Re-inventing the Research Text

There’s been a sustained conversation for a while now about how tech will impact the ways research is produced, read, and propagated. With the advent of complex digital books, for example, researchers will finally be able to store the wealth of raw data and sources they collected during fieldwork, and make it immediately accessible to anyone who wants more information, instead of forcing them to go online and digging through files.

But innovations like this take the book itself (as it currently exists) for granted. Even though it doesn’t quite strike us so in our everyday lives, the book is a profoundly unnatural way of presenting information to others. It requires all the relevant information, regardless of subject, complexity, and source type, to fit within a linear text of typically a few hundred pages. A fascinating question to consider is how the reading experience could change if we were willing to alter the book’s linearity itself.

Consider for example the set of texts that proceed axiomatically, that is, by building an elaborate deductive system from a set of basic assumptions. I have in mind works like Newton’s Principia, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and Spinoza’s Ethics. I can’t speak for the authors, but for most of us who attempt to read these today, understanding what’s being said usually means frantically flipping back to the various theorems proven before in order to put them together in a way that makes the later theorems intelligible. The biggest hurdle to faster learning here is the linearity our current books impose on us. Smart ebooks could change this, and there are already some indications of how this can be done away with.

A PhD student at Boston College, John Bagby, created visualizations of the entirety of Spinoza’s Ethics, with each node representing a proposition.

Clicking on a node reveals its connections to other nodes, and also brings up a dialogue box which will state all the relevant propositions (the one selected, the parent and children propositions). Just like that, the linearity that was taken to be constitutive of our reading experience for centuries is shown to be a constraint, and the visualization makes the connections far easier to pursue. That isn’t to say that reading Spinoza becomes easy, but it’s undeniable that this would make the text tremendously more accessible for both beginners attempting to read it as well as for experienced researchers hunting down some obscure subtlety.

As ground-breaking as this is, an obvious drawback is that very few books lend themselves to be transformed in this particular manner. But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss its relevance. For far too long we’ve been asking ourselves what the next big idea will be. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the future isn’t about a single all-encompassing idea but many ideas, pushing in many different directions. For such a future, however, tech companies will have to stop thinking in terms of delivering a single, clear-cut solution, and instead think in terms of platforms capacious enough to allow different authors, designers, and publishers push the envelope in their own ways, on their own terms.

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