Towards a Solution


The tools available to help us deal with all this information can either be thought of as big, fancy computers networked with millions of other computers, or, just text on the screen. But text manipulation tools are lagging behind the development compared to other tools for media such as image and music.




Developing better text manipulation tools on computers seems to be very much on developer's back burners these days, probably as the other media are more glamorous and we finally have quite a few machines capable of dealing with the high bandwidth glamor data. It seems the higher the bandwidth the data is such as pictures, music, 3d animation and such, the higher bandwidth tools are thrown at it. Hey, there is more to play with right? First text then still images, next audio and moving images, 3D and on and on. But words carry thoughts right?! Thoughts are pretty high bandwidth!

Benjamin Whorf's notion that language shapes the way we think puts some serious pressure on word processors. Word processors haven't really evolved since MacWrite. Word processors still remain very linear, very abstract (copy into the ether & paste) creatures. Word processor. Language tools aren't trivial letter to mom devices: " changed the pressures of natural selection and so changed the structure of man." ( Washburn, S. L. Scientific American Sep 1960) "...we are now coming to realize that humans and the machines they create are continuous..." Bruce Mazlish (The Fourth Discontinuity) It's not like the machines we use, the media, isn't a part of us - it's not as if it's separate from us.

What would Marshal McLuhan say if he was around to see how we have squandered our language/thought manipulation tools? The opportunity for high bandwidth media has taken us for a ride, swooping us over the digital landscape so fast that we can barely make out the importance of low bandwidth, high context text data as we are sucked into the hot rod CPU maelstrom. But yo! Hold your horses, there are other ways to go. We have to stop and smell the chocolate. I'm not a high bandwidth luddite, mind you, I love playing around with high bandwidth data. All night long, Photoshoping, Brycing, Infini-d-ing, Premiering... But the evolution of those tools is pretty obvious. However, I feel like we are letting an important part of our communication life, and good old intellectual life, slip away in the cracks of only high bandwidth media r&d.

Our common, shared, knowledge is our external DNA, according to Stephen Hawking. Well, a lot of our knowledge anyway, is in the form of words, text. Text, text, text. This stuff. Aristotle carried around the most fluid and flexible computing environment; a sand box. Vannevar Bush had his concept of the Memex, which emphasizes working by association. Alan Kay came up with the idea of the Dynabook and later the idea that a computer interface should mirror the ease of use of paper, with the computer intelligently interpreting what the user wants to do. We are still so far away from getting an information environment which is as fluid as Aristotle's sand box yet provides us the rigidity and 'magic' that only computers can provide. Do we need to wait for another revolution, or can we get there by making relatively incremental changes to what we already have? I'll have the latter please.

"Whenever a communication medium lowers the cost of solving collective action dilemmas, it becomes possible for more people to pool resources. And 'more people pooling resources in new ways' is the history of civilization in... -pause-... seven words"
M.A. Smith, Research Sociologist, Microsoft.
Rheingold, H. (2002)




Isocrates was a great speech teacher who believed that it is language which separates us from animals. He believes that there are three essentials for learning, natural ability, training and practice. This is where it gets interesting, he maintained that "learning to speak properly was tantamount to learning to think properly
McLuhan, M, 1957., in McLuhan E. & Zingrone F. (1997 )

The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way.
McLuhan, M, 1995., in McLuhan E. & Zingrone F. (1997 )

the written word

The alphabet was one thing when applied to clay or stone, and quite another when set down on light papyrus.
McLuhan in McLuhan E. & Zingrone F. (1997 )

the electronic word

The new media are not bridges between man and nature; they are nature.
McLuhan, M, 1969., in McLuhan E. & Zingrone F. (1997 )

The news automatically becomes the real world for the TV user and is not a substitute for reality, but is itself an immediate reality.
McLuhan, M, 1978., in McLuhan E. & Zingrone F. (1997 )

Today we are beginning to notice that the new media are not just mechanical gimmicks for creating worlds of illusion, but new languages with new and unique powers of expression
McLuhan, M, 1957., in McLuhan E. & Zingrone F. (1997 )

New media may at first appear as mere codes of transmission for older achievement and established patterns of thought. But nobody could make the mistake of supposing that phonetic writing merely made it possible for the Greeks to set down in visual order what they had thought and known before writing. In the same way printing made literature possible. It did not merely encode literature.
McLuhan in 1960, in McLuhan E. & Zingrone F. (1997 )

on the computer screen

A long standing complaint from readers is that computer screens are not nearly as high quality as paper. This is true, but not necessarily for very much longer:

A modern high resolution monitor has about 40 pixels per cm. This translates to 40 cycles per degree at normal viewing distances. Given that the human eye has receptors packed into the fovea at roughly 180 per degree of visual angle, we can claim that in linear resolution, we are about a factor of four from having monitors that match the resolving power of the human retina in each direction. A 4000-x-4000-resolution monitor should be adequate for any conceivable visual task, leaving aside, for the moment, the problem of superacuities. Such a monitor would require 16 million pixels. The highest-resolution monitors that are currently available have 1920 x 1280 pixels, more than two million.
Ware, C. (2002)

Antialiasing helps increase the perceived resolution without even requiring the extra pixels. The computer displays are not as bad as they were in the early nineties and certainly not as bad as what they were in the eighties. It's an exciting time dealing with pioneering issues of digital texts, now that the screen quality issue is fading into history!


taka's experiments

These are a few Flash examples Taka has put together to show the potential of different ways of unleashing text:

Flash 1 (red text)  |  Flash 2  |  Flash 3 (spinn stay)  |  Flash 4 (spinn pop)