30,000 years by most accounts, though he suspects we’d have been mentally up for the task perhaps even 100,000 years ago.

After lunch I went to see Lee-Ann at the BL and it turns out she is reading one of his books, which was a nice coincidence. I’ve downloaded a few onto the iPad Mini and I’m set for a lot of studying…