WHY Liquid


We are living in a time where the world is getting smaller in terms of the speed of propagation of negative change including environmental and economic collapse as well as the potential damage from wars and the social pressures of migration.

At the same time, the world is getting bigger in terms of the information we need to deal with to tackle the problems. Vannevar Bush raised the alarm in The Atlantic Monthly 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.” In 2008, Google software engineers Alpert and Hajaj announced that Google had discovered one trillion unique URLs.

It could be argued that power of the Internet = Moore's Law * Metcalf's Law. We have such potential here but we need to use the power of Moore's law to help us deal with the effect of Metcalf's law.

The potential of powerful computers must be unleashed.

We need better ways of dealing with this information so that we can get better understanding and better dialog. Specifically we need to help people search this vast amount of data, navigate through it, analyze and digest it, discuss it, then produce new insights and share them.

My position is that we need better ways to handle our information, for the information, and us, to become more liquid and I believe a crucial part of this will be to make text more interactive.

"If you tell me, I will listen. If you show me, I will see. But if you let me experience, I will learn."

I started seriously thinking about this in 1991 where I had an epiphany as a devoted Mac user: Both the Mac and Windows could do with some serious improvement. I spent six months trying to understand what information is, coming up with a working definition that information is data which is useful to someone at some point in some way and that essentially, information is connections. Information is information about something for something. The result of the initial thinking was the start of a philosophy I would call Liquid Information which I started the www.liquid.org website for in 1995. 

I had just moved from university in Syracuse, NY to Silicon Valley at the time and once the core of the liquid information philosophy was formed I looked to find out what others in the valley were thinking and doing and so came across Howard Rheingold’s Tools for Thought where I was introduced to Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson, both whom have inspired me ever since. My documentary on Doug Engelbart is online at www.invisiblerevolution.net

Doug Engelbart’s position further inspired me. In his seminal work Augmenting Human  Intellect from 1962 he states his position, which he would go on to realizing through inventing much of personal computing as we know it, including the computer mouse, word processing and so on:

“By “augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. 

Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by “complex situations” we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers -- whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human “feel for a situation” usefully coexist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.”
Augmenting Human  Intellect : A Conceptual Framework. October 1962. By D. C. Engelbart

This is an immense task so I have focused on a part of his vision, what he refers to as ‘symbol manipulation’ and within that I have focused on the symbols we call text.

We think, at least partially, with and through symbols. Not just cold symbols of logical notation and mathematical precision but dynamic symbols floating and interacting with subjective human emotion.

These symbols are words and numbers, but what they carry is as colorful as life itself - text ferries ideas, fears and insights and aspirations. They live in our minds dynamically, always changing, alive and impermanent, until we record them on paper, in computer files, in a movie or on a sound recording, where they gain solidity and hardness, no longer changing, getting confused, always the same, ready for referencing at any time. 

The symbol in the mind is active and alive but changing and not exact. The recorded symbol is exact, accurate and unchanging but inactive and dead. I believe that dynamic computer systems can start to combine the best of the dynamic symbol of the mind and the accurate recorded symbols. 

While the speed of the computers is increasing at a rapid pace - a 2011 era Apple iPad is faster than a 1994 super computer - the rate at which we build more powerful systems to use this power to interact with the information is not nearly keeping pace. The potential however, for what powerful computers can do to unlock text interaction is so clearly there. 

Documents are often distributed as paper simulations as Ted Nelson phrases it or as Doug Engelbart puts it WYSIAYG (what you see is ALL you get). The web is barely interactive with less than 5% of the words linked (a number I made up but I’m pretty sure a proper count would find it to be even less than that) and those which are lined are only linked by the author or editor and only go in one direction, to one document  - not even to a sub-section of a document. 

We need to reward curiosity. When a user comes across text which sparks their curiosity, liquid information systems should be standing by ready to deliver. Something as simple as looking up a word’s definition or reference entry, such as Wikipedia, should be no more time or energy consuming than a simple click.

More advanced interactions should be just as little effort and just as rewarding. The liquid information approach does not focus on building sophisticated tools (I’ll leave that to the big boys), it focuses on integrating them in an interface that puts it at the users instant control with a mental or physical effort on the part of the user so low that execution becomes automatic without needing a conscious choice. Much like walking. Or swimming.

My work so far has been to produce the Liquid Information Web Browser Add-On for Firefox, Chrome and Safari as well as Liquid Information for Server and for WordPress, available from www.liquid.info 

The philosophy continues to be discussed and expanded on my blog wordpress.liquid.info and I am hoping to finish my book called “liquid.info” by the end of the year.

I have also built LiSA, the Liquid Information Speaking assistant for MacOS X which announces email as-and-when they arrive, with a real human voice, saying who the message is from. For example: “You have a reply from an important client”. Users can have messages from anyone announced or only from people they want to be alerted to, such as a business partner, customers, spouse or child. This uses another dimension in computing (audio speech) than most knowledge work interaction uses so that the user can concentrate on work but not miss important messages.

LiVE Globe for iOS devices and Mac OS X is a new way of interacting with a globe. Initially there are no labels but tapping/clicking on an area draws a border around it and labels it. tapping/clicking on the label brings up a screen with Wikipedia information, YouTube, local map and so on, in addition to a constellation graph allowing the user to visually compare countries, states, cities or even oceans.

So far the liquid information approach has focused on helping people go where they want to and find what they are looking for but this may contribute to narrow minded viewpoints and prejudiced conclusions.

We need to work on helping people connect the dots, even when they are sure which dots to connect and those dots turn out to be the wrong dots. 

This will require increasing the human connection. This will require novel ways of informing the user of another angle to look at the issue. This will not be easy.