Parts of a vision


IDEO released a concept video of three ebook-related designs: one (code-named Nelson) for reading and analyzing data, one (Coupland) for managing the social context of reading, and one (Alice) for interactive hypertext fiction. While these themes are certainly relevant to computer-mediated reading, the video breaks little new ground.


The Nelson idea seems akin to literate programming for data: the text is tied to the underlying data that can be manipulated to reveal insights. Unfortunately, the kinds of insights one might wish to derive from data as illustrated in the video seem to require manual authoring, making them vulnerable to the kinds of biases that the tool is seemingly designed to solve. Readers of this blog will also note the lack of support for active reading in this vision: no marking, no note-taking, no search, etc. This seems to be an artist’s rendering of a hand-crafted informational hypertext rather than a pragmatic tool for handling text and data for analytic purposes.


Coupland introduces some standard social sharing around books, something like Netflix meets Amazon. The ideas might make it possible to run distributed book clubs and share information about corporate reading. Much of this vision is already realized through Cite-U-Like or Delicious and reading list sharing through social network apps.


Alice illustrates one possible interactive fiction scenario, this one with some location-specific decision points embedded in the text. This sort of fiction has been written and written about for decades; putting it on an iPad-like touch screen does not make it visionary.

In short, the video illustrates some existing or easy-to-put together ideas within the context of a touch-sensitive tablet computer. The stuff is evolutionary at best.

Visions of the future

There are two threads in my curmudgeonly attitude: it’s been done, and it’s not possible. The two seem to leave little room for creative vision, which is not how I see the world. I think there is room for creative visioneering, but I think such creativity should be constrained or informed by fundamental characteristics of how people work and think. Devices or applications that disregard limitations of human cognition or seek to replace good writing with slick graphics are not likely to have long-term impact. What seems to be attractive about the IDEO vision is the slick iPad-style interaction (something very much based on an understanding of human perception and cognition) rather than the anemic applications that fill in the details.

My personal bias in predicting the future to favor interaction over computational intelligence. Thus I am more inclined to believe (and find palatable) visions of the future that facilitate people’s creative expression through effective tools rather than the substitution of machine intelligence for the human kind. This is why I would rather see tools that make possible to make sense of information rather than tools that claim to find “the right answer” for you; this is why I prefer human-to-human collaboration to automated inferences of one’s interests; this is why I prefer a good story to a slick visualization.