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Document Infrastructures

Text changed what humanity is by allowing us to communicate across time and space, as well as by allowing us to see our thoughts while we think, like no other media can. This lay the foundation for great civilisations and human progress, extending our minds far beyond what previous tools had been able to.

We are looking at infrastructures of meaning.

text today

Our species has been using tools for a little more than 2.5 million years and we have been anatomically modern for 200,000 years or so. Text has been around for about 5,5 thousand years and we have only lived with digital information for less than 100 years.

Do we really expect that the way we interact with text today is as good as it can get? I don’t think so.

The sun is only about 4.5 billion years old, or halfway into its lifecycle–there is a lot of future left. If we don’t mess up our descendants may even be there to see it…

If we try to project another 100 years into the future it is easy to expect massive changes in how we think and communicate. Some think we’ll move to something ‘beyond’ text. That there will be massive shifts in what capabilities digital technologies enable over the next few decades, never mind the next century, is clear.

My perspective however is that the written word, text, can be unleashed by the powerful systems we have and which are coming online, not simply be replaced by them.

Movies, radio, TV and computers in all forms, from desktop to smartphone did not kill the written word.

text in the future {neural interfaces}

Evolution did not stand still over the millions of years we have been using tools. There is so much value we can release by continuing to optimise how we interact with the world through our incredible visual system, the great agility our hands give us and so many more ways we interact with our world. Imagine truly reaching into a well of words and shaping what you see as richly as you could with clay. Imagine following hunches and seeing connections as quick as your inspiration takes you. This is where we can be headed. Our senses, evolved from the very first life a little over 4 billion years ago, has provided us with incredible interfaces from the world to our brains.

This is why I think that a notion of waiting for neural interfaces to come of age to somehow increase the bandwidth of our communication does not make much sense. We will still need mental interfaces to connect those neural interfaces to in order to express ourselves and to perceive. For cases outside medical need, why re-invent the hand? Why re-invent the eye? Why not simply optimise their ability to interact with the symbols of thought-text?

has the age of text not been surpassed by other media?

Different media are suited for different communications. There is nothing like a powerful movie to experience something spectacular. There is nothing like music to change a mood and likewise there is nothing like a photograph to capture a moment. All of these media are worth investing in. My background is that of an artist educated at the Chelsea School of Art, I have nothing but respect for media outside of text. However, the non-linear access text produces and the way it can use space makes it specifically powerful for mapping thought and following connections. Text is also compact and once someone is literate, easy to produce, at least to a basic level. Producing a movie, even now when smartphone cameras are of fantastic quality, takes considerable more effort than writing a script.

dreaming of futures of text beyond current understanding

Digital text has even greater potential to augment how we think and communicate., however, so far the environment in which text systems develop and are used has been hamstrung by legacy attitudes and a lack of understanding of the potential of the digital word.

Doug Engelbart, who invented much of personal computing and who was my mentor, was known as a dreamer and he pointed out that “dreaming is hard work”. We must dream though, otherwise how can we possibly know what futures we want and what futures we should avoid?

Here imagine text released beyond the confines of rectangular substrates, we imagine a future of text which is robust and what is written will be available for generations to come—but not digitally frozen as much text is today—we imagine our text to be richly interactive and deeply connected, truly extending our minds.

Infrastructures of meaning

A chief obstacle for the full realisation of the potential of the future of text a lack of information about what information is, restricting the opportunities for systems to interact with the information.

a problem

Much of the world’s digital text is stored as flattened and largely non-interactive PDF documents and on the Web where they are subject to link rot and when not owned by the user, ownership by media companies who have very specific interests in how the information should be interacted with and in what way it should be available, for as long as the company operates, and after that, the text may simply disappear.

In a digital environment there is no automatic context such as we have in the real world. For example we can see that a glass is full or empty, or we can see that the tree grows in a meadow with a cow grazing nearby.

In digital information all this has to be encoded and ‘information about what information is’, is ‘metadata’.

For text, metadata can include information intrinsic to a document, such as who wrote it, its structure (headings) and how the document is connected to other documents through links and references.

towards a solution

My approach to metadata is simply not to hide it, but to present it on the same level as the rest of the content of the document and by doing this as cheaply as possible, by using the metadata already present in a manuscript when exporting for publication. We call this approach Visual-Meta.

Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet says that this adds “an exploitable self-contained self-awareness within some of the objects in this universe and increase their enduring referenceability.”^ In other words, we get smart documents which will last for eternity.

With the coming opportunities in VR/AR/XR, where the entire information environment is synthetic, not only a small rectangular screen, the need for truly available (open and understandable) data about data will never have been stronger.


I wrote about the evolution of who we are and at this point I think it is important to consider that the great evolutionary leaps life made was when the environment made it possible. How we interact with our knowledge will not have much of a possibility to evolve if systems cannot know what the knowledge is. Today digital text is mostly inert. We cannot hope for a ‘Cambrian’ explosion in such an environment.

evolved interactions

The result of richly embedding metadata is primarily the services this can enable people to build on top of the data. From a knowledge perspective this can be immense. What do you want to be able to do with a richly interactive information environment? Whatever you think of, the system will need to know what’s what.


When I started my PhD in computer science I did not expect to have to work on a core issue such as this, but without rich and robust metadata, we can’t do much else.