Draft Symbol Manipulation Session Intro (pointing)

When presenting the keynote address at the World Library Summit in Singapore in 2002, Doug Engelbart remarked on his impression of the computer when he first came across it. This was in the era when computers were still used simply to compute, to crunch numbers. He said:


“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.”

This session is on symbol manipulation and I would like to highlight a basic and fundamental aspect of symbol manipulation, but first, an apology:

I missed the 1968 demo since I was only 6 months old at the time.

However, as I now see in my beautiful baby boy Edgar, I was already way on my way to working on one of the most fundamental aspects of interaction: Pointing.

As I see in my beautiful baby boy Edgar, it doesn’t take long after entering this world to start to look at things and then to point at them as a means of establishing a link to what ones attention is focused on.

This is natural, this arises out of our evolution. We are not separate from our environment, we are intrinsically tied to our environment–we want to reach out and touch. This is truly fundamental, this is crucial. As we as a species we are moving into working and living more in the digital realm we need to provide the means to point at the symbols we use in our work, primarily in the form of text:

Pointing is how we move our information components, usually text, around on our displays.
Pointing at them is how we can choose to portray the information.
Pointing is the highlighting of–and making of–connections.
Pointing is of course also how the symbols get their meaning and this is of course significant.

All the text on our displays, all the words and all the sentences, point to, link to, associate with (all words to describe pointing to different degrees) other words and some point to entities in the world. Some digital text even have an explicit link attached to them, as indicated traditionally with a line under the text and often blue colour.

This is where we are now, primarily. Doug also spoke of implicit links (that is to say, links to a word’s entry in a dictionary for example), link types, high resolution linking, backlink databases and more.

This connective aspect of text is massively important and in the digital environment the connective aspect can be powerfully extended. We can point better.

addressable / identifiable

What we point to must exist in some location, somewhere addressable. That location can be based on an addressing scheme or it can be based on identifying addressable characteristics, such as their names, contents or any other attribute. The important thing is that whatever points to it must have access to these attributes. Otherwise you cannot point.

Everything hinges on this: To point, to connect, what you are pointing at must be addressable.

You can’t even open a document if you cannot point to it. That’s the most basic interaction in our modern graphical user interface.

I don’t think it’s an exaggerating to say that with knowledge work everything is made more powerful through more powerful pointing, or constrained by more limited pointing.


This sounds quite abstract I’m told so I would like to illustrate with one very concrete case:

When my beautiful boy Edgar is a bit older I expect we will experience an argument with him where his justification for something will be “because that’s what she said”. Yes, I expect he will start using citations… The citation in this case having only the most tenuous link to the source; he simply asserts and points to a source. A source which may very much deny what was asserted and the source may very well be unavailable.

  analog citing

When I was young I was taught to cite by referring to a book, since books were authored and therefore authoritative of course. The way I would link what I was quoting was through meticulously listing what book I was referring to, in other words the author, title, year of publication and edition and perhaps the publisher and so on. I would then note the page number so that my teacher or whoever else might read my paper would be able to check the citation, by going to the library, finding the right section for the book, then the book itself and then by opening it to the said page and finding the text I was referring to.

Of course this did not happen all that much–books cited were either books assigned by the teacher and if I cited something my teacher had not read the chances she would actually look up the citation was minimal. This was a dirty secret of academia but now that we live in a world of links it is super-quick and easy to check on citations right?

  digital citing

Yes. If the link is to an open web page, that is to say not behind a pay wall and the link is still active. And even then, it will only open the document, it will not allow you to point to a specific section as you could with a paper book where you could point to a page number. If someone has explicitly taken the effort to add a pointing target to the point where you needed it, called an anchor tag, you could, if you know how to find the anchor tag, link to the specific section of the document.

However, if you wanted to refer to a specific page or section in a digital book you had purchased on your Kindle or in the iBooks Store you would be out of luck. The means through which Amazon and Apple address content in ‘their’ books is proprietary and we have no means of accessing it. We have no way to point to it.

If you want to point to a section in a PDF, well, that’s just pure fantasy at this point.

I would say exacerbates that dirty little secret of academia. If an academic writes a citation to something you are already read you can evaluate its relevance and veracity. If it’s to something new, a book or a PDF you have not read, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put the link back together again. The link is lost, not much more useful than a toddler asserting that “he said, she said”.


The same goes for inter-system communications. If you don’t know what you are pointing at then you are just waving your arms around in the dark.

addressability enables pointing and interaction

In closing, digital interaction hinges on addressability and in the digital realm this is something we have to construct, it is not inherent as it is in the physical world.

Without local addressability we cannot open a file, we can not move a word around the screen.

Without wide addressability we cannot reliably refer to each others work, each others thoughts. We cannot move around in our information. We cannot even annotate without being able to somehow point to what we are annotating and if we can, how great would it be to search only one’s annotations across any corpus of knowledge and to string citations along with them?

And as with our fingers pointing around in the room, the higher degree of flexibility and finesse we have, the more power we have in our interactions.

This is not a technical issue, this is a socio-technical issue. This is an issue we can and must work on together.

session explorations

In this session we will explore aspects of symbol manipulation and of connection interaction in addressable space.

We will look at how can we build digital environments where we can move around freely and employ all kinds of basic and advanced tools to interact with the connections of our knowledge

Who do we want to become? Interactive or passive? More connected or more isolated?

The development of our tools and the underlying infrastructures while largely determine the answers to these questions and we will develop the the tools and their supportive infrastructures based on who we want to become.

So I ask our panellists: Who do we want to become and what do we need to do to enable this to happen?

Founder of The Liquid Information Company, which makes the Liquid | Flow text interaction tool and the macOS word processor Liquid | Author: www.liquid.info