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Different Selective Pressures : Text in XR in 2024

New Years Eve morning 2023 Letter to the Future of Text Community  

Us humans evolved the way we did because of the evolutionary pressures which shaped us throughout time. How might we have been different if our environment and thus evolutionary pressures were different, and how might we evolve now, now that we exist in a very different environment from our ancestors? How The Mind Changed(Jebelli, 2021) by Joseph Jebelli and Lewis Dartnell’s Origins(Dartnell, 2019) (both of whom I plan to invite to contribute to The Future of Text Vol V) are wonderful at outlining how our bodies and minds changed over evolutionary time. Not only have we evolved arms and hands, we have also evolved mental circuits, such as the amygdala which helps us integrate perceptions to inform us of potential danger. We might now ask: how should we evolve now, considering we have the potential to shape the environment we live in and thus shape ourselves? 

I would contend, to no-ones surprise, that text has been one of the most powerful augmentations of the human mind. Text allows for freezing of statements for communicating across time and space. I say ‘statements’ and not ‘thought’ since it is of course not pure thought which is frozen and communicated, but thoughts framed as text. The act of writing is an act of structuring, of shaping thought, from a single sentence to a paragraph and beyond. We might look at thought as being two dimensional with a vector in one direction; always pulling to the future and receding into the past. Writing thought down gives it a constraint which allows for multiple dimensions to occur; it remains in place for reference in a moment or in a thousand years. At the most basic, we can read and re-read a sentence for as long as we like. With speech, if we want to revisit what was said, we will at some point fatigue the speaker and every utterance will carry subtly different weights and tones. With text we can fill an index card, a Post-It, a page, a huge paper roll, a digital screen or projection with text and refer to different parts of our thought, greatly expanding our capacity to express ourselves and see how the different ‘strings’ of our thought connect–or don’t connect, as the case may be. This is why writing of any length beyond the basic social media post coherently takes real mental effort, as does reading anything beyond basic complexity and novelty. 

This is why I would say that vastly improving how text is written/recorded and read/extracted, bears a huge opportunity for how we can augment our minds by upgrading the mental environment we operate in. We definitely did not evolve to live through tiny rectangles. 

Our Lab’s mission over the next year–as we have chosen to accept it–is to first make it practical and frictionless for an academic user (our initial use case) to access their own Library of documents in a headset, as well as the ‘knowledge’ of what the documents is and how they relate–the metadata. We hope to complete this soon. We are then tasked with working with expanding our minds through expanding how we can view and interact with this text. We hope you will join us in cyberspace, or the ‘metaverse’ to test what we build and be part of the process. 

The avenues we choose to go down when looking at textual knowledge work in XR/eXtended Reality, will have repercussions for generations–this is the first–and only time(!) us humans are stepping into a fully visually immersive world for the first time. I expect that just like early PC interactions (copy, paste etc.) got frozen into the culture of how we interact with our knowledge on traditional computers (in ‘word processing software’ ‘spreadsheet’, ‘web browsers’, ‘email’ and only a few other categories of software) so will our early interactions in XR be frozen. More than simply freezing interactions though, ambitions will also be frozen, once we think we know what working in XR will be, there will be little cultural movement to dream up what it might be. This is what happened to traditional computing, in my view. 

This is why I ask you: If you are not already thinking about work in extended reality, please join us, as actively or passively as you would like to. 

The wider the discourse around what working with textual knowledge in fully immersive visual environments can be, the deeper the insights and potential will be. If you have thoughts on this and if you know anyone who might be interested in contributing, please do tell me, whether is someone you know personally or just someone whose work you are familiar with. 

Remember, the future of text is not yet written. 

Here’s to a 2024 where we can learn to extend our minds to better connect with our knowledge and each other. 

Much love and gratitude, 

Frode Hegland 

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