«Symbol Space»


[this is a Future of Text specific topic site]



Whether accessed through a conversation between two or more people, or via pencil and paper, spoken AI, AR, VR or a futuristic Direct Brain Connection, the information we need to interact with to solve problems needs to have some sort of symbolic representation for us to be able to access, ‘see’, interact and share it; without a symbolic representation we have no way to grasp the information – no way to get a handle on it – and no way to develop and increase our perspectives.



The purpose of such symbols discussed here is to deal with human information, with all the ambiguities, meaning shifts, dialects, and more – the discussion here does not primarily address information which can be sold as being ‘objective’ – this is about human-human communication.






The space of possible connections (that is to say interactions between symbols as well as with minds), is what gives symbols their meaning, both from explicit connections highlighted and from potential connections available to explore.


Within the human mind this space of possible connections of symbols is as rich and varied as the symbols possessed therein – the human mind has the potential to make any connection, perform any leap and see any associations between the symbols in our minds. Hence, the human mind is a kind of a ‘symbol space’, shown here in a very limited way:



The mental symbols spaces of printed books and the technological symbol spaces of digital texts, hypertexts and knowledge graphs and more, offers our minds the ability to connect with information external to our past memories and thus opens horizons to widen and deepen our perspectives. This is quite a glib statement of beauty and power (and for some, frustrating open-endedness), but as much as it was something to inspire with in the early days of computer knowledge work systems, now that we all live and work with super-high performance computers (actual beyond super-computer capability from the perspective of the times when much of the work on the theory and potential of interactive computing systems was done), it is important to stop and look at whether this is actually being delivered to its full extent. TLDR: It's not.





Symbols are connections and connections connect what is addressable


In the digital realms the space of potential connections becomes technical challenges. Though the notion of ‘linking’ through hypertext has become a common concept, though it's surprising how little thought through this concept is (hence the glossary we are putting together here): When you attach a web address to some specific text, this is not a link – there is no connection at the other end...


...any more than your office becomes connected another office if you send them a letter – it's simply an address...



...and in many cases, over time, the location addressed ceases to exist, without the link being aware of this nor of a forwarding address:



This is important because you can only address something which is addressable from within the space you are doing the addressing (you cannot address a node in a concept map from a word processor document for example) and you can only do so within the capability of the medium you are using (as illustrated above).





For example, you can address any book or other paper document from any other paper document through ‘citing’ it by writing the name of the document or other identifying aspects and noting down the page number and possibly the paragraph of the text you are referring to. This provides great flexibility at the time of authoring but very little flexibility to the reader who must exert considerable effort to physically track down the document referred to. The book therefore exists in a symbols space where the connections are made through the human mind.



In the digital realm you can ‘link’ to text by providing an address for what the link should point to, which can be local, with addressing as simple as drawing a line on the screen; ‘the text over there’ or remote, by providing an address to the document's expected server location or by referring to it in a similar way as you would with paper documents, through providing citation identifiers. The digital document therefore exists in a symbols space where the connections are made through the human mind – and which can be delivered and manipulated automatically by powerful computer systems.


One important aspect of early hypertext systems which is not in current use is high-resolution addressing which allows the author to point to specific sections within the text, not just the whole document.






My first memory is of sitting in my baby-buggy when I was somewhere between one and two years old and thinking that solving a problem is easy, even for children, if adults just present the problem clearly – and that's when the light-bulb came on: “that's the real problem” I realised; “clearly stating the problem is what's hard”. In my adult life this has become my life's goal.


We must acknowledge the importance of symbol spaces – and the fact that they need to be implemented in a specific form! This will allow us to build symbol space interactions which support deep questioning.






Though the digital environment provides rich potential for connection interaction, the bluntness and vagueness of currently implemented connection spaces severely hinders actual use. Though hugely flexible, just like a scene in a digitally animated movie must have been created completely from scratch, with every detail built – every pebble on the road must be put there, computed and presented, otherwise the road would be bare (and there would be no road if it itself was not put there by someone or some system) – software systems can only provide the user with tools which has been programmed by someone and connections can only be made by the user if the address space allows it to happen.


The work which needs to be done to deliver on the potential of digital symbol spaces will include more powerful tools but also the means through which we can integrate (read: address) networks of symbol spaces and making the connections richer:



This will allow for more Socratic Authorship, where the author can explore meaning across a wider range of domains, and embed and refer to such meaning both wider, across different symbol spaces, and deeper – referring to specific sections of documents, or by other criteria. This in turn provides for a much more Socratic Reading experience of the resulting document, both to better understand the author's intent and to question it from multiple dimensions of context.


In order for this to happen, we will need to provide:





Frode Hegland