Liquid Plan

 

 

A few words on working on providing richer interaction for richer thought.

 

The Paradigm on Text

 

The goal of building ever richer interaction systems for text-based and associated knowledge requires a shift in the prevailing paradigm. At the time of writing, on a cold and wet evening early December in Wimbledon 2018, text is just not seen as a priority to develop deep interactions for and documents, which I see as being a framing of a human perspective, is distinctly out of vogue.

 

I have written far too many times why text is important and why this work is important so here is simply our plan for stepping past documents as paper simulations as Ted Nelson phrases it or as Doug Engelbart puts it, it's not WYSIWYG but  WYSIAYG (what you see is ALL you get).

 

Scenario

 

What is outlined here can be captured in a scenario of Joe working on writing a document, which you may choose to read first.

 

So far...

 

My first useful and moderately successful product is Liquid | Flow, which allows a Mac user to select any text and in less than half a second perform a myriad of options including searching, looking it up in references, sharing it, viewing it differently, translating it and if the text was numerical; convert it.

 

When Doug died it took me a few months to decide that no matter what the actual end-cost, I had to really put my money where my mouth is and commit to building a word processor and make it as elegant and powerful as I could, with an expectation that it would be an endless project but I had to start. This resulted in Liquid | Author for macOS which I am proud of but which has a clear path to future improvements as well as all those inspirations which come about through daily use and user feedback, from minor polishes to larger innovations.

 

...& into the future

 

I have mapped out how the constituent parts of the environment fit together in an Overview. The primary work is to build a glossary system, a space for visually organizing the work and a jrnl to improve how the next reader can interact with the resulting document.

 

  • glossary The next step is to implement a Glossary system to allow for a more atomized authoring environment where the author can pre-write terms so that they need not be written out again and again and the reader can choose the level of exposition desired. This will be a relatively modest part of the project and will be spread across jrnl and Space, using Flow as a way to create glossaries and Author as a means to embed them in documents.

 

  • space The Liquid Space is the major undertaking we have started, where we are building a visualisation system for free-form spatial interaction with deep connections to source and the ability to display connections based on criteria.

 

  • jrnl The jrnl (pronounced 'journal') is a series of web plugins to augment the web browsing and reading experience.

 

Where this Leads To

 

This approach is based on not telling people what is possible with interactive text or proselytizing the important and powerful virtues of richly interactive text, it is based on a program of continual demonstration of how useful the capabilities are.

 

Author and Flow have great reviews on the App Store but not a large market share. This is because the investment so far has been large in total but small at any one time so all the investment has been directed to development and it's taken a long time to have robust products which have enough functionality to be unique propositions but also useful.

 

The additions of the glossary system for more hypertextual–more atmoized–authoring, and the jrnl to enhance the reading experience of the resulting document provides hooks for a richer authoring experience and supports the next major project; the Liquid Space.

 

The Space is a unique implementation of a visual, free-form work environment in that in addition to what the user can manually type, it can connect to external data sources easily, including WordPress glossaries and blogs and pasted URLs as well as documents such as those produced in Author–while keeping their context and connection.

 

This means that the user can visualise a blog and see live if there are new posts. The user can also work on an Author document (or any other document made with a 'space-aware' system) in free-form space and have any changes automatically and instantly fed back to Author.

 

Interaction, interaction, interaction

 

Vannevar Bush wrote in 1945: “Thus far we seem to be worse off than ever before- for we can enormously extend the record, yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it.” Today there is no problem accessing the record when you know exactly which record you want to access–our problem is the vast amount of information hurtling at high velocity through our professional and social lives–our problem is a lack of interaction with the information. It is not enough to find a piece of information, it is crucial to find it in context and to be able to change our view to really examine how it fits.

 

To make sense of this information, to achieve a sense of clarity, requires active interaction with the information, not passive consumption which simply makes the loudest source most successful. I have written on this in many places, particularly in my blog, and do not wish to waste your time but I have a very strong sense that increasing our ability to interact with our information will increase our understanding and our intellectual freedom–that is why it is my goal.

 

Expectations

 

The plan is to raise the expectations of the public as to how they can interact with their information by having used one or more component of the Liquid Information Environment and then to compete with those who are hopefully inspired to build interactive systems in different ways from what we are looking at.

 

Process

 

I am inspired by the work of Doug Engelbart and by his methods, particularly the notion of Networked Improved Communities (NICs), which is why I co-host the Future of Text and the ABC levels of activity which is why are working on both the B level of implementing to improve the work process but also discussing a much wider approach for how to improve the improvement, which is an integral part of the process.

 

The work is carried out in a networked environment where effort is applied where required, there are no full time positions which need continued support.

 

Promulgation

 

The advisory board is extraordinary, headed by Vint Cerf, and the process of continuing to build is in partnership with educational institutions which both feed the process and help spread the word of what we are doing.

 

The Next Level

 

The next level will be very much determined by what we learn along the way but the adherence to and creation of–when needed–open standards to support an open ecosystem for real competition will be the core driving force. It is not possible for a small software developer to compete when large companies own the file formats or means of transmission so we much simply do our work in the open, in a distributed way to both make it more useful and better protected.

 

We aim to build a liquid environment where interaction is smooth and precise, where the visual part of your brain augments your higher thinking, where clerical work is removed and the effort to carry out deep inspections and rich visualisations is so low as to be effortless.

 

To get there we can't build a monolith, we must lay the groundwork for a Cyber-Cambrian.

 

It is not for lack of ambition I am not describing a Minority Report style interaction. It is crucially that we cannot know what it is like to live and work in a richer environment until we have built it. We cannot pre-guess what it will be like to be able to do ‘everything’; what will be practically possible and what will be useful? We can look to the evolution of video games to see this in practice: Even on the same hardware, games change with new releases but not simply to be ‘more realistic’ since the games exist in their own reality, both more constrained and more open than the physical world.

 

 

Frode Hegland
London
2018