Dear Stephane, here are my thoughts ahead of our meeting on Thursday. Please forgive what may read as being patronising, I am only trying to be as clear as possible. James, Marc-Antoine, Gyuri, Robert, Houria, Stephan, Vint, Wendy, Les and Chris, this addresses our joint http://doug-50.info project as well of course. Please be gentle, this was written in the only early hours I have available at the moment and will therefore likely contain the odd egregious error. (Please also note that this post was edited based on just such an error spotted by Les and since it was posted via Liquid | Flow and contains paragraph-links (as discussed below, it broke the HTML a bit and that’s why there are such huge vertical gaps in places!).
- An adult Homo Erectus indicates to his son to look over by the trees–there is a threat hiding there.
- My beautiful young son Edgar who just turned 1 last week points to the button on the tumble drier–he wants to turn it on.
- A 20th century professor quotes from a well known publication in her field and her readers are well aware of this work and reads the quote with critical context in mind. Meanwhile, a student of the professor has a brilliant insight from reading in other fields and cites a wide swathe of perspectives but it is unreasonable for his peers to go to a library and track down the books and journals and thumb thorough them to the sections he has brought forth (cited). His shining new insight therefore goes largely ignored by his community who don’t trust his sources and who find it unreasonable to check them.
- A 21st century academic cites a passage from a history of modern politics but cannot refer to the page number since he is reading a commercially published electronic version of the document and this results in his reader blindly following his argument, without having practical recourse to check the veracity of the quote–which turns out to be taken wildly out of context.
These little scenarios are intended to highlight the primacy of being able to point while communicating and thinking and the ‘dirty little secret’ that citations are traditionally used to add weight to an argument within a known academic space and not as a way to connect to ideas and assertions further afield.
- A blogger cites an anchor to a paragraph in another blog to allow the reader to instantly check the section in context but the other blogger forgets to pay her domain fee and the domain name stops working.
The issues here are central to what information is and to human thought and communication. If we cannot somehow point to something we cannot refer to it, put it in context or even think about it. Pointing is made possible by addressing. If the Homo Erectus could not use his finger and point to the trees he would not be able to indicate where the threat was and by son could not communicate to me that he wanted to press the button if there was no way for him to indicate the button. Similarly, the citations (a term which comes from the act of bringing forth) brings forth something in the 20th century academic’s shared knowledge yet was not powerful enough to bring forth that which was not already known to the reader since going to the library to find a document and then thumbing through it to the right page was not worth the effort. This problem was replicated in digital form for the 21st century academic.
The human brain’s memory is a highly associative system, not based on hard links but on associations based on accessible characteristics. We can jump around our memories based on how something ‘reminds us’ of something else. The act of authoring is to take what is in our brains and linearising it to make an argument, increasing some links and obscuring others.
When we write something we are putting down models of our initial human thoughts, not the complete thought. We need to decide, actively and passively what of the thought we find most valuable and relevant to note down and we weave our thoughts into coherent arguments within a sentence and document ‘grammar’, which are connective rules for other brains to internalise the connections we have made explicit in the future (including our own brain in the future of course).
The effort to preserve the wider context and soft associations is valuable for future analysis and so is the clarification of the linear argument the author primarily wants to make–issues which will continue to re-appear in the evolution of digital text.
Writing is taking soft, amorphous connective thoughts in the human biological brain into visual symbols in some substrate, originally physical, today virtual. This process changes the nature of the nodes, connections and associations (I define associations as relationships based on characteristics and proximity, not explicitly linked) and authorship is thus clearly a part of the thinking process (too many academics point this out but Andy Clark is a good one for this).
The process of authorship, as opposed to the ‘writing’ of a basic pre-formed sentence in isolation, is the management of what should be highlighted, what should be hidden, what relationship is primary and how to contextualise the ‘argument’. This means that glossaries are hugely important since they explicate a specific field’s assumptions as a dictionary of the specific field.
I have written on my notion of a Symbol Space and there will be much more work to be done on this in the future, in working out what the actual relationships and characteristics of the ‘storage of intellectual thought’-the symbols is about: http://symbolspace.info
I have said previously that information is interaction since information must be inter-actable in order to be information and this lies at the root of my philosophy of how we should build and explore information spaces and the symbols they contain. An absolutely primary aspects of the interactions with information though is how the information can be connected, as outlines at length above (sorry about this, my wife and son are both still asleep so it’s quiet for thinking and writing and I don’t know how much more time I have today so as the joke goes, I wrote a long post since I didn’t have the time to write a shorter one).
There are wondrous possibilities for how we can interact with symbols to compare, contrast, analyse, share and ‘live with’ symbols in a richly interactive environment, which is my dream to build and which I am investing my efforts in creating, though my macOS software projects Liquid | Author (word processor) and Liquid | Flow (text manipulation tool), both available from www.liquid.info However, there are artificial constraints as to how we can point and that is what I’d like to highlight here, as well as potential solutions.
I have written a proposal to Amazon for how to add links to sections in the Kindle Reader (what Doug Engelbart called High-resolution addressing), which is basically accepting that they are the ones who must do all the work since their books can only be read in their software, but there is a way to option it by using ‘deep-linking’ which can be referred to outside of their domain but which links back into it: http://wordpress.liquid.info/post-16-may-0634/
A further and important aspect of the proposed pointing mechanism here (and in the Google Books approach below) is the separation of searching for a document by name/ID (and not it’s location) and searching within it–these should be separate issues, though tied in the addressing. This is important since domains disappear, identity systems such as ISBN and DOI will not necessarily be around forever and internal addressing schemes might change.
Therefore the user should be given the opportunity to be a part of the ‘finding’ of the document if a basic, default link does not work (search the web, library, Amazon etc.) and how to then get to the part pointed out internally (by section ID or perhaps by simply keyword search). The smoothness and speed of this operation for the end user will be crucial for determining how much this will be used and thus how far this will (literally) expand our thinking space–something which will hit up against the requirement for robustness.
Google Books can be used to access pages in printed books digitally, a capability I’m building into Author currently: When reading a book citation the user can click ‘Search Google Books’ and Author will send a search string to search the book and then to search within it based on the quoted text, which will then (hopefully) display the original page.
In blogs I have build a wordPress posting mechanism into Liquid | Flow which makes all the paragraphs have anchors which a reader can use: The anchor is at the start of a paragraph and there is an invisible link to it at the end of the paragraph which the reader can ctrl-click to copy. For example: http://wordpress.liquid.info/post-16-may-0634/#5
What I am working towards here is providing the tools for the user to develop ever deeper literacies and to do this I must build tools with fine-grained abilities to point and manipulate information stored in symbols. This can only be done if the infrastructures technically, legally and commercially allow for it, otherwise I am only building small sandboxes and not a richly interactive liquid information environment which truly augments our intellect and connect our thinking to increase our collective IQ.