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Why Another Word Processor

I recently released an update to my word processor and someone on Facebook asked me why I created a new word processor when there are so many on the market. That is a lovely, provocative and–I think–important question, which I will try to address here.

Grasp

About a year ago I became the lucky and proud father to my son Edgar whom I have had the extreme privilege and joy of watching grow and develop over the last year. The range of expressions around his focused and wondering eyes have been accompanied by the extended reach and finesse of his digital grasp, that is to say the dexterity of his fingers have been increasing to the point of detailed control.

He will pick up something and shake it about, listen to it, thump it on the floor and sometimes try to gnaw at it, all in the dual process of getting to grips with what it is and increasing his motor skills–increasing his understanding of his own muscle control and his own eyes–as he learns about the world he also learns about himself.

Although I started work on my word processor Liquid | Author and the accompanying interactive text tool Liquid | Flow decades before he was born, I find watching him very illustrative in the way that he has such rich interaction with what he comes across to get to grips with it and the way his understanding of his own reach and abilities increase (his literacy in a way), it shines a light on how adults currently interact with their knowledge and enlightens us to possibilities.

Text

Much of of the information which is important to us is recorded in the form of text and how we interact with the text to a large extent determines how well we can get to grips with the information. I’m sure you have noticed how I use the word ‘grip’ both when observing my beautiful baby boy and (I’m sure you agree it’s a term which fits) when talking about getting to grips with information. Let’s extend that insight while we take into account the way text is currently locked into frames with minimal access for interaction, a legacy of pre-digital substrates. Picture poor Edgar in front of a book and not being allowed to touch it. I’ve tried, it was not very nice. He cried since for him reaching out and grasping is still such an obvious component of learning, whether physically or mentally.

Symbol Manipulation

I see symbol manipulation as being one of the most important things our society can invest in, as my friend and mentor Doug Engelbart pointed out, in his seminal 1962 paper which would provide the seeds for his world-changing 1968 demo where he basically introduced the world to interactive computing:

……any possibility for improving the effective utilization of the intellectual power of society’s problem solvers warrants the most serious consideration. This is because man’s problem-solving capability represents possibly the most important resource possessed by a society. The other contenders for first importance are all critically dependent for their development and use upon this resource. Any possibility for evolving an art or science that can couple directly and significantly to the continued development of that resource should warrant doubly serious consideration.
Engelbart, 1962

Doug was particularly concerned with our ability to manipulate symbols when he referred to problem solving:

The feature of humans that makes us most human – that most clearly differentiates us from every other life form on Earth – is not our opposable thumb, and not even our use of tools. It is our ability to create and use symbols. The ability to look at the world, turn what we see into abstractions, and to then operate on those abstractions, rather than on the physical world itself, is an utterly astounding, beautiful thing, just taken all by itself … The thing that amazed me – even humbled me – about the digital computer when I first encountered it over fifty years ago – was that, in the computer, I saw that we have a tool that does not just move earth or bend steel, but we have a tool that actually can manipulate symbols and, even more importantly, portray symbols in new ways, so that we can interact with them and learn … We have a tool that radically extends our capabilities in the very area that makes us most human, and most powerful … My sense is that computer science has brought us a gift of even greater power, the ability to amplify and extend our ability to manipulate symbols.
Engelbart, 2002

Passion

He saw my passion for richly interactive text and I take his support seriously. He emailed me in 2003: I honestly think that you are the first person I know that is expressing the kind of appreciation for the special role which IT can (no, will) play in reshaping the way we can symbolize basic concepts to elevate further the power that conditioned humans can derive from their genetic sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities

What’s At Stake

In a world of instant one–to–many proliferation of any assertion (twitter, facebook and other social media) and oceans of academic papers beyond the possibility of even the most dedicated reader to grasp the value or credibility of, not providing rich interactions for the general reader and authors is irresponsible and dangerous. We are in danger of becoming a leviathan without a functioning immune system who falls into line with any chosen ‘authority’ without any scrutiny and we lose real access to competing perspectives, locking us further into tunnel vision.

Physical Reach & Technological Reach

Our abilities to interact with our world defines who we are, and as technologies change our information world our abilities to interact in this world defines our effectiveness to survive or thrive. As such, we need to develop technologies to solve known problems but we also need to examine the characteristics of the digital technology where our information exists in order to draw out what can augment our intellect and moderate the negative effects.

What I have done

What I have done about this is to start building software and to organise dialog with different groups of people–this task is too important to be left to any individual or single organisation and as such, we need to work together on this as humans and not pretend that technology will evolve in an a way which will automatically increase our cognitive abilities.

Driving Principles

Symbols & Addressability
Additionally, the symbol spaces the information exists in determines our abilities to connect and see relationships, something discussed on my site symbolspace.info. This highlights the importance and vitality afforded by addressability, particularly high-resolution addressability.

Evolved Human
I furthermore believe that we need to treat the human as the evolved being we are, not as some neutral computation box. This means utilising our fingers more to exercise the commands and eyes more to internalise presented information. As such I believe in the power of employing our occipital/visual lobe to work for our frontal/higher level thinking lobe through giving the user clutter-less work-spaces which take into account the characteristics of the eye, including making the text as readable and un-irritating as possible with advanced capabilities for the user to change the visual presentation through keyboard shortcuts and gestures.

Interactivity
My driving principles is that symbols are important and that interaction is a truly fundamental aspect of information and holds the key for us to be able to deal with the information effectively (a sentence I hope you will find self-evidently obvious on reflection).

The Forces of Evolution
Finally, it is not enough to let only commercial interests build our thinking technologies based on focus groups and what will easily sell. We need to invest in myriad ways of augmenting our abilities to deal with the information landscapes we increasingly live in–my work is one such effort.

Connecting People

I have organised the Future of Text Symposium for 7 years: futureoftext.org. If interactive text if of interest to you I invite you to join us. This year it paused to collaborate on presenting a symposium remembering Doug’s demo exactly 50 years on

Software

To address these issues I have developed the Liquid | Author word processor for macOS, soon also for iOS, and the interactive text tool Liquid | Flow, both of which are presented at www.liquid.info

• Liquid | Author is a word processor which features a minimalist visual interface to save the users eyes from processing distracting elements and powerful commands executed through gestures and keyboard shortcuts, such as instant table of contents and search, quick citation creation and checking and Publish/Export as academic document, including the automatic appending of References at the back.

• Liquid | Flow allows the user to select any text in any application and issue about 300 commands within half a second through easy to learn keyboard shortcuts.

A Modest Beginning

This is what I have managed to cobble together over the last few years, working as a small, independent developer. The opportunity is of course much bigger. I can see a future where the ‘publishing’ process–even simply from a student, is a considered step with specific modules applied, such as plagiarism checking, reading level checking, and, as Livia Polanyi suggested; having a summary generated so that the author can check if what was intended was actually what came across. Further improvements which come to mind include live text, auto-generated timelines, support for the Dynamic View in VR, intelligent multiple clipboards, rich annotation & search, paragraph ‘auditions’ (ala Final Cut), list collapsing, in-line interactive equations and much, much more, including high resolution addressing, to make it possible to make links to specific parts of a document, such as wordpress.liquid.info/page/4/#6

Please keep in mind, when it comes to building power tools for the mind; we are at the start, not the end of digital history.

Deep Literacy

The goal is to promote ever deeper literacy of the user, as a result of more powerful tools which the user can use in more powerful ways to augment their ability to think and communicate. This can only happen in a flexible thinking environment, free from traditional commercial constraints, with a dedicated user-community, which is precisely what I am fostering with my work: deep-literacy.info

[submitted to ACM for a Viewpoints article & rejected]

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Symposium Intro (draft) Post, 31 May, 17:48

Welcome.

Today we will celebrate a great man and his great vision.

To do that, we will look back at Doug’s epiphany–what got him started down this road to begin with. We will then look at his seminal 1962 paper ‘Augmenting Human Intellect’ where his framework was first presented to the world. A few decades later he would have something tangible to show the world and this would become known as the Mother of All Demos and this demo is the fulcrum around which today revolves.

We will take a deep dive into some of the specific augmentations he invented and look at his notion of capability infrastructures and of course we will revel in the impact his work has had on all our lives.

However, those are the incredible artifacts which we now take for granted–apart from the ones we actually don’t have anymore and which are potentially hugely powerful. Still, these are only the artifacts. To look where the great man was going it’s not enough to look at his footsteps, we need to try to look through his eyes and this is where something much more powerful emerges.

You see, Doug did not take ownership of solutions or specific ways of doing things, he took ownership of problems and that leads to a very different set of priorities.

Doug was not interested in ease of use. He was also not interested in making computers more powerful. The way he looked at the world was deceptively simple: he wanted to invest his career for the benefit of mankind. He spent a lot of time looking at big ways to do this and having read a book on computers and having served as a radar technician in world war two, it came to him: We can use the computer to augment our intellect!

[the following would be on the wall now, and read out]

We need to augment

our collective (local, global etc.)

capability to approach urgent, complex problems

in order to

gain more rapid and better comprehension (which can be defined as more thorough and more critical) …

to result in speedier and better solutions. (more contextual, longer lasting, cheaper, more equitable etc.)

Furthermore, we must improve our improvement process. (as individuals and groups)

[end]

His goal was to support organisations of people operating at a high performance  –  and Doug saw the layers of this:

• For him, the work of an organisation could be called the A level of work, such as making products, selling them and so on.

• B level is improving the A level work, by introducing a new email system or starting a new trading program. This is how much of the world operates; an organisation does A level work and then they purchase ‘upgrades’ of some sort or develop some themselves, based on clear needs.

This however, only gives us linear progress to solve problems we understand well enough to out in a box and write a spec sheet for. And make no mistake, B level improvements for the A level work is crucial and should continue.

However, the screen on the Apple Watch (forget smart phones or tablets) uses more memory to display a single image than all the working memory of NLS in the 60s. This is significant because we have had incredible improvements in computer games–think of asteroids vs Battlefield V and visualisations in music and movies, but we have had nothing near the same rate of improvement with knowledge work systems.

When I asked an early question when thinking about today; “What can it mean to augment human intellect in the 21st Century?”, the co-inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, asked me right back; “could we even resurrect the capabilities he demonstrated back then?”

Why did Doug manage to invent such powerful systems to augment the way we think and collaborate? Why have we been stuck with programs like Microsoft Word with the myriad of entry-level buttons to click when he was quite literally flying through cyberspace in the 60s? There are many ways to approach this question and issues of commercialisation and educating the market and so on can come into it but today we will look at one very important aspect:

The C level of work, the systemic effort to improve the improvement is largely missing and THIS is the key.

I am a software developer myself and there are many features Doug invented and which I have been inspired by him that I want to implement and that’s fine, but that will only get us so far–that is looking at the great man’s footprints.

To really move our organisations, and ideally, all of society to a higher level of performance, we need to think–and invest–bigger than that. We must actively support pioneering efforts to improve improvement, otherwise we will have no hope at all at building systems, and by systems I really mean systems; people collaborating in person and through powerfully networked computers, which will keep up with the increasing complexity which the digital environment itself is brining about.

We can jokingly call the C level the ‘sea’ level since we either sink in the deluge of digital crud or we dive in and increase our performance to a high degree, something only investing in the foundational C level activities will help us achieve.

Today’s symposium is in the tradition of the annual Future of Text symposium where we meet to discuss the potential futures of the written word. It is nice, but it is but a snowflake on the mountain of the effort we need to make happen. Later today Christina Engelbart will talk about more of the mountain of effort she is doing at the Engelbart Institute and we sincerely hope that you will leave today some new information but more than that, we hope you will leave with inspiration to work together at the core issues of not just improving an aspect of how we work together to solve problems, but how we can re-frame improvement at a massive scale.

There is a lot of unknowns at the C level, from psychology and physiology to information science and the dynamics of groups and information systems which can benefit from huge investments, which if undertaken, could truly lead us into a new age of enlightenment where fake news and information overload becomes as insignificant as it should be.

While we stand by and watch, fake news, some of which is weaponised, and masses and masses of information crucial to our personal careers and that of our organisations escapes and we what is touted as the answer to many is not augmented intellect, IA, but AI, artificial intelligence. We need to be honest about whether we want the computer systems to think of us or whether we want to also think for ourselves, and if so, how we can work together to explore deep ways of improving how we actually collaborate. Do you think the big tech companies want to sell us the sugar pill of basic quick fixes or work to truly augment the performance of networked teams? We can leave it to the commercial markets and politicians to have our best interests in mind. Or, and this is truly your choice: This is something you can take ownership of, just like Doug did.

“Do Like Doug; Dedicate yourself to Depth not just Dollars”

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