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Addressing the Future of Text (ACM 2020 Blue Sky Submission)

Addressing the Future of Text

The idiom ‘blue sky’ refers to ‘thinking not grounded or in touch with the way things are’. If we extrapolate far enough into blue sky thinking we can wish for buttons marked ‘Do Work’ , ‘Education’ and ‘Understand me’. These are all (absolutely worthy) desired results but the interaction entirely removes the human from the equation–even another machine could have pushed the button. To honestly address these wished for improvements in work, education and communication, we need to accept that there will be no magic bullet, pill or machine. These areas are not end-result type areas, such as pill which cures an ailment, they are processes which needs the human’s active integration in order to have value. If a button can be pressed to do your work, you no longer have a job.

The skies of hypertext and other knowledge technologies are no longer completely blue, they are criss-crossed with interconnections of decades of systems being developed and markets making choices. The virgin clouds of the 60s and 70s when great thinkers like Ted Nelson, Doug Engelbart, Andy Van Dam and others at SRI, PARC, Brown and beyond saw the potential of text taking flight from the printed page are long gone. To dream of building a new monolithic system will simply not get off the ground. To continue the aircraft metaphor which the idiom blue sky thinking lays the groundwork for: To address the future of text we need to address how systems can interconnect and we need to nurture innovation in areas which are not immediately commercially viable but which can result in real user benefit over time. We need to nurture the ecosystem through nurturing both interconnections between systems and the specific systems themselves.

A Few Good Implementations

I will mention a few specific improvements which I want to add to my own work, including to the highest rated word processor in the UK App Store; ‘Author’, and the new, minimalist PDF viewer ‘Reader’. It may seem like a mundane list but I firmly agree with Steve Jobs: It’s not the idea for the product or tool that matters, it’s the constant polishing to make it work as well as possible for people.

Efforts to Connect to Provide a Robust Ecosystem for Innovation

The internet connects, the web weaves. I propose we work on is universal, robust and rich means through which one hypertextual system can share information with another. The proposal is based on the visual-meta system which I have already presented at ACM 19 (Hegland, 2019) and focuses on what is on the clipboard and how developers and users can interrogate that information and make use of it. When using visual-meta, a document stores metadata about itself (including all information needed to cite the document) at the same (visual) level as the rest of the document’s contents and when the user copies any text from the document the citation metadata is automatically appended to the clipboard copy. The metadata format is in BibTeX so it is not a new format, it is simply a novel and extended implementation of an industry standard. When the user pastes into a visual-meta aware program the text gets pasted as a full citation which the user can later change the visual appearance of and which will automatically be included in the exported document as a section in the References appendix. This is similar to how copied text can contain formatting and origin information (text copied from a web browser automatically includes the URL of the page it was copied from). What I propose here is to make this process open and accessible in order to open up the ability for software developers to build systems which can easily and richly interact with other systems, without loosing value-added data along the way. We should build a Clipboard Viewer so that the developer can see what is on the clipboard ‘behind the scenes’ and maybe also a Clipboard Translator where a user can specify that certain fields are to be pasted in a different way, and that the system will then remember this for the future. What this could enable citations and copying with attributes across a wide range of sources, such as from a knowledge graph into a text document while keeping the node’s connections and attributes intact.

Further, social networks of people interested in different aspects of augmenting us should be supported. I host the annual Future of Text symposium. There should be many more.

A Myriad of Small Improvements

A rough sprinkling of specific application improvements noted down for future implementation to give you an idea of the many, many improvements needed: [Thinking happens constantly when reading and writing but the thinking ‘spaces’ are generally not well integrated into either activity. The Dynamic View I have developed inside Author provides some connection but there can be much more in this area as I am discovering as I am building this functionality and experiencing what is useful and what is not, such as adding citations, author names etc. and having the layout be set automatically by criteria. Such spaces should also be possible to export in a live way, including encoding in visual-meta, for the reader to be able to make use of them as well] [Allow users to pinch documents to fold them into outlines and to select text and fold to show all occurrences of that text, as a live index, glossary and references lookup–this is what I am building early 2020] [Linguistic analysis to highlight different types of text, particularly when scrolling backwards as that indicates that the use his searching] [When dictation is activated show dictation commands {such as ‘period’, ‘new paragraph’, ‘bold’} on screen and allow spacebar to toggle pause] [When adding an image to a word processing document the user could be asked what EXIF they want to include, such as the date the picture was taken and the location, if available] [Specific views for specific users such as a citation view to help academic advisors judge student work should be possible] [Add support for collapsing lists] [In outline/folded view slightly grey headings which have no body text] [In edit mode in Author make it possible to re-order headings when folded in] [Add Search & Replace] [Glossary system support] [Integrate with citation managers] [Export: Support more academic formats, including collapsing space between paragraphs and using indent instead, adding page numbers and exporting to Word with correct Heading styles as well as better visual-meta support with export of automatically generated document name (based on document title and user name etc. as part of the visual-meta citation information] [Flow view of text when reading and when authoring, including ways to collapse ‘finished’ sections when authoring but giving sections which are being worked on much more space] [Automatic parsing of text so that for example typing ’today’ tags it with the date and so on] [The Open dialog could do with some real improvements, such as allowing the user to search for tags within a specific folder, which strangely is not possible now on macOS] [Add further meta information to citations such as the category] [Authoring can benefit from a huge range of improvements, including new means for entering text (maybe via speech in a different device, such as a watch: “Add this note to my thesis document”] [Improve Magic Margin behaviour to include images and better visualizations] [and many, many small things like improve the appearance of block quotes, update the citation dialog to include searching PDFs locally, cmd-d on selected text to move it into the Dynamic View and so on…]

The Blue Sky of Continuous Improvement

Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb, however, in 1879 he patented the first commercially successful lightbulb. I expect that an early blue sky dream would have been to have dependable light at all hours but it was not created in a flash of inspiration–if you pardon the pun–it took Edison and his team tested 6,000 plants to see which would be the best filament. There was no lightbulb moment behind the lightbulb. It was hard work: Building, testing and refinement.

The blue sky I am dreaming of is one where I as a developer can experiment with the interactions of views and connections to refine them continuously over time. This is blue sky dream of improving the users interaction with the text, with the aim of giving the user a level of control inspired equally by the dancer and the fighter pilot–inspired by the science fiction story and my two and a half year old’s turns as he runs around the corner and avoids stepping on his cars. The blue sky dream I am dreaming of is a continuation of my friend and mentor Doug Engelbart’s dream of bootstrapping improvement.

The barriers to this happening today is that the tremendous experimentation we experienced during the 60s and 70s were at a time of little legacy systems to change and the systems available today are ‘good’ enough for most work–as far as the user can tell after spending a few minutes looking at the product. This means that commercial development is expensive since consumers in general are not interested in looking for something slightly better, they need to be informed that something is vastly better. This vast improvement for the user will materialise out of the compound effects and investment in time. Only non-commercial organization’s can invest in such a gradual process which will only bear commercial fruits once the tipping-points of what is useful to the consumer has been reached. My blue sky dream is therefore for research organisations to support serious investment in the future of text. I have really only just started climbing the mountain of actualising potential (by building Author & Reader) that I can clearer see further potential, both in a myriad small improvements and how to interconnect (visual-meta).

Doug Engelbart’s character Joe presents this introduction to the theoretical demo of what would become Augment in his 1962 paper Augmenting Human Intellect: “You’re probably waiting for something impressive. What I’m trying to prime you for, though, is the realization that the impressive new tricks all are based upon lots of changes in the little things you do. This computerized 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.”

A Final Note on The Colour Of The Sky

The full glare of the sun during the day and the blue sky chemically frames our brains for practical thinking and wide awareness: We need to find food and avoid being eaten–blue sky puts us in survival mode. When the sun goes down, so does the chance of us being effective at hunting so we go down to sleep–we are diurnal, not nocturnal. As the sun sets, the colour of the sky turns redder and our thoughts move inwards and become less tied to the here-and-now, more relaxed and our thoughts wander freer. And we fall asleep. Once we learnt how to control fire we could sit around the flames to give us warmth and protection from predators. The fire of burning wood gives off the same wavelength colour as the setting sun and it therefore gave us the unintended benefit of giving us more of the rear light impulses of what we may call creative thinking. That is what we need more of today: less glaring harsh reality blue, more speculative warmth to innovate in.

In analog systems, pointing can be done by address (such as a house address), ‘implicitly’ (to use Doug Engelbart’s term, for example, a word is implicitly linked to
its entry in a dictionary), explicitly (Planet Word, page 395), high resolution (The Neptune File, page 73, second paragraph), relatively (it’s the one to the left of the green one), temporally (turn left after 20 minutes) and by criteria (the small ones). Some addressing happens purely in the author’s and reader’s minds, such as the basic meaning of words, allusions and references to other literature or things or ideas in the world, what Tor Nørretranders calls ‘exformation.’

Published inFuture Of Text

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