Last updated on May 15, 2019
Much has been discussed about the concerns Socrates had about reading. Here I make the point that the act of authorship is Socratic in ways that reading is not, and that this has implications for how we design writing systems.
Socrates argued against text because he felt that reading was a superficial process where the reader does not have an opportunity to question or interact with the author. This argument has held water over the last two millennia but with thee advent of digital text there is a call to make text a more socratic medium, with richer interactions to support a deeper and more active reading, as Alan Kay illuminates in The Future of Reading Depends on the Future of Learning Difficult to Learn Things (2013).
So yes, analog substrate reading has to answer to Socrate’s issues. Digital reading can be improved to a deeper level of interaction.
The act of writing is the opposite of the act of reading, not only for the obvious reason, but also because the act of writing is highly interactive with the author–the author interacts with their own thoughts when they write–the very act of writing is an interrogation of the text of the author. If neuroscience has confirmed anything over the last few decades it is that the human mind is a storymaking machine; a highly creative one but also a lazy one: Our richly connected synapses allow us to think of myriads of things, but we only fill in the details and see the connections when we have to, which our brains present us with as aspects of what we already knew but in reality are inventions made up on the spot. For an excellent overview of this I can recommend Nick Chater’s The Mind Is Flat (2018).
Authorship on the other hand, is a seriously interactive process of linearising and connecting initial thoughts with those which develop over the course of the process of authoring, resulting in a coherent ‘authored’ whole.
Simply writing something down as one continuous transcription will not suffice for anything of any substantial length or depth, a fiction only those who have never tried it believe. The truth is that even a shopping list can require revisions once it’s seen by the optical eyes and not only by the mind’s eye. The mind’s eye has but the smallest canvas compared with what the optical eye can offer–and little of the permanence.
Authoring by thinking with text is similar to thinking with another person: Something is stated and once it’s out of the author’s mind it can be examined and commented on, either immediately or at a later date.
What the minds eye has in abundance is the ability to associate between richly woven connections accessible to us through our association cortices, as described in Elastic (2019) by the renowned scientist Leonard Mlodinow. To truly leverage the power of connecting our minds to an external workspace, the challenge becomes how we can also make the optical view as flexible and interactive as our mental view while keeping its permanence and exploring its potentially capacious size. This, I believe, is the central challenge of interactive, digital text: The ability to fix thoughts has been possible since the dawn of writing but now we have the opportunity of also allowing the author’s mind to fluidly move around the text and re-arrange it at will.
Writing then has always been Socratic–the dialog Socrates said was missing from the written word is there when it is being written, it is the dialog with yourself.
Considering the volume of dialog we have through the written word and the repercussions when we do not or can not interrogate what we read and the brain capacity lost when struggling to author clearly, we should, as a society–as a species–invest in augmenting text for truly powerful reading and authoring.