The Future of Text

This essay is inspiring by the Future of Text, a group of thinkers on a mission to improve how we interact with text to create, store, share, access and interact with knowledge for the benefit of mankind. You can information about the project below:


Text has caught my interest for a while now. Ever since I started writing in my journal at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic on March 2020, writing has been a part of me ever since. I always have a notebook by my side and I am always thinking about the next thing to write. I call myself a chronic journaler and I am proud of it.

Text is an invention that most people take for granted. They don't see the monumental gains that it has given us. The ability to store and communicate knowledges, memories and ideas as symbols on a permanent or semi-permanent medium is a gift. It also people and societies to communicate across generations and even centuries. We can read and hear the words on Cicero or the read the Epic Gilgamesh from the comfort of our homes. We must not forget that the internet is firstly text before it is video or images.

There was once a time when knowledge was only found on paper. Eventually we got the invention of the film which could use light to symbols and images from a tape. If you wanted to do some research, you needed to go the library and order a book or get access to film. It was not always a guarantee that you would get a certain book and you would have to wait for days before you got it. This has all changed with the internet. It started with the computer, which could store documents in a digital form of 1s and 0s. This was a good start but it was soon released that this can be used for communicate and transfer of those documents from one place to the next. This was proposed by the military, with support of academia, to prepare for a nuclear attack from the USSR. It would save their knowledge and also communicate the attack. Once the military had developed it, academia took it up and decided to play around with it. Eventually it lead to the internet we know and love today. The story has more details like the creation of TCP, IP, SMTP and eventually HTTP by Tim Burner Lee and led to the famous World Wide Web (WWW).

The WWW was a revolution that reduced the barrier of entry to the internet. From now on, you didn't need to have programming skills to access the wide. You just needed a computer with an internet connection and a browser to access the files from other servers. The internet has blown up how much information we can access in our lifetime. At a search and click, I can get access to millions of servers with billions of files with trillions of text. It said that we produce more information on the internet in a day than we have ever produced in the pre-internet. That's a crazy thought. What is also crazy is that we can fix the electrons that store information on the internet into the size of a strawberry. If we really put out heads into it, everyone would have the knowledge of our species in our pockets. However, isn't this the case? We don't really need to store the entire internet if we can access it on demand. That's the beauty of the internet. Get the information that you need, when you need it, from other people.

With the internet, we can now access information from everything, mostly in text. However, the internet still has a lot of challenges.

In all of this, I was meant to be talking about text but I have gone into the history of the internet, the challenges of the current internet and proposed solutions. Why? Well, the internet is the latest iteration of how we store human knowledge. We have come to view it as a multimedia space where text, images, audio, video and 3D models interact to create this colorful view of the web. This is true for the layman user but not for the programmer. When it comes down to it, the fundamentals are the internet are text. Text is still king. How we use and organize this text determines the quality of our knowledge. Right now, text is scattered everywhere on the internet and relevant connections are hard to come by and must be cultivated by human authors and editors of websites. Wikipedia is a good example of how knowledge can be organized to produce relevant results in knowledge dissemination and understanding. The question becomes, is that the best we can do with text?

Why should we do this? If more people have access to information, then they need to make sense of it. Otherwise, it becomes useless to them and even a nuisance. They may even decide to tune-out and not ingest anymore. For most, they will simply just consume more and more information that has not benefit to them and may not even be true or verifiable. For the serious advocate for knowledge and learning, the internet sucks. If you want to verify something that was quoted on social media, it takes effort that most are not willing to put in. The internet was not designed to help you find and view sources and references of the things that you see online. If this was built in, we would have more responsible internet. On the positive side, we will also see interesting connections to knowledge and ideas that can lead to more collaboration between humans. One author can write a post and see other people's posts that are ideally (idea-wise) related to his post. That will allow him to have more interesting exchanges with those authors and even start initiatives, projects, products, companies and even revolutions. Such a power would increase the productivity of the knowledge that you put online where people can see each others thoughts linked in a tapestry of linked, semantic and graphical notes. This is what is being done on Obsidian but for personal knowledge management. This future could even be beyond the linked, semantic and graphical notes.

The future of text is hard to see but there is a feeling that the Xanadu project was on the right track. With tools like Obsidian, Roam Research, Memnotes and Notion, we are starting to see this conversation coming back again. Programmers, technologists and multi-potentialites are building digital gardens, writing personal blogs and becoming Twitter warriors about this revolution of using text to represent and aid human thinking. That's what text was all about in the 1st place. When the Mesopotamians write their accounting records on clay tablets, they were looking to aid their minds in the calculations on trading and commerce. In our world, we are building applications that run global online commerce, store financial records of trillions of dollars, disseminate news to worldwide views and eventually do intelligent work of knowledge workers everywhere. Computers and the internet, coupled with the underlying text are the tools of our day to aid our minds to understand an everchanging and massive world with an ever-growing complexity of factors and considerations. As Steve Jobs said, computers are bicycles for the mind. In all of this, we miss the big picture, text was always the engine of this story. It is the never changing medium of knowledge.