Fighter pilots refer to engagements beyond what they can see with the naked eye as being ‘Beyond Visual Range’ (BVR). This seems like an apt metaphor for how to look at the future of text beyond what we can imagine today and build in the near future. This way of looking at it is inspired by Doug Engelbart’s 1968 demo and how he seemed to ‘fly’ through cyberspace*.
Text will remain. Vital
One thing seems clear as we try to peer beyond the horizon; the future of text is part of the future of thought and communication. The future of text will see text change radically and be even more integrated with other media, while keeping the essential symbolic and grammatical aspects which makes text so powerfully able to convey thought.
Text will remain text, but the inherent multidimensionality of text can be unleashed.
Staring towards the horizon I can clearly see the near future we are working on where documents contain rich metadata to allow for citing with a simple copy, interactions to view documents how I want to and see how they connect. I can see working with concepts as much as with text, mapping out how they relate. This is what we are working on today and some of it has been completed.
Slightly further out I can see rich VR environments in Vision Pro where reading and authoring is expanded, with large scale interactions with concepts. It’s not all VR, writing on paper and sketching is integrated with huge digital murals. This is text in any medium we prefer to work with.
Further out still what I can see are more fuzzy shapes than specifics, more like dreams:
- Documents will remain. Connected. Though much text will be fleeting and much will remain in an editable manuscript form, there will also remain a need to frame written statements, to ‘document’ them and declare them ‘done’ (at least for the time being). However, we should not view documents as walled off from the rest of our information. A document will always be a vector, shaping what goes through it.
- The future will be VR, AR & Paper. The future of text will be in virtual environments for part of our authoring and reading, with rich displays of information in multiple dimensions. The future of text will also be on paper and on your wrist, and it will be interconnected, if we work to make it happen.
- We will write less. With more augmentations to help us reduce clutter text. We will also read less, but the text will be better connected.
- We will read and write with our bodies, not just our eyes, far beyond the typing or speech transcription of today*. The future of text will be tactile. It will be felt and seen, it will be more visible and more subtle.
- We will have more tools to use to interact with the knowledge in our texts. We will also have less tools, with more transparent interactions, all depending on situation.
- Connections will be Visualised, Spatialised & Reliable. Connections between elements of knowledge will be connected and inspectable in ways we cannot currently conceive, through manual interactions and the employment of many type of AI.
In the distance I can imagine us truly flying through cyberspace & building rich sculptures of connected knowledge
The shape of the future of text
Beyond visual range–beyond the demos and interactions we can foresee today based on the paradigms we live in–the future of text and the future of knowledge work in general will be shaped by how we choose to think about it, discuss it, build it, in other words, how we choose to invest in it.
We can choose to co-develop the future of text through rich dialog, experiments to experience, and the development of principles of how we see ourselves and our information. In other words, we can invest in a more conscious evolution* as Doug Engelbart spoke of.
This is all we can control, this is all we can hope for; to shape the journey, not what the outcome will be
Who should define the horizon?
What I listed above does not seem like the journey we are currently on.
The default position, the status quo, is that text interaction tools and systems remain the domain of the dominant tool makers, who build for their own needs and their own revenue, serving users only as much as minimum innovation dictates to attract new customers. There is nothing wrong with commercial software development at all, but the development of our future tools to think and communicate with, of which much is done through the medium of text, is too important to leave to only the tool makers.
The future of text & knowledge representation, interaction & communication, will only get brighter if we collectively discuss what it might be, provide an environment in which it can be realised, provide enabling infrastructures for development, then experiment to experience and continue.
Getting there. Bootstrapping ABC
All aspects of how a positive and powerful future of text can be realised need to be considered and supported if we are to truly unleash the power of the written word in a digital environment. This includes Infrastructure, Financial, Social & More.
Doug Engelbart called his approach bootstrapping–pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps–using what we have to continually improve. A related Engelbart perspective is what he called A, B and C level activities to help us develop towards an ever more powerful future of how we work and communicate:
- ‘A’ level activities is the work we do in our day to day work
- ‘B’ level activities is the effort to improve our work, such as learning a new skill or building a new tool
- ‘C’ level activates are efforts to improve our improvement, such as our future of text symposium and books to give ideas minds to evolve in
Doug Engelbart’s work on how to raise our collective IQ remains as vitally important as ever.
Getting there. ‘Meta’ flow & data
In game design a term for how the entire game flows, what elements need to come together, is sometimes referred to as the ‘meta’ of the game. For building ever more powerful knowledge systems it’s also worth looking at the meta of the information flow. We can learn a lot from the flow of games to help us build better knowledge systems.
In a game there is one world, the world of the game. With knowledge work the worlds are primarily within the authoring tools when authoring and in the wider world once shared or published. Game designers only need to concern themselves with the world of the game whereas for the future of text we need to consider any and all interactions with our information, not just in the software a specific developer happens to build.
In addition to computer game flow, the term ‘meta’ references the ‘metaverse’, Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of cyberspace, and it also references ‘metadata’, the data which makes data interactive.
If you are going to do useful things with information; to view it and analyse it in useful ways, you need to have the information to do that, and often today we only have a thin layer of information available, such as only the plain text in a document–the metadata which can allow for more powerful interactions is frequently missing–it is stripped on export from the authoring software.
The dream of rich metadata is a common one*** but the cost of metadata often comes up as a constraint. Yes, metadata can be expensive when added post authoring, but it is free if retained from the manuscript, as is possible for much of the useful metadata. I have proposed the Visual-Meta approach but that is only one way to go about it. Standards and approaches should compete for us all to win, for us all to have data-richer environments to work in. We must work to lay a strong enough foundation for the future of text to truly flourish.
The far future
As to the far future of text? My friend, mentor and university professor when I studied at Syracuse University, Ed Leahy, would frequently ask me “what exactly, is the future of text?”. Ed passed away summer of 2023 and only after he left us did it become clear to me that the answer, dear Ed, is not being complacent, but constantly asking the question of “what is the future of text?”
In the far future we will need an Internet of knowledge, not only of information, and we constantly ask what that might be. We will need our knowledge connected to unleash its potential and part of this future will be written.
My son Edgar, having just turned 6:
“If we lay a strong enough foundation
We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you”*
What will you build, young man?
Wimbledon, June 2023