If we are going to tackle the world’s complex urgent problems collectively there are many things which will have to happen. Developing our means to think and communicate better must surely be amongst them.
The goal must be to improve the way we can see each other’s perspectives, how to question those perspectives and how we can communicate our questions and conduct our dialog in constructive ways. That should be non-controversial.
To accomplish this, we will need to work on many aspects of ourselves; our education, our religious and spiritual practices, politics and politeness, how we employ sophisticated AI and other emerging technologies. We should invest in AI but we should never delegate thinking to machines. We should also invest in direct to brain interfaces but while doing so it will be wise to remember that we can never remove the interfaces between us and our information and between each other–we can only hope to improve it.
It’s Not Just Plug & Play. Love & Fear
Human experience is subjective, it is not reducible to Tetris shapes which simply and cleanly lock into place. When someone sees a specific meal, they do not simply see a neutral nourishment. They do not see a scientifically calculated nutritional value or calorie content. The do not see just the shapes and colours and judge it to be hot based on the steam coming off it. We experience the sensory impression based on what our past experience has shaped us into, from how we see the ingredients which can be enticing if it’s a piece of meat or revolting for a vegan. It is the food our the culture we grew up with and it reminds us of home or does it look unfamiliar and intimidating? There are so many aspects for how we experience and judge a basic meal, which can be a routine snack for some and a hugely unfamiliar challenge to others, which cannot be shared through any kind of direct brain interface. To share with someone even something so basic as a meal and what it means to you takes time to explain, to let the other person adjust to familiarising themselves to your point of view, your perspective, your very make up.
Now let’s step that up a notch and the meal is not on your table; the meal is in the hands of someone else and there is a starving child on the other side of the room. One of you wants to ask the person with the meal to give it to the child and the other does not. This is not a thought experiment, this is the situation with the Tory government in the UK right now, at the close of 2020. The government does not want starving children in the UK to get free meals over the half term, in the middle of the COVID lockdown where many are suffering financially. The position from those who oppose feeding children is that the parents should have a clear financial plan before having children and this is despite the fact that that their prime minister does not even acknowledge how many children he has and… well, I am one of those who strongly support feeding the children so I can’t easily describe this disagreement in even handed terms and why should I? If we are to make the world a better place, we need to fight for what we passionately believe in–while remaining open to the fact that there may be an ‘argument’ which can change our minds. This is a case study for the kind of disagreements which are very hard to carry on a useful discourse around, along with climate change, Brexit, immigration and refugees and more. We live in divisive times and we experience the world first and foremost from our ethical and moral ‘standpoint’, our ‘point of view’. How we see the world is not based on raw data but on how the data fits our point of view. My wife and I watched the new Borat movie and there is a scene where he stays with two Trump-loving, democrat hating guys who put up with his antics and give every impression of being decent, lovely people. However, they think democrats literally drink babies’ blood because they have heard it somewhere. They are computer and internet literate people, so the question for me becomes: How can we reach these people so that they can do real research to determine whether Hillary drinks baby blood? It sounds insane and I think it is, I don’t think this is a case for dialog but for providing them with an environment where they can, at their leisure, navigate information sources which spark their curiosity and help them away from the sources which have been seeded by those who simply want to create discord (Russia, for one), and towards more enlightened sources? I realise I am writing my way into a corner since what I am implicitly saying is how can they read the sources I believe in, not the sources they believe in? This is the domain of stories I think, stories of love and connection and shared humanity. It comes down to love or fear. If you love your neighbour your life will be based on the perspective that others are similar, valued and worth protecting. If you fear your neighbour (and I use that term for all the geographical scales) you will need to protect yourself and distance yourself from others who are different from you and probably want to cause you harm. Politics is about love and hate, it is about creating unity for a party, a state or a team. It is about creating distance between those who are outside of those boundaries. Exactly like it is in the military where training is based on creating a stronger bond with your ‘fellow’ soldiers and distance between you and the ‘enemy’.
And to put it simply, we cannot afford fear.
It is time to step beyond this if our species is to have a species level love.
We need to cultivate love for all people and all life, not just with that which we most lazily identify as being the most similar to us. This does not mean instant peace, it does not mean letting those who commit crimes get away with it, it means accepting that ‘your own’ people and ‘others’ are both likely to be naughty and nice and we should create the structures of societies (not society singular, but societies, same as we have the ‘inter’-net’, not one net), which reward love and discourage fear. Though by no means without flaw, these structures are why Norway (where I come from) is not a land of slave owning, head-dismembering vikings now, but a ‘civilised’ country with high levels of personal freedom and prosperity. We have written laws and norms which enshrine the principles that everyone should be the same under the law, and from this a lot of fear can be smoothed away and love can bloom. In the US and in the UK at the time of writing, there are strong forces of fear sowing division and fracturing society, partly from external influence, partly from power grabs but primarily from many factors coming together to ferment fear.
How can we reduce fear? Social Security, to use the American phrase, is one. Fear, in the form of worry, stress, stomach-ache, pressure and so on, is a cumulative state. As a society we can reduce some of those fears by socially securing minimum incomes, providing healthcare to everyone in our countries (most do) and enacting policies (in democratic dialog) to encourage integration of people with different backgrounds and points of view. If you are less fearful for your future, the future of your children, less fearful for your physical and financial safety, that increases your capacity to look to the future, grow and integrate into more of the world. This has been measured, this works. It does not work flawlessly, there needs to be continued protections against those who will seek to cause us harm. Providing shared support does not mean relinquishing the collective need for protection. Just to make that clear.
And that is the end of my social rant.
And this is the start of highlighting the crucial need for better text augmentation tools. First, in the interest of full disclosure, I own a small, independent company which produces text augmentation tools, but it has never made a profit and is structured to re-invest in future work. I am independently well enough off to invest my time and (limited) resources in what I believe is the most important work needing doing. I have not chosen climate change, though that is crucial, or social or economic justice though that is also important and crucial. I have not chosen these because they are issues which are getting a lot of attention and investment in time and resources. I have chosen text since I feel that much of our collective work is carried out though the medium of text and it is getting almost no investment. I have invested time and resources into investigating how we can truly augment our interactions with text through hosting a symposium for nearly a decade and building text augmentation tools to ‘put my money where my mouth is’ and to learn what specific ideas of text interaction become when put into practice.
Symbol Manipulation / Augmented Text
So why text? I will start by asking you why you are reading this (and thank you by the way). Would you prefer that I speak this as a podcast? It would be easier to listen when driving or shaving in the morning, as I do with The Economist podcast, but when you read you can skip ahead, get overviews, choose where to focus, you can write notes if you feel the material is important enough and you can interrogate the text by selecting any part of the text and performing searches on the web or in databases. You can instantly check citations (at least you can in the Reader software we developed) and you can expand and contract the document to check on phrases and words at will. You have a much richer grasp of the information and the information is delivered in a compact form.
Augmented Text / Augmented Minds
I take it as a given that many of us need to read and author for our work or education and that although text can and should be supplemented with images, video, 3D as well as audio and so on, text has the particular property that it can be held in a fixed state external to our brains, without suffering our working memory’s erosion, in grammatical sequence. These two aspects of text; that text can be rigid and secure and also that the sequence matters gives huge power of compression and meaning carrying capacity for that which is of an inherently visual nature (which a series of images can convey also at high quality if the specificity of that which is intended to be conveyed is established, by which I mean a picture of a cat in an image will have to be a cat of a specific race, colouring, sex, age, health and pose-not a cat in general) and for that which is conceptual in nature.
I therefore hold these truths to be self-evident that text carries enormous power in expressing thoughts, of shaping thoughts by the process of their expression and by their reading.
The evolution of text over the last five millennia has been one shaped by changing needs and the opportunities afforded by the substrates and means of marking. In the digital age we have now entered we have a substrate of near-unlimited potential and we have clear needs, primarily information manipulation for political or economic gain and information overload. How we as a species do not launch into how to best exploit this potential is beyond me, though the answer has become clearer and clearer over the decades I have worked on this: The commercial opportunities seem too academic and academic opportunities for text research look too commercial. Even though political decisions are enacted through text and much deep political dialog takes place through text it is the more superficial spoken dialog which shines the brightest and attracts the attention. I can go on, but the point of writing this to you is to inspire you, not to burden you with complaints.
The state of the art. So far, we can delete and move text with relative ease, send messages instantly and share social media posts instantly, much faster than we can check them for veracity. We can spell-check and we can cite faster than we can check citations. The textual landscape has evolved according to the pressures and opportunities available, so we have text which mimics paper and we have instant sharing of provocations on social media to benefit the company providing the service, since provocations provoke and keep users engage. This will be a short paragraph since you know the capabilities of current digital text.
At the core, opportunities lie in how we can view our text and how we can follow and create connections. Text in digital form is stored in zeros and ones and must be interpreted to be displayed. Why not take advantage of this and let the user–the reader and the author–take advantage of this to display the text in ways beneficial to their immediate needs? For this to be possible technical considerations will have to be met and interactions will have to be designed and tested. Digital connections, in the forms of links and citations, can also be strengthened and access to sources can be sped up to make reading and checking citations as smooth as skiing down a slope–or playing a computer game.
These sound like simple tasks and some of them are, but the incentives for them to be implemented do not push for them to be realised. This is why I have hosted the annual Future of Text Symposium for the last decade and edited and published the book The Future of Text this year. It is also why I have developed the Author word processor, the Reader PDF reader and the Liquid text interaction power tool. A musician develops skills to play their instruments, athletes train to perform at their peak and now its time to unleash the mental potential of knowledge workers and augment their text. It is early days and we are but a small company but already we have made it effortless to look up any text, or image in less than half a second. We have made citing robust, fast and direct (just copy from one document and paste into another to include a citation) and examining citation equally fast (click on a citation in a document to view the reference and instantly load the document to the right page if desired). We have built non-linear graph views we call Dynamic Views where the text is connected to the word processing view. Powerful glossaries make it easy for an author to elaborate on a term once, then never have to worry about it again, and the reader will find the definition without even really looking. That is what we have done. Imagine what can be done when the world wakes up to the power and potential of interactive text? What we have done, which is far more powerful than anything out there at the moment, will start to look like what it truly is, amateurs doing the work out of love, with minimal resources. Have a look at our products, most of which are free, the rest of which pays for a part of the development of the systems and tell us where we can go from here. We need the imaginations of all of us to progress to where we need to be. http://augmentedtext.info
When we augment our text, we augment our minds. When we augment our minds we don’t simply become smarter, we become more connected to our own understanding and with each other, we get the strength to feel love over hate.
When we talk about information it can quickly become abstract and loose connections to actual information. This is because information can only be generalised when it comes to transmission and storage. When it comes to interaction, information is always something specific. Text in a cartoon, a legal letter, a street sign, graffiti, on social media and in an academic paper are all very different things which impose and benefit from different interactions.
As such, we have to choose which interactions to focus on. In my own work I am concerned with academic text, which encompasses the types of text which … and this is the point where I feel the gentle rush of depression seep from my chest into my whole being and I flip over to LightRoom and organise pictures. This is the point where I can’t really write about this anymore since it is so completely self-evident to me that if we improve how we can read and write it will improve how we communicate and think. It’s just, so, obvious. (Yes, I managed to switch back to Author to keep writing after organising a few hundred images). How can it not be the case? To even have to go into this section on how academic text is different from social media text is an exercise in over-obviousness yet I see so very little work on this. And then when it comes to getting to the point of describing something concrete, the feel of what I write changes from ‘save the world’ to ‘feature list’. Usefully crossing that chasm tears me apart, really, it does. Let me try again:
Text permeates our lives and how we author and read text, how we interact with it, has profound implications. The simplest and most obvious examples of this is our ability to click and share a social media post at much greater speed and ease than it is to analyse its veracity and context. Another important example is the overload of scientific and academic articles which are presented in fixed, paper-like form of dense columns of text.
How wondrous is text? Thoughts expressed in such flexible and compact form! How wondrous is interactive form? Thoughts expressed in such flexible and compact form and interactive to change your view to change your perspective, to see and follow connections at will! This is the future of text, a future of augmenting text to augment our minds and how we connect.
Right Tool for The Job
And then we look at the right tool for the job. For a sculptor, cyclist, tree surgeon or cleaner, for a painter, musician, engineer, programmer, architect or draughts person, for a driver, pilot or watchmaker, it is quite self-evident that the right tools matter. But what about tools for text? We have word processing software, web page editing and so on, but these are broad categories for collections of tools put into packages we used to call ‘applications’ but often simply ‘apps’. They are collections of tools curated for specific workflow tasks based on early-digital-days analogue workflow copies and what would be impressive to the customer who tried the software for a minute and who was used to analogue work so the digital work needed to mimic analogue work as much as possible.
& In Conclusion
What becomes possible when we unleash digital text? Rich views and deep interactions. For example:
• We can reformat a document to only show what we are interested in, in an instant and without effort.
• We can put text anywhere on the screen to help us organise our thoughts, in a space connected to our main writing.
• We can look up any text in any search engine or any directory without conscious thought.
• We can copy text and paste it as a citation, robustly connected to the source, with just a copy and paste operation, no more.
• We can define any text as glossary entries for effortless reuse later to help the author write less and the reader read with less clutter, but with access to further information. Effortlessly.
The difference between reading and authoring in a digital environment where the text is augmented compared to digital text which mimics paper text, is similar to the difference between looking at a painting and looking and interacting with a modern, realistic looking computer game. Step into the picture with us, enjoy the freedom.
Doug Engelbart did not like the notion of ease-of-use but we did agree that after defining the most powerful (meaning useful) capabilities first, it becomes imperative to give the user access to them in ways which, after some basic familiarisation, becomes effortless, like skiing downhill, as he used to say.
I think I’ll use some of that text above for the marketing presentation of Reader and Author, the augmented text tools. Hey, another coffee, some more progressive house and the calm of working in the shed at Milde is nice.