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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.

In reply to Ed and Fleur’s request

In reply to Ed and Fleur’s request: 

I have been having the same thoughts as Ed and further to that – maybe it would help to go forward now to hear some practical examples from everyone how all this work has helped in the past and made difference or what a practical implementation might be and what results we would like to see/ could be had. How does all the knowledge materialise? (Kjlinsma & Leahy, 2017) 

I wholeheartedly agree that specifics is where it’s at, it’s where the rubber meets the road. 

I’ll start by quoting a section from  Augmenting Human Intellect (Engelbart, 1962), where he sets the scene for a ‘virtual’ demo: His fictional guide ‘Joe’ begins, “You’re probably waiting for something impressive. What I’m trying to prime you for, though, is the realisation that the impressive new tricks all are based upon lots of changes in the little things you do. This computerised system is used over and over and over again to help me do little things — where my methods and ways of handling little things are changed until, lo, they’ve added up and suddenly I can do impressive new things.” 

The specific field I have chosen to focus on with my work is the discourse students and teachers have via documents, consisting primarily of text.  

• The aim is to help the student think more clearly, do more thorough research and to produce more credible documents.  

• Conversely, the goal is also to help the teacher quickly get to grips with the students intention and to check the documents credibility. 

Credibility is an aspect I am grateful to Ed for really highlighting (and it makes sense, he was my university teacher) and we define credibility in a document largely from how well it’s reasoned and how well its cited.  

To this end I have build  Author (named in honour of Doug’s ‘Augment’, with which it shares name roots) which focuses on the reading and writing process (it features reading and writing modes, which I know is not very fashionable in some quarters but I feel that these are very different activities), and since I am an intensely visual person the visual interface is very sparse, in the words I wrote many decades ago when I was working with Sarah Walton: Information should be within eye’s reach and interactions within hand’s reach. Most of the interactions are therefore gesture or keyboard shortcut based, something someone who is familiar with cmd-b for Bold should be comfortable with. 

Since today’s Skype call is getting near, and since this is a not something I want to take too much of your time on anyway, I will highlight some of the aspects of what I have implemented: 

To do more research I have built the Liquid tool which allows the student to search any search engine based on selected text in less than half a second, making it much faster and easier, and therefore much more likely, to look things up.  

Citations are the key aspect I am focusing on to help with the credibility. To cite simply means to bring something forth and the history of citations is very messy. What I have done in Author is to make citations tags onto specific text which point to very specific places. The user can select text, cmd-t and choose to use Mendely, Amazon or Manual entry – or, if the user can copied a youTube URL, a video. On reading the document the reader can click to check the original sources, even to play – from the moment cited – the video right inside Author, making it more credible since it’s harder to miss-quote someone or have the context obscured intentionally or by error. 

The next step will be to to work on the ‘clear thinking’ aim, by building the  Dynamic Views  into Author so that a student can learn more about the space he or she is writing about in a concept map space and organise and link and see what they know and therefore maybe also learn more about what might be missing. How far this can go I don’t know, hence my hope that this can be my PhD project (pending approval). 

On the teacher/reader side I plan great things (import and Publish modules to do many automatic things to check the document) but at this point a focus on another Doug perspective, ViewSpecs, has started: Select any text and hit cmd-f and only the sentences with the selected text are displayed.  

These are some of my basic aims and how I am working on achieving them. I hope it goes some way to address the question from my point of view and I hope others in this community will add to this thread! 


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On the Primacy of Interactions

Where I preach for a minute:

The stuff of work for a knowledge worker is not information, it is interaction.

This is because information is the result of interaction – interaction is more fundamental than information and I think this is crucial to consider.

Information has its name because in order for something to be information it has to be (to play with words); in-formation, it needs to have some relation to other information and this is where the power of information comes from, as well as its complexity and, let’s be honest, the messiness.

The energy needed to organise information, to put it in-formation is greater than the energy needed to produce the information to begin with and when organised it is only organised based on finite criteria so to focus on the organisation of information should be thought of as a dynamic process where we think of the desired interactions we need to make possible.

This then has knock-on effects for how we design the user experience and how we store and share our knowledge – do we share our knowledge in frozen form or in richly interactive ways which allows for limitless connections, associations and links to be seen and re-drawn?

That is not a rhetorical question, I would greatly like to know what you think.

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Knowledge work is not all in the mind

A basketball player dunks from across the court, a footballer dribbles past to a perfect shooting spot and a dancer swirls and spins and the crow goes wild.  

Meanwhile, back in the office the knowledge worker fires up Microsoft Word, hacks out a few sentences and asks a colleague for help since they’re not that ‘techie’ and then at lunch looks across the cafe at the geeks with stickers on their laptops clicking away and doesn’t reflect on their virtuosity but reflects on their ‘sadness’ and listens to *Insert name of country here*’s Got Talent in the evening and almost weeps at the beautifully sung performance in the evening and considers that just a ‘talent’, not taking into account the hours and hours the singer spent perfecting and learning to control her voice. The very next morning the office worker watches a marketing video with brilliant effects presented by the marketing team and wish they had such computer skills, then takes another bite of the donut and half-thinks about that promise of starting to go to the gym, a thought interrupted by the dread of having to write that quarterly report comes to mind – it’s just too hard , too many things to juggle – “my job is to sell these things, that’s an intellectual and social job, not to write complicated reports like John is too good at, but then, he’s such a geek, he’s good with computers”… 

Why is it that knowledge work is seen by so many as being something in the mind and that computers are just the things you use to write down their genius ideas? Knowledge work is not all in the mind. 

Artists sketch their ideas out on paper – they think with paper. Scientist think with diagrams and babies learn with toys. Work happens somewhere and that somewhere is our brains extended with our tools; both mental tools and physical/virtual tools. 

Computer game players know this and demand not just better graphics in every new games platform but also better ‘gameplay’ – better ways to move in the virtual world to achieve your objective. Yet with knowledge work we are still using virtual dead paper in the form of PDF documents and word processors like Microsoft Word which have not seen significant upgrades in at least 20 years. Where is the demand from knowledge workers for better ‘gameplay’ for work systems? 

Cells were not seen until we had microscopes and the moon was not trod upon until we had rocket ships. Before we had writing we did not have reliable means to freeze our thoughts and to consult them later and this changed our species from one living in a moment to one living and collaborating across time and space. Now we have digital text and the frozen record can be consulted in ways previously yet we are only so very slightly scratching the surface of this new intellectual opportunity. What intellectual breakthroughs will become possible with more powerful knowledge systems? 

I invite you to join me to try to find out, at least as a tiny initial potential Punctum Archimedis, as we work to develop something useful to demo on the 9th of December 2018, on the 50th anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s ‘mother of all demos’. We blog here: and we are building more powerful ways to read and write and to connect the two through more powerful publishing:  

In our are people who worked with Doug Engelbart, are changing academia from within, one guy co-invented the internet, another was one of the original Macintosh coders, a word processor developer and another who created Siri. We all have other jobs but we all share the passion of the potential of building ever more powerful knowledge augmentation systems. 

Doesn’t it all sound just great? Why not get VC or angel funding one might ask? We have tried and we are told it’s too academic and the market is locked into Word and PDF. We have asked for academic funding too and get the opposite reply: This seems too useful and commercial for funding.  

We have the energy and the will to knock a dent in the universe for the better, and we also have a cunning plan; we plan to make PDFs our Trojan horses, by embedding rich documents in them so that when a user publishes from the new and more powerful systems and someone who only has a PDF reader, they can read the PDF basic version but someone who has the new software can open the rich document and keep all the rich interactions and meta data.  

We also have a need for help. We need ideas, perspectives and funds for professional coders to do some of the heavy lifting. Do you want to be a part of the future of thought?

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