Last week Macintosh turned 28 and this week, on Wednesday, Doug Engelbart, the inventor of much of the computer environment we use today, turns 88. In honour of Doug and his vision of augmenting human intelligence, I’d like to draw attention to the importance of improving how we interact with the written word.
Improving the way we think and communicate
Improving how we interact with the written word is important because the written word carries much of our knowledge and communication, so therefore improving how we interact with the written word improves how we think and communicate.
Computers have helped tremendously in how we work in general with sophisticated still image tools such as Adobe’s Photoshop, advanced video editing like Apple’s Final Cut Pro X and powerful music generating and editing software including Apple’s Logic.
The way we interact with the written word however, has not changed significantly in over 40 years since Doug Engelbart’s ‘mother of all demos’. We have ‘word’ processing applications which can apply prettier layout options than 50 years ago and which features spell-checking, but not much beyond this. We are held back by WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) which ties software tools improvement to the goal that the the printed word on paper is the final product – which is why Doug Engelbart has re-dubbed it WYSIAYG (What You See Is ALL You Get). We cannot afford to be held back by the outmoded view that text is primarily a paper-based product.
Powerful tools exist but in general they are separated from text. It used to be that if the knowledge worker wants to search for something based on the text being read, it’s a matter of copying and pasting the text, or retyping it in particular text search-engines. This is slowly improving with options for searching Google and Wikipedia being built in to the word processor. Text has so much more opportunity for powerful, convenient and useful interaction however. It can be invaluable to quickly search specialist references, something which cannot be added by the baked-in searches in word processors and other apps. Translation is not available, sharing is still just ‘copy and paste’ and ways to modify the text, such as copying the text without formatting, with links or as citations, is not possible. Neither is the analysis of text to strip out unneeded sections. If the selected text is a number, it would be natural to assume that the user can do basic maths directly with the numbers, such as addition and multiplication, but also conversions. This is not possible either.
There is tremendously more more digital text available now than 40 years ago, but the way we interact with it is has not gotten more powerful – it could be argued that it has gotten less powerful, as access to digital text has been ‘dumbed-down’ with the aim of making it more ‘mass-market’. Interaction with text has been hampered by the paradigm of ease of first-time use by the masses, where ‘the masses’ simply mean people who might not interact with text as their primary work activity. This happened when XEROX started PARC and decided that the ‘real’ user is the secretary, whom they named ‘Sally’. The Mac is a direct descendant of the PARC machines and also the PARC mentality.
Computing pioneer Alan Kay was a key PARC inventor and visionary who saw past this simplified perspective when he said that a computer is “an instrument whose music is ideas.” Yet we have been held back by the notion that the computer is more of an MP3 player which needs little more than on, off and volume controls.
However, the concept that the computer is an instrument is a powerful one. The mass market mindset has constrained us to playing a symphony of ideas with what amounts to boxing gloves – clicking on little icons.
Doug Engelbart’s original goal, which would give rise to the invention of the computer mouse, word processing, email and so much more of what is now the basic knowledge work environment, was much richer than helping a secretary produce nicely printed letters. Doug wrote in 1962:
By “augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble.
Doug Engelbart, Augmenting Human Intellect, 1962
I take this as a challenge and I think you should too, either as a user of software or a developer. It’s time to demand – and to develop – much more powerful tools for interacting with information and each other, in all media, including digital text.
This challenge has been my passion since 1996 when I first launched www.liquid.org. Over the decades since then, I have worked on this in various ways with various levels of success. New Years Eve 2011/12, I teamed up with Daoxin Zheng in China, via Elancec.com and we have built the first incarnation of a rich interactive text system which works not only in a web browser, which is what I worked on for so many years before, but in all the applications on the Mac – Liquid OS X. We have spent a year polishing, testing, improving and we now have a solid solution which doubles productivity. I ask you to have a look, to try it and tell me what you think and if you like it, to help spread the ‘word’.
Please have a look at the demonstration video at www.liquid.info/video and try it if you think it looks useful to you.
Liquid is only one part of the story, but I urge you to engage with it since this is the story of your intellectual work environment, your intellectual development. It’s no longer enough to marvel at the general capabilities of ultra-fast modern computers, with fancy games and movie making capabilities – it’s time to seek out, learn about and demand continually improved tools for your knowledge work. I don’t think Liquid is the be all and end all of interactive text – I certainly have many specific dreams of improvement. I hope, however, that you will find it both immediately useful and a taster for what the big guys should develop. I do think it is useful now, as a daily augmentation, not just as the demonstration of an idea.
This is only the beginning. I am looking for feedback, partners and inspiration – please email me at email@example.com. I am also looking for exposure. I feel that what Liquid does is important but it’s a very expensive proposition to market since it is not for a mass-market audience, instead it’s for those who primarily work with text as their work material and products and who want to get more productive, more in control. I can best reach them through others who are interested in improving our work tools. And I hope that includes you.
So far reception has been great. The indomitable Stephen Fry calls it “Genius.” Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the internet, says “You don’t know convenience until you try it.” Famed author Douglas Rushkoff simply says the Liquid: “counts as Mac OS Eleven.”
The Liquid Information Company is a tiny UK company which has benefited from an advisory board I am incredibly lucky to have, including: Ted Nelson, who coined the term ‘hypertext’, Dave Farber ‘the grand-father’ of the Internet, Bruce Horn, from PARC and Apple, where he wrote the first Macintosh Finder and centrally, the great man and inspiration, Doug Engelbart.
Monday 28th of January 2013