This article is my submission to the student competition portion of ‘The Future of Text’ book (there is a free pdf and epub version, alternatively, it is available on amazon for purchase as a paperback or kindle version). It was chosen, in addition to many other student submissions, as a runner-up and is therefore included in the final version of the book.
Text is all around us. We read it every day. You are reading it right now. Even so, our understanding of text’s nature is typically built on layers of abstraction, rarely descending to the underlying first principles. Historically, text has always been displayed on surfaces. From clay tablets to ink and paper, the structure of material on the displaying surface is arranged in specific hierarchical patterns that we recognize as letters forming words forming sentences forming prose. These sequences of patterns are used to represent other concepts or processes in nature, all of which are recognized and manifested as patterns by our senses and various levels of brain activity. Because text, a sequence of patterns, is used to represent other patterns, it is appropriate to consider it a metapattern — a pattern about patterns.
The basic structure of displaying text had largely stayed the same: static arrangements of matter bound to a fixed surface. Computers and monitors changed this. Text is no longer physically bound to the displaying surface. Rather, a monitor is used only to display a specific arrangement of unbounded matter that originated elsewhere — computer memory, for example. Computers manipulate this unbounded matter at the sub-atomic level, harnessing and controlling the electromagnetic properties of electrons. To a modern computer, text is nothing but a sequence of binary electrical states called bits.
Unlike text bound to a surface, the journey of the information represented by digital text to our eyes is not trivial. When we read text on a computer, the underlying metapatterns of bits have traversed a mind-bogglingly complicated path comprised of countless transformations. The original sequence of binary electrical states had to propagate through media modulated by mathematical properties that emerge from the deliberate design and structure of electronic circuitry. Furthermore, the calculated manipulation of electrons in certain circuits is used to emit electromagnetic radiation. The propagating radiation, a form of energy, carries the metapatterns wirelessly to circuits in other computers. These circuits eventually transport the original sequence of bits to a monitor where they are again converted to electromagnetic radiation, this time visible light, on a matrix of tiny light bulbs called pixels.
Throughout this journey, there is no specific set of static matter that can be called the text. Instead, the text is the oscillating interplay of coupled electrons and photons. The propagation of these coupled electrons and photons through cyberspace is void of any macro-level form. Electrons are one of the elementary units of matter while photons are the most elementary unit of electromagnetic energy. Thus, digital text can appropriately be considered matter-energy metapatterns.
Computers, with the ability to structure, organize, and store matter-energy metapatterns in ways not possible to surface-bounded text, are nonetheless limited by the traditional framework of linear files in hierarchical folders. A framework imposed by the laws of physics governing surface-bounded text. For computers, this is an artificial limitation. Furthermore, because text is externalized thought — extensions of our minds — this framework also limits our ability to think.
Modern information technology enables a new paradigm in how we make use of text to augment human cognition. The future format of text, therefore, should not be dictated by the physical constraints of surface-bounded text. Rather, its design should be guided by cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychology, limited only by the physical constraints of matter-energy metapatterns and the computer infrastructure that orchestrates them.
In fact, this paradigm shift is already underway. There is a burgeoning population of intellectuals developing tools for thought, pioneering the depths of personal knowledge management, building their second brains, and harnessing the capabilities of collective intelligence. These pragmatic visionaries are exploring the vast space of possibilities when it comes to the format and organization of matter-energy metapatterns. Already, non-linear text organized in associative ontologies seems to be the way of the future. These frameworks are much more conducive to how our minds encode knowledge, allowing us to navigate externalized thoughts more lucidly.
The potential implications of this paradigm shift are profound — improved education, richer communication, deeper sense-making, enhanced collaboration, and greater creativity. These possibilities are seductive. The inconvenient truth, however, is that these forms of text will only be accessible to an elite few. To be capable of reading and writing future forms of text will require not only literacy, but digital competency — a skill that requires a significant degree of wealth, privilege, and fortune to develop. Without deliberate measures, intellectual inequality will only be exacerbated by the future of text.
Consequently, those who are pioneering these future forms of text are placing themselves into an asymmetric position of power and intellect. This new form of literacy — hyperliteracy — bears a high degree of responsibility. Hyperliterates must decide how to use their expanded cognitive capabilities. For instance, hyperliterates can work to spread their new form of literacy throughout public education systems, or, they can bring their skills into the democratic process to enhance civic decision-making. The point is, there are many ways to navigate asymmetric positions of power and address intellectual inequality. Most importantly, hyperliterates can democratize, rather than capitalize, their newfound sense-making apparatus.
The future of text, physically, will remain as matter-energy metapatterns. The technology that controls and displays these metapatterns will continue to advance — improved efficiency, increased speed, and decreased quanta of matter and energy required to represent the same amount of information. The critical advancements are in how future text is structured and used. Furthering the development of non-linear text organized in associative ontologies with built-in spaced repetition mnemonics will undoubtedly enable new forms of text-based thinking. It’s evident how these tools will expand our cognitive capabilities. It’s much less clear how they will enhance our ability to develop wisdom. Perhaps, then, the future of text should be guided by one more domain in addition to cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychology: philosophy.