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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.

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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Authorship is has similarities to building a house: You may start out with notions of what the end product should be but as you put your thoughts down on paper you discover a evolving stream of issues you need to resolve which only become apartment after it’s down on paper. You may want to design a restaurant with a view but where should the kitchen go? If you put it in one location you loose some of the view but in the other location it may be too far away from deliveries. The door can open this way or the other way, all of the options having implications for restaurant layout. And so on.

When authoring a document you will similarly come up with logic issues or simply word-use and issues of rhythm. Should you use the same word in two sentences to achieve a specific effect or should you use a thesaurus to come up with another word which may not be as correct but will look more impressive? And so on.

In the same way we have invested heavily in architectural software tools to enable us to build modern buildings with huge expanses of glass, advanced thermal properties and intricate layouts–which could never have been built with pencil and paper–we should aspire to build high performance, high precision tools for our minds.

A building is called a building which is poetic since the name of the final product is the same as the name of the process to build it; a building is built. It does not appear out of nowhere. However a document only ‘documents’, the name does not connote an active process, only a static result. That is a shame.

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Text Visibility & Lights

A friend confided in me the other day of the frustration of getting a specific person to address actual text. I had to smile and point out that even with the Future of Text Symposium I have seen this too many times. It’s like talking about a physical window but people do not look at the frame or the glass, only what they can see through the window. The text is practically invisible to them.

The Lights

Having gone through a major renovation of our home and most recently bought ceiling and wall lights it struck me that we had been blind to lights before we had to really look at them for our renovation. Buying lights for our house is a multi-decade investment, not something to just do casually so we had to invest some time and effort to understand the different options available to us. The result is that we have a different context when we see lights now, they are not simply broadly fancy or functional.

(The same thing happened earlier with choosing window frames but the realistic options were not as broad so it did not have the same impact through of course it would have been more poetic for this analogy)

The Lobby

As is well described in The Mind is Flat (2018), we only take in what we need to and make up stories to explain what we see that’s new. Picture walking into a hotel lobby. You will make a near-instant decision of whether you feel it’s a fancy or basic hotel, whether it feels friendly or not and so on. If you are not a hotel lobby design or an interior decorator or enthusiast however, it’s unlikely you will look around and pay attention to the wall lights and the thickness of the carpet. You are blind to the details because you lack interest and context. This is of course exported by designers to make something look much more fancy and expensive than it is, simply through the use of superficial cues, but that’s another story.

I guess I feel then, like I am an interior designer obsessed with details the average hotel visitor is not. I am a text-thinker whereas the majority of people are text-readers. And that’s fine. But it helps me to look at it that way and now I need to build better text environments to augment people’s experiment no matter how text-superficial they are, in the same way a designer of hotel lobbies should design an experience in keeping with the hotel’s brand and make the visitor’s stay more appreciated, to the point of booking the next stay.

The Restaurant

Of course, when it comes to text and the issues we face, I feel more like a fireman saying the restaurant is on fire but people in general complain about all the heat and smell but can’t be bothered to get off their seats to douse the flames and only throw their water glasses at it while I beg them to help me extend the fire hose, but that’s just more water, more of the same thing. Why would we need that? We need better ways to talk about the flames….

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