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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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]