Textual maps and the future of text

Reading time: 3 minutes

A few months ago, we hosted a workshop about the Future of Text with publisher, developer, and researcher Frode Hegland. We talked about how the medium shapes the message; how interactive digital text can transform the way we consume information; and how we can break free from the paradigm of the printed page.

Frode leads the Future of Text Initiative, which includes the annual Future of Text Symposium—supported in the past by the likes of Wikimedia, The British Library, Google, and Vint Cerf (who is considered by many the co-inventor of the Internet).

This month marks the launch of one of Frode’s most ambitious projects yet: the largest survey of the future of text ever undertaken. The result is a 500-page book on the possible futures of text, with a wide range of different perspectives.

In his own words, “The book is a collection of dreams for how we want text to evolve as well as how we understand our current textual infrastructures, how we view the history of writing, and much more. The aim is to make it inspire a powerfully rich future of text in a multitude of ways today and to still have value in a thousand years and beyond. It should serve as a record for how we saw the medium of text and how it relates to our world, our problems and each other in the early twenty-first century.”

I’m incredibly excited to have participated in the project through a modest contribution. My essay, titled Textual Maps, discusses the current limitations of tools for thought for mapping the creative process, and the scientific and technological advances needed to engineer a “motor cortext”.

Here is the introduction of the essay:

“A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges in Labyrinths (1964). In most traditional books, the nature of the text as the fruit of an infinite dialogue is implied. The author’s thought processes—their schemas, their mental models, and the decision trees behind their work—are kept private, hidden in notes and drafts. Academic literature may be the rare exception where explicit thought processes are somewhat incorporated in the final text. Yet, for a variety of reasons—such as confirmation bias, long-established convention, honest oversight, or even conscious manipulation—these after-the-fact reports are often skewed or incomplete. For instance, the methods and procedures section of a research paper will only feature a linear description of the final protocol. The author’s train of thought is not captured. Beyond static academic references, no associative trails are included. It is left to the reader to speculate what alternative routes were discarded. The result is a bounded, conjectural map of the discourse which shaped the published text. To fully actualize humanity’s collective intelligence, unbounded textual maps are needed.

Text to inform, text to connect, text to fear… There are so many fascinating perspectives in the book. I highly recommend reading the essays from all the other contributors, such as Andy Matuschak, Ted Nelson, Tiago Forte, Azlen Elza, Chris Messina, and more.


There is also a special Ness Labs PDF edition of the essay, with a custom illustration by Alyssa X. You can download it here. I hope you enjoy the read!