We are hosting the 9th Annual Future of Text Symposium and would very much like it if you could join us. This is a ‘summit’ which means there are not audience and speakers, only participants who will all have time for a brief presentation followed by dialog.
Announcing the 9th Annual Future of Text Symposium : Connecting Texts
A major step in the story of our evolution was when we gained the ability to point out to each other what we could see. A further major step was when we gained the ability to point out what could not be seen and to interact with what could not be touched, through language and symbols.
As we stepped into the digital age our ability to point and interact rapidly increased by letting us point to documents for near-instant access from anywhere on the globe. We could interact with images to produce photograph-realistic portrayals of impossible scenes fed by our fertile imaginations for passive movie entertainment or active computer-game first person shooter experiences.
The promise of vastly increasing our ability to interact with what had through millennia given us mental powers to see further and understand deeper–our symbols in the form of text–received very little augmentation beyond spell check, copy and paste and the ability to link to documents.
Though digital text can be produced and transmitted at great speed, digital text is in most ways flat–disconnected with the contexts which created it and un-graspable by the receiver to manipulate it.
Here I would like to point out that if we do not vastly improve our capacity to point to and interact with our digital information, we will decrease our reach and narrow our opportunities in ways which will continue to have drastic impacts on how we deal with our information, our world–and each other.
interactivity is core
There are many definitions of knowledge but from our human point of view what matters is how we can grasp it–how we can understand it–how we can mentally navigate and re-arrange knowledge. Knowledge is an activity, not something static. Knowledge, and information at its most basic, itself arises out of interaction and it is through interaction we gain the most access to it. At the quantum realm a ‘something’ has no characteristics until it comes into contact with a ‘something else’. It is only then its mass becomes (relatively) known, it’s (relative) velocity measurable, but before that, it has neither of those characteristics nor any other. At the scale the book, in digital or analog substrate, the content is only information if there is someone or something who can ‘read’ it, there is someone or something to whom the symbols contained within can be decoded in context of a wider world.
The difference is between information presented to us in a flat or dimensional way and current trends is further flattening: When we ask Google, Bing or other search engines a question through a search, we get a ranked result based on how the company has pre-computed the relevance of all the available information’s veracity and relevance, listed under an increasingly frequent ‘position zero’ at the top of the screen showing ‘the’ answer. Though the position zero answer is increasingly accepted by the user, we have the option to choose an answer lower down on the list and to modify our search but when we ask Alexa, Cortana or Siri a question we only get a position zero answer and at the time of writing there is little opportunity for follow up with ‘why’ or ‘how do you know that’.
The promise of ‘hypertext’ where a prime feature is the ability to link to other information is also flattened. The original web allowed for links between documents but this ability has been denied digital books and digital documents to the point of being even less powerful than paper citations to paper books and documents where at least page numbers could be referred to–it is not possible to link to, or more correctly, to address, an individual section such as a paragraph in digital book or document such as PDF or Word.
In our high velocity information world, repercussions of this flattening of information allows for Fake News to propagate without interrogation. It also allows for citations in academic work to remain unchecked if the reader does not already know the source which at the same time hides useful information and obscures harmful information.
transmission & reception through infrastructures
Knowledge is fluid with a multiplicity of interconnections, whereas an argument–even in its simplest form of a simple assertion–is rigid and linear. In a thoughtfully created document the linear argument will be supported by connections to the fluidly connected knowledge space through explicit citations, links and pointers.
Mental energy is expended to surface read a text, however brief or big and information provided which hooks into our current models of the information will take the least effort to assimilate. Information which lies outside our model or which contradicts our mental models take considerably more effort to process as they do not simply rely on recognition but on re-wiring circuits, which is mentally taxing in terms of energy use. Any assistance to how the reader can more effectively deal with such new or contradictory information thus makes is more likely that the user will make the effort.
A quote making the rounds on Facebook attributed to Alexander den Heijer a Dutch inspirational speaker, trainer, and consultant, simply states: “If the flower fails to grow, you don’t change the flower, you change its environment”. Similarly, it is not enough for us to criticise the knowledge user, we must provide more effective knowledge tools and this starts with the underlying environment and here the key issue is addressability and interaction, two things with cannot be delivered by any single developer or company, it must by definition be supported by powerful open standards and best practices.
interactive words, interactive worlds
I read an interview with one of the developer of the very successful game Crysis in an issue of Edge magazine which I have not been able to find since, talks about the development of the very large scale and interactive world. In the Crysis world you can shoot through wooden walls, and do much of what you’d expect to be able to do in the real world. The designer said that the issue with making good AI was not in the bots the player would fight but in the environment. He said that a piece of wood would need to know all the attributes of wood in order to correctly interact with other elements in the game, such as a bullet. Modern games such as Battlefield take this even further, with buildings part collapsing when damaged and collapsing further when further disturbances disturb them. Fields of wheat move with the wind (and explosions) and so on.
These are examples of richly interactive dimensionally rich information environments. The information about the world presented in the graphical display can be interacted with through understood means which translates into an immersive and playful experience for the player.
Knowledge work environments do not have this. The illustration of a bullet above can be employed here as an evocative way to illustrate something which connects something, such as a gun and a target. To do this the user needs to be able to somehow address the target (through aiming) and the target needs to be addressable–there needs to be a way to describe the start and end of the path of the bullet. In knowledge work environments we refer to this under the loose term of ‘linking’ and our ability to link is very rough grained and arbitrarily available and this is a consequence of the poor support for addressability.
An open and available web document can be linked to by entering the address in terms of domain name and path on the server and the name of the document and what type of document it is, such as:
If the creator of the website has entered anchor tags into the text, perhaps by paragraph, you could also link to anchor tags within the document, such as:
This is not standard for web creation systems nor are the generally accessible means through which the user can see and use such links so in practice it is not possible and with digital books its not possible for commercial reasons. You cannot ‘shoot’ across into a book on a specific virtual page or paragraph since the copyright owners consider the addressing a valuable commercial intellectual property, partly because it is the way text and audio books can sync-up.
the connective nature of text
When you read text you connect to the thoughts of an author from another place and time–you two are connected through the symbols of text–with meaning arising out of your prior experience and knowledge coming together with the author’s effort to encode their intention based on their own prior experience and knowledge. The connection happens through you. Similarly, when you follow a reference–however explicit or arcane–or a citation, by opening another book or document, this connection happens through you.
When you read a digital text you have all the previous attributes of text and you have the addition of the potential for rich interaction–through the text itself. The most basic current manifestations of this is the blue underlined hyperlink which activates your web browser to open a connection to a specific document on a specific server and to show you what it finds. It is also something you see when your device does not agree that what you have typed is what you intended to type and therefore offers an alternative, often without your consent.
In addition to the manually created, ‘explicit’ hyperlink, digital text can also be used to search for its entry in a dictionary or some other reference work. Doug Engelbart called this ‘implicit’ linking. Furthermore, digital text can be used as a select-and-search keyword to search the giant World Wide Web, as yet another form of connected text; it is connected to other occurrences all around the world. When you select text in your word processor and perform a ‘Find’ command you are doing the same but constrained to your own document.
Where we can go from here in creating connective text where the connection action happens in the text system itself in addition to in the readers mind is the exciting future we are researching and building and build it we must, the power of interaction with our knowledge is our power to interact with our thoughts, each other and our future.
a powerfully interactive future
In order to fight Fake News we must Arm The Citizenry with much more powerful means to deal with the information hurled at them and we must arm developers to build ever more powerful tools not only for what is inside their sandbox but also for how it relates to information elsewhere.
addressing our future
We can do this by supporting what some call deep linking and others high resolution addressability, otherwise developers can only provide rich interactions for the software they build and the data or documents the user uses within their environment.
To further support this we need to accept that links are only addresses and as such as we need to improve the flexibility and power of addressing, including splitting addresses in two; one for the document and another for locations inside the document. This way it would be possible for a user to link to inside a document, even a book or academic PDF behind a paywall) and the reader can choose to follow the link inside a copy of the document they already have to choose to buy a copy of the document and in either case the location part of the link will work.
We can, and must add dimensionality to the text being hurled around cyberspace, we cannot afford information ghettos, we will only thrive and be free when our information can be freely addressed and interacted with.
This is within our grasp.
Some say that information wants to be free but those who make their living creating information may have an issue with that. However, if we are to have a powerfully interactive future data exchange must technically be open and free–once the rights have been cleared and any financial transactions made, data formats must not stand in the way, just like with containers for container ships and packets for Internet traffic had to be standardised. Microsoft held onto a monopoly for knowledge work tools with their Office suite not because they included the best tools but because once they had a hold of the market it was difficult to get the users data into other systems, a legacy we still deal with today. Adobe PDF documents are also notoriously hard to ‘open’ in any useful manner. A way to open up our future must include ways to open up our data transfers and document standards.
We are getting together to focus on these layers of questions:
How can we build open systems to augment rich interactions with such Doug Engelbart inspired capabilities as high resolution addressing, glossary support, dynamic and non-linear views, support for analysis, advanced searches & more?
What are the underlying technical, economic and other issues preventing this and how can they be overcome?
We will focus on augmenting our own jrnl blog to make it a clear demonstration.
We will also integrate with documents and other systems across platforms since this is a core need.
We will further discuss what else we will need to do to unleash the power of interactive text but the focus will be on the questions above.
These are urgent, complex problems and will require a broad community of effort to resolve. Will you join us on the day? Will you join our dialog before that day to make the day as useful as it can be and to help us have something to demonstrate?