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Category: Why?

Collection of posts over the years as to why the work to make digital systems more richly interactive for knowledge work.

Why interactive text is crucial

In a world of fake news, propaganda and weaponised social media optimised for one-click viral sharing, the velocity of text is far beyond anything seen in the days before computers or in the early days of computing. It is far easier to share blindly than it is to pose simple questions.
For some, this brings up the age-old question of who determines the truth and where truth can be found, since any text can assert that it is truthful and the author may very well have honestly believed it was. It is too easy to be stuck at this question and simply rank media based on some relative score of attempted objectivity or to fall the other way and state that truth is simply subjective.
But truth is not in the written words. Truth is in how they are connected.
Our access to truth is determined by our ability to read the text as written and to read its context. This is why text-interactions are important and this is why the future of text cannot simply be left up to giant corporations and governments which derive value from the current state of velocity driven, simple-share interaction.
And this is why we are conducting the largest survey of different perspectives on the future of text ever seen.
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Making Information Self Aware

We can fight fake news and find more useful information in the academic and scientific publishing tsunami if we make the information self aware–if the information knows what it is. This is not a suggestion of Harry Potter level magical fantasy but a concrete act we can start with today and lay for foundation for future massive improvement.

the intelligent environment

Many years ago I read an interview with one of the developers of the computer game Crysis where he was lauded with the quality of the AI of the opponents in the game. He said that making the AI was not really the hard part, making the different parts of the environment aware of their attributes was key. If a tree trunk is thick, then the enemy can hide behind it. If it is dense then it will also serve as a shield, up to a point.

the self aware document

This is what we can and must do to documents. We must encode the meaning in documents as clearly as possible so that the document may be read by software and human. The document must be aware of who authored it, when, what its title is and so on, to at least provide the minimal context for useful citations.

It should also know what citations it contains and what any charts and graphs means what glossary terms are used and how they connect. Of course, we call this ‘metadata’ – information about information and the term has been used in many ways for many years now, but the metadata has so far been hidden inside the document, away from direct human and system interaction. We should maybe instead call it ‘hiddendata’. For some media this is actively used, such as the EXIF data in photographs, but it is lost when the photograph changes format, is inserted into other media or is printed. For text-based documents this is certainly currently possible but seldom actually used and not usefully read by the reader software and lost on printing.

bibtex foundation

You may well feel that this is simply a call for yet another document format but it is not. This is simply a call for a new way to add academic ‘industry-standard’ BibTeX style formatting of metadata to any document, starting with PDFs, in a robust, useful and legacy friendly way, by simply adding a final appendix to the document which follows a visually human-readable (hence BibTeX) and therefore also machine parseable format.

As this will include who authored the information, which the reading software can ‘understand’ and make it possible for the user to simply copy text from the document and paste it as a full citation into a new document in one operation, making citations easier, quicker and more robust. Further information can be explained for reader-software parsing, such as how the headings are formatted (so that the reader software can re-format the document if required, to show academic citation styles in the preference of the reader if they are different from the presence of the author), what citations are used, what glossary terms are used and what the data in tables etc. contains and more.

more connected texts

This is making the document say what it is, where it comes from, how it’s connected, what it means, and what data it contains. This is, in effect, making the document self aware and able to communicate with the world. These are truly augmented documents.

This will power simple parsing today and enable more powerful AI in the future in order to much better ‘understand’ the ‘intention’ of the author producing the document, by making documents readable.

This explicitly applies to documents and has the added benefit that even if they are turned into different formats and even if they are printed and scanned they will still retain the metadata. The concept is extensible to other textual media, but that is beyond this proposal.


I call this approach Visual-Meta and it’s presented in more detail here I believe this is important and I have therefore started the process of hosting a dialog with industry and I have produced two proof-of-concept applications, one for authoring Visual-Meta documents and one for reading and parsing them: Liquid | Author and Liquid | Reader:


Digital capabilities run deeper than what previous substrates could, but even in the pursuit of more liquid information environments we should not ignore the power of the visual symbolic layer. We hide the meta at our peril – we reveal it and include it in the visual document and gain robustness through document format changes and even writing and scanning, gaining archival strength without any loss of deep digital interactivity, something which matters more and more as we live and discover how brittle our digital data is and how important rich interactivity is to enable the deeper literacy required to fight propaganda and to propagate academic discoveries often lost in the sheer volume of documents.

Furthermore, with the goal of more robust formats and supporting reading of printed books and documents, addressing information (as discussed in the Visual-Meta addressability post) can be printed on each page in the footer to allow for easy scanning of hand-annotated texts to be OCR’d and entered into the user’s digital workflow automatically. Digital is magic. Paper is also magic. One day they will merge, but until then there is value to be had to use both to their strengths.


As we make our information aware,
we increase the potential of our own awareness



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Our House is on Fire

(Our house is on fire. Should we have another coffee and chat about it and try to put it out that way or should we maybe build a powerful hose and get off our butts and put it out?)

…we don’t have these tools, concepts, skills, and heuristics because our species is smart; we are smart because we have culturally evolved a vast repertoire of tools, concepts, skills, and heuristics…

This is another post in the ‘Why is interactive text important’ Category. I really don’t like to write these since I feel they are kind of defensive but since what I write is clearly not obvious to the general public I feel I have no choice. The book quote above, by Joseph Henrich, makes the point that culture is what makes us smart and he firmly places tools as a cultural transmitted human extension. Howard Rheingold ‘made’ me read this book and I think it it makes its point powerfully.

We are seeing serious climate change issues as well as issues of poverty, social injustice, lack of education, important academic work lost in sheer volume of documents produced and the potential war but what I hear is that we have enough tools and technology, what we need are new ways to be smarter and work together. I do not find these to be mutually exclusive, I find that technology is a greatly powerful way to augment our smarts and our communication and collaboration.

Yes social media presents real issues now but this is because virtually all the effort to design them has been from the commercial interests who made the them and they benefit from the discord of the medium since it keeps us engaged. There has been very little work by those whose focus is purely to augment our ability to understand what someone else is writing and communicate our own thoughts clearly, whether for work or socially. Not only has social media been commercialised, it also has been weaponised by those with vested interests and the resources behind them. This is why we must arm the citizenry. This is why we must invest in providing better tools and interactions by those who represent the users. To add two analogies to this mix: It’s like we have no car safety tests or rules and no food safety–it’s all just self policed by the auto and food industries. But back to the analogy of buildings, which I have been using for the last few posts:

Our house is on fire and I feel like a fireman saying ‘our house is on fire’ but although people in general complain about the heat and smell and argue over which fire is most important (civil rights, climate, etc.) and complain about who promises to put the fires out (politicians of various stripes), they can’t be bothered to get off their seats to douse the flames–they only throw their water glasses at it while I beg them to help me build a more powerful fire hose–but that’s just more water they say, more of the same thing. Why would we need that? We need better ways to talk about the flames they say. Water glasses only makes the problem worse since many don’t use it right and spill it and we slip on it when we go to the bathroom so clearly water is not the answer they say, we have too much of that already.

Our house really is on fire and we need to put it out.

A major medium for serious communication to form consensus and coordinate our efforts is the written word. Out mental resources is the water in this analogy and text is one of the firehose technologies through which we direct our mental resources. How can this not be a crucial world-goal to improve for anyone but those who actually benefit from the status quo?

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