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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.

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)
   
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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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Socrates and Text

TL:DR

Much has been discussed about the concerns Socrates had about reading. Here I make the point that the act of authorship is Socratic in ways that reading is not, and that this has implications for how we design writing systems.

Reading

Socrates argued against text because he felt that reading was a superficial process where the reader does not have an opportunity to question or interact with the author. This argument has held water over the last two millennia but with thee advent of digital text there is a call to make text a more socratic medium, with richer interactions to support a deeper and more active reading, as Alan Kay illuminates in The Future of Reading Depends on the Future of Learning Difficult to Learn Things (2013).

So yes, analog substrate reading has to answer to Socrate’s issues. Digital reading can be improved to a deeper level of interaction.

Writing

The act of writing is the opposite of the act of reading, not only for the obvious reason, but also because the act of writing is highly interactive with the author–the author interacts with their own thoughts when they write–the very act of writing is an interrogation of the text of the author. If neuroscience has confirmed anything over the last few decades it is that the human mind is a storymaking machine; a highly creative one but also a lazy one: Our richly connected synapses allow us to think of myriads of things, but we only fill in the details and see the connections when we have to, which our brains present us with as aspects of what we already knew but in reality are inventions made up on the spot. For an excellent overview of this I can recommend Nick Chater’s The Mind Is Flat (2018).

Authorship

Authorship on the other hand, is a seriously interactive process of linearising and connecting initial thoughts with those which develop over the course of the process of authoring, resulting in a coherent ‘authored’ whole.

Simply writing something down as one continuous transcription will not suffice for anything of any substantial length or depth, a fiction only those who have never tried it believe. The truth is that even a shopping list can require revisions once it’s seen by the optical eyes and not only by the mind’s eye. The mind’s eye has but the smallest canvas compared with what the optical eye can offer–and little of the permanence.

Authoring by thinking with text is similar to thinking with another person: Something is stated and once it’s out of the author’s mind it can be examined and commented on, either immediately or at a later date.

Augmented Authorship

What the minds eye has in abundance is the ability to associate between richly woven connections accessible to us through our association cortices, as described in Elastic (2019) by the renowned scientist Leonard Mlodinow. To truly leverage the power of connecting our minds to an external workspace, the challenge becomes how we can also make the optical view as flexible and interactive as our mental view while keeping its permanence and exploring its potentially capacious size. This, I believe, is the central challenge of interactive, digital text: The ability to fix thoughts has been possible since the dawn of writing but now we have the opportunity of also allowing the author’s mind to fluidly move around the text and re-arrange it at will.

Writing then has always been Socratic–the dialog Socrates said was missing from the written word is there when it is being written, it is the dialog with yourself.

Considering the volume of dialog we have through the written word and the repercussions when we do not or can not interrogate what we read and the brain capacity lost when struggling to author clearly, we should, as a society–as a species–invest in augmenting text for truly powerful reading and authoring.

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The Old Man

old man inventor?

As my first major software application reaches 16th most popular Productivity Application on the macOS App Store I reflect again on what Alan Kay said over lunch: “But you CAN do anything!”. I know he was being sincere, it’s the same thing I would say to a curious and passionate student. My concern is that my brain is fully myelinated, all the fatty optimisers have been laid down, my axons and dendrites are not as much in the dating market as before. I have now managed to produce one instance of my vision in Liquid | Author, which includes Liquid | Flow. It’s a different type of word processor where I had a few medium sized ideas (tag for meaning such as for headings, a different Find command and so on) and did a lot of polishing on use, reducing as many button presses and unexpected frustrations as I could see.

So now I have a smidgeon of credibility, which is great, but what I have produced is only a very small incremental step in a different direction. How can I possibly move symbol manipulation along at a usefully large step? How can I invent something amazingly powerful? This is the question any inventor or artist would ask. And my stodgy old brain, is it still able to fluidly create new and useful connections?! I have noticed that my memory has gotten better over the last few years, which worries an artist-type such as myself. I should be able to be flexible and see things afresh. So I worry.

old man navigator

But my worry gives way to perspective. It’s not my ability to invent something which is why I must keep working and why I invite others to join me. It’s not what I build, it’s about where I am going. I am a navigator, not an inventor.

My work is to augment our ability to orient ourselves in our information, to see and make connections. These are all navigation metaphors and they apply to the process of building the tools as well.

I take responsibility of the question, of the goal, not the answer or a particular way of getting there. Sure, my world is that of visual symbol manipulation (text and associated visual communications) but to navigate we must first choose which world to venture forth into.

future

My future work will be to further improve the navigation and display of text in Author and on the web, including through compressed scrolling, dynamic views and more atomic authoring, including though the user of hyperGlossaries. Much of the work will be to implement small, incremental changes to make the information flow more liquid. The reach of my research and implementation–the twins of progress–will venture as far as my mind will stretch and collages will entertain.

In the distance I see a more liquid information environment where users can become deeply literate because their tools are powerful and they can view and interact with their knowledge in visceral ways, like moulding magical clay.

This is not a solo effort. It is an effort in building dialogue in addition to systems and approaches. This is what I have been doing for almost a decade now with The Future of Text Symposium and look forward to continue.

My premise is simple: Continue to work to employ the occipital lobe to support the prefrontal cortex–to use our eyes to think. And that is my journey.

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