Preamble to PhD, 23 Jun, 11:27

My friend and mentor Doug Engelbart sent me the following email:

Frode,

I honestly think that you are the first person I know that is expressing the kind of appreciation for the special role which IT can (no, will) play in reshaping the way we can symbolize basic concepts to elevate further the power that conditioned humans can derive from their genetic sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities.

Engelbart, 2003

My intent with this PhD project is to pursue this legacy by pushing as far as I can beyond what current text interactions are, towards a state of richer text-interaction systems resulting in a deeper literacy for the user. The work will centre around a software system developed quite literally from a blank slate, where a major work output will be the continuous exploration and research being written up and made accessible to others who are also wrestling to get the most out of the written word.

My initial user community will be scholars who are interested in improving their textual document interactions, not simply following the paper-like models we have inherited quite blindly. I have already starting connecting with such individuals and building a nascent community. 

The areas of inquiry will then include areas outside of computer science, since it is of course the user I aim to augment, not the computer systems. There will be limits to the depth of research I can do in the other fields of course, so I will focus primarily on the implementation and testing on the software system, inspired by the insights gleamed from other fields. 

My direction therefore mirrors Doug’s own, though this is a different project and I come at it from my own point of view:

The conceptual framework we seek must orient us toward the real possibilities and problems associated with using modern technology to give direct aid to an individual in:

comprehending complex situations, 

isolating the significant factors, and 

solving problems.

Engelbart, 1962

A Liquid View (9 month report draft, 13 June)

Please note, this draft does not contain many citations, this I will add when I have the flow and logic working 

A Liquid View

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHAMPTON

Faculty of Physical and Applied Science, School of Electronics and Computer Science

By Frode Hegland

Supervisors: Prof Dame Wendy Hall and Prof Les Carr

Nine month progress report

June 2017

 


1) Context

I assert that we need to develop a deeper literacy in order to equip us to cope with the increasingly complex urgent problems we face. A headline illustration of this is the discourse of recent political events {Trump, Brexit, General Election} where the use of fake news is bad when the opposition does it, but it is considered ‘illustrative’ when our side does it.

Away from politics, in our own profession of academia I can find nothing in the literature to suggest that we ourselves are deeply literate in terms of how deeply we read, write, think and connect the knowledge in our field at a rate fast enough to keep current with new developments, let alone those in adjacent fields. In academic ‘papers’ in the field of knowledge management, such as this 9 month report, it is not novel for the author to state that information is being produced at a prodigious rate and it is also not novel to highlight the effect of Moore’s Law on the advancements of powerful digital devices {I currently have a wireless headphone in my ear which is more powerful than any machine Doug Engelbart developed for, for example} – in fact, it can be argued that digital tool development for academia has stagnated.

Deeper Literacy

What is needed is a defined goal for how we can more efficiently develop computer software for advanced computer systems, beyond vague notions of ‘better’ or ‘easier to use’.  I propose the perspective of deep literacy, which Livia Polanyi has co-defined:

Deep Literacy emerges when cognitive strategies enhanced by powerful computational tools enable knowledge workers to interact effectively with the ever growing inter-connection of digital information needed to carry out their work successfully.

Livia Polanyi 2017

The Elements of Deep Literacy

To be literate originally literally only meant to know the letters. Deep literacy however, is authoring and reading beneath the surface, connecting and collaborating deeply:

•  Deep literacy means means authoring honestly, cleanly and clearly – providing deep citations to increase the credibility and comprehension.

•  Deep literacy equally means that the reader is responsible for active, thoughtful interpretation.

•  Deep literacy is about knowing the tools and techniques of your trade very well, supporting your ability to thrive immersed in your work, while continuously updating your knowledge of new tools, perspectives and developing deeper connections – deep literacy is not something acquired once, like the ability to ride a bike – it comes from skills and perspectives nurtured over a lifetime.

•  You become deeply literate when you no longer just try to stay on top of your information – you become deeply literate you dive in – when you work hard on getting the most out of your  mental and computer tool sets.

Supporting Deep Literacy

Supporting Deep Literacy then becomes a task of developing software solutions and best practices for working to augment dept of reading, thinking, connecting and authoring.

Barriers to Deep Literacy

Barriers to developing ever deeper literacies are largely based on the entrenchment of legacy systems and mindsets, something which will have to be taken into account when developing continuously more deeply literate systems.

Writing & Scholarly Writing

Writing is an act of visually recording a human intention, a human perspective, with a rich history of how things came to be the way they are today and inspirations as to how things can be.

Scholarly Writing is the process of making knowledge conscious, helping to remember facts, to analyze concepts, and to construct new knowledge (Alister H. Cumming, 2006). It is also worth adding the importance of integrating the new work into the academic discourse through citations.

Current State of The Art Scholarly Writing Tools

This is where I will paste in my overview of current writing tools.

Limitations of Current Approaches & Systems

It is no longer controversial to state that we think with our tools, our tools do not simply record our thoughts. I think it’s worth looking at the deep span of time of where we are right now, before we look at our development horizons:

•  It is worth noting however where we are in the development cycle of our species; we are at the very start: Our solar system is about half way through its life, which gives us another 4 or 5 billion years of life on this planet {barring deeply illiterate human behaviour, which is a real threat to our survival}.

•  The first tools which augmented our ancestors physical and mental reach was about 2.5 million years ago. Our own species is 200/300,000 or so years old, depending on the criteria used to define Homo sapiens and cultural artefacts first really bloomed about 40,000 years ago, including cave painting which in important ways represent the start of literacy.

•  Pre-alphabetic writing is something like 5,5000 years old and the alphabet was invented in stages around 3,500 years ago.

•  Printing on paper – our most recent legacy which defines how we see documents even in the digital age, as vertical rectangles, was employed by Johannes Gutenberg to print text about 550 years ago.

•  In terms of digital literacy then, Doug’s demo was just half a century years ago and the web was launched a quarter of a century ago so our digital literacy pales in comparison. We are at the very start of the digital age yet we have fallen into looking at the future through a rear-view mirror, as McLuhan warned us – we are basing our digital technologies primarily on the prior medium of static print.

 


2) The Liquid View Project

Visually Augmented Thinking

My project, the Liquid View, is based on the ancient insight that we can benefit from thinking with visual mental space (writing lists for example) and the ancient insight of the importance of experience/interaction, previously by using the medium of lines in the sand or pieces of paper.

Limitations of such thinking systems have always been the limited opportunity to re-organise and then to integrate with a conventional communications ‘document’. There are two opportunities to overcome these issues today however: Digital technology completely removes the issue of re-organization by making the elements interactive with zero degradation of information quality and I have developed a word processor called Liquid | Author which publishes academic standard formatted .doc and .pdf documents, which the Liquid View will be another view of, so the work done in the Liquid View is not separate from an academic document, it is simply another view of the document.

The Liquid View will be accessed when viewing a regular word processing document, through a user interaction gesture (preferably, since a goal is to make the information feel more tangible than a keyboard short can deliver) which results in all body text being hidden through being collapsed under the headings – it is the headings which the user primarily views and interacts with in the Liquid View.

 

 


3) Future Work

 

Deeper Literature Review

I believe that we can really benefit from looking far back in our evolutionary history, look deeper at our perceptual processes, recorded communications history and examine current and near technological advancements as well as information theory to guide an experimental series of developments to support and encourage deeper literacy, which is why this will be my deeper literature review:

•  Evolutionary history studies can help us understand why we perceive the way we do, from our vision being attuned to the wavelengths our sun proceeds the most of, to how ambient colours change our states of mind. I will be discussing this with Chris Stringer of the Natural History museum as well as continuing with reading.

•  Perceptual processes are based on our evolutionary history and as we learn to better understand what has been coined heuristics and other ‘hardware live’ processes, we can learn to extend and augment them, including taking into account how the capacity of the human visual system is about 12 million bits per second while 16 bits per second is the bandwidth of consciousness (Norretranders, 1999).

•  Recorded communications history is the history of writing which also takes into account pre-alphabetical and pre-grammatical writing, as a source of understanding and inspiration for re-invention of writing for thought and communication.

•  Examine current and near technological advancements of computer platforms, hardware, APIs, libraries and standards to better understand the current technological landscape which we have at our disposal to build upon.

•  Information theory, with a focus on my own Liquid Information perspective, as developed with Sarah Walton, which approaches computer information as interaction and interaction as fluid not simplistically ‘digital’.

•  Investigations into how best to convey ‘human intentions’ via electronic documents, since the measure of an academic document is a combination of the value of the originality and context of what is stated, wrapped in how clearly and understandably it is stated.

Development of Specific Research Questions

Learning from the perspectives outlined above, in the ‘Foundations’ section, it is already clear that several issues will need to be worked out through prototyping and testing, with the ultimate goal of delivering what I like to imagine as being an ‘incredible thinking space’, where users, primarily university students, produce measurably deeper work. The way I propose measuring the depth of their work is aligned with how Craig Tashman developed his iOS product LiquidText (the name has no relationship to my work) and how other work has been developed and tested.

Research Question

How can textual knowledge best be represented in a non-linear format of nodes and connections, incorporating a rich set of data elements to augment the depth of thought when authoring a document?

Visual Display Considerations

This is where I will list what visual issues I can see now

Other Elements in Liquid View

This is where I will list what visual elements need to be considered

Interactions

This is where I will list what interactions need to be catered for

Proposal for Work to Answer the Questions

The work to answer these questions will be to continue with a deeper literature review, dialog with experts in their fields and building prototypes and actual implementation of the Liquid View.

Timetable and Plan

I have currently allocated 1 month of programming time with a maOS expert level coder, who used to work at Nuance, to make the macOS version of Liquid | Author fast and robust enough to ship. Once this is done I will look for money to finance the Liquid View component and work to implement it, while continuing my deeper literature review, which will be posted on my blog as well as in my full paper.

 

(Edit for 9 month report) 13 June 2017

Please note, this version has almost no citations since I am working on the flow. Relevant citations will be added.

 

Deep Literacy, Deeper Perspective

I assert that we need to develop a deeper literacy in order to equip us to cope with the increasingly complex urgent problems we face. A headline illustration of this is the discourse of recent political events {Trump, Brexit, General Election}; the use of fake news is bad when the opposition does it, but it is considered ‘illustrative’ when our side does it. Away from politics, in our own profession of academia I can find nothing in the literature to suggest that we ourselves are deeply literate in terms of how deeply we read {depth and breath of access and quality of understanding and interrogation of the material}, write {clarity of arguments} and connect the knowledge {clear and honest use of citations} in our field at a rate fast enough to keep current with new developments, let alone those in adjacent fields.

 

Problem & Direction

In academic ‘papers’, such as this 9 month report, it is not novel for the author to state that information is being produced at a prodigious rate and it is not novel to highlight the effect of Moore’s Law on the advancements of powerful digital devices {I currently have a wireless headphone in my ear which is more powerful than any machine Doug Engelbart developed for, for example}. What is needed is a defined goal for how we can more efficiently develop computer software for advanced computer systems.

Deep Literacy emerges when cognitive strategies enhanced by powerful computational tools enable knowledge workers to interact effectively with the ever growing inter-connection of digital information needed to carry out their work successfully. Livia Polanyi 2017

 

Barriers to Deep Literacy

 

Barriers to developing ever deeper literacies are largely based on the entrenchment of legacy systems and mindsets, something which will have to be taken into account when developing continuously more deeply literate systems.

 

Tools for Thought

 

It is no longer controversial to state that we think with our tools, our tools do not simply record our thoughts.

I think it’s worth looking at the deep span of time of where we are right now:

•  It is worth noting however where we are in the development cycle of digital systems; we are at the very start. Our solar system is about half way through its life, which gives us another 4 or 5 billion years of life on this planet {barring deeply illiterate human behaviour, which is a real threat to our survival}.

•  The first tools which augmented our ancestors physical and mental reach was about 2.5 million years ago. Our own species is 300/200,000 or so years old, depending on the criteria used to define Homo sapiens and cultural artefacts first really bloomed about 40,000 years ago, including cave painting which in important ways represent the start of literacy.

•  Pre-alphabetic writing is something like 5,5000 years old and the alphabet was invented in stages around 3,500 years ago.

•  Printing on paper – our most recent legacy which defines how we see documents even in the digital age, as vertical rectangles, was employed by Johannes Gutenberg to print text about 550 years ago.

•  In terms of digital literacy then, Doug’s demo was just half a century years ago and the web was launched a quarter of a century ago so our digital literacy pales in comparison. We are at the very start of the digital age yet we have fallen into looking at the future through a rear-view mirror, as McLuhan warned us – we are basing our digital technologies primarily on the prior medium of print.

I believe that we can really benefit from looking further back in our evolutionary history, look deeper at our perceptual processes, recorded communications history and examine current and near technological advancements as well as information theory to guide an experimental series of developments to support and encourage deeper literacy:

 

Foundations

 

These are aspects worth further research in general and as further literature review for me in particular:

•  Evolutionary history studies can help us understand why we perceive the way we do, from our vision being attuned to the wavelengths our sun proceeds the most of, to how ambient colours change our states of mind.

•  Perceptual processes are based on our evolutionary history and as we learn to better understand what has been coined heuristics and other ‘hardware live’ processes, we can learn to extend and augment them, including taking into account how the capacity of the human visual system is about 12 million bits per second while 16 bits per second is the bandwidth of consciousness (Norretranders, 1999).

•  Recorded communications history is the history of writing which also takes into account pre-alphabetical and pre-grammatical writing, as a source of understanding and inspiration for re-invention of writing for thought and communication.

•  Examine current and near technological advancements of computer platforms, hardware, APIs, libraries and standards.

•  Information theory, with a focus on my own Liquid Information perspective, as developed with Sarah Walton, which approaches computer information as interaction and interaction as fluid not simplistically ‘digital’.

•  Investigations into how best to convey ‘human intentions’ via electronic documents, since the measure of an academic document is a combination of the value of the originality and context of what is stated, wrapped in how clearly and understandably it is stated.

All these perspectives and insights need to guide an experimental series of developments to support and encourage deeper literacy, such as my Liquid View project, which my PhD aims to focus on.

 

Visually Augmented Thinking

 

My project, the Liquid View, is based on the ancient insight that we can benefit from thinking with visual mental space (writing lists for example) and the ancient insight of the importance of experience/interaction, previously by using the medium of lines in the sand or pieces of paper.

Limitations of such thinking systems have always been the limited opportunity to re-organise and then to integrate with a conventional communications ‘document’. There are two opportunities to overcome these issues today however: Digital technology completely removes the issue of re-organization by making the elements interactive with zero degradation of information quality and I have developed a word processor called Liquid | Author which publishes academic standard formatted .doc and .pdf documents, which the Liquid View will be another view of, so the work done in the Liquid View is not separate from an academic document, it is simply another view of the document.

The Liquid View will be accessed when viewing a regular word processing document, through a user interaction gesture (preferably, since a goal is to make the information feel more tangible than a keyboard short can deliver) which results in all body text being hidden through being collapsed under the headings – it is the headings which the user primarily views and interacts with in the Liquid View.

 

Research Questions

 

Learning from the perspectives outlined above, in ‘Foundations’, it is already clear that several issues will need to be worked out through prototyping and testing, with the ultimate goal of delivering what I like to imagine as being an ‘incredible thinking space’, where users, primarily university students, produce measurably deeper work. The way I propose measuring the depth of their work is aligned with how Craig Tashman developed his iOS product LiquidText (name no relationship to my work) and how other work has been developed and tested.

 

Overriding Research Question

 

How can textual knowledge best be represented in a non-linear format of nodes and connections, incorporating a rich set of data elements to augment the depth of thought when authoring a document?

 

Visual Display Considerations

 

This is where I will list what visual issues I can see now

 

Other Elements in Liquid View

 

This is where I will list what visual elements need to be considered

 

Interactions

 

This is where I will list what interactions need to be catered for

 

 


References

1. Norretranders T.. 1999. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science). Penguin Books.