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!