TITLE: Formatting Text for Readability AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 24, 2007 7:48 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Technology Changes, Humans Don't Gaping Void ran the cartoon at the right last weekend, which is interesting, given that several of my recent entries have dealt with a similar theme. Technology may change, but humans -- at least our hard-wiring -- don't. We should take into account how humans operate when we work with them, whether in security, software development, or teaching. In another coincidence, I recently came across a very cool paper, Visual-Syntactic Text Formatting: A New Method to Enhance Online Reading. We programmers spend an awful lot of time talking about indenting source code: how to do it, why to do it, tools for doing it, and so on. Languages such as Python require a particular sort of indentation. Languages such Scheme and Common Lisp depend greatly on indentation; the programming community has developed standards that nearly everyone follows and, by doing so, programmers can understand code whose preponderance of parentheses would otherwise blind them. But the Walker paper is the first time I have ever read about applying this idea to text. Here is an example. This:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary
for one people to dissolve the political bands which have
connected them with another, and to assume among the powers
of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the
Laws of Nature...
might become:
When in the Course
        of human events,
    it becomes necessary
        for one people
          to dissolve the political bands
            which have
              connected them with another,
          and to assume
              among the powers
                of the earth,
            the separate and equal station
              to which
                the Laws of Nature
Cognitively, this may make great sense, if our minds can process and understand text better presented when it is presented structurally. The way we present text today isn't much different in format than when we first started to write thousands of years ago, and perhaps it's time for a change. We shouldn't feel compelled to stay with a technology for purely historical reasons when the world and our understanding of it have advanced. (Like the world of accounting has with double-entry bookkeeping.) For those of you who are still leery of such a change, whether for historical reasons, aesthetic reasons, or other personal reasons... First of all, you are in good company. I was once at a small session with Kurt Vonnegut, and he spoke eloquently of how the book as we know it now would never disappear, because there was nothing like the feel of paper on your fingertips, the smell of a book when you open its fresh pages for the first time. I did not believe him then, and I don't think even he believed that deep in his heart; it is nothing more than projecting our own experiences and preferences onto a future that will surely change. But I know just how he felt, and I see my daughters' generation already experiencing the world in a much richer, technology-mediated way than Vonnegut or I have. Second, don't worry. Even if what Walker and his colleagues describe becomes a standard, I expect a structured presentation to simply be one view on the document out of many possible views. As an old fogey, I might prefer to read my text in the old paragraph-structured way, but I can imagine that having a syntactically-structured view would make it much easier to scan a document and find something more easily. Once I find the passage of interest, I could toggle back to a paragraph-structured view and read to my hearts content. And who knows; I might prefer reading text that is structured differently, if only I have the chance. Such toggling between views is possible because of... computer science! The same theory and techniques that make it possible to do this at all makes it possible to do however you like. Indeed, I'll be teaching many of the necessary techniques this fall, as a part of building the "front end to a program compiler. The beauty of this science is that we are no longer limited by someone else's preferences, or by someone else's technology. As I often mention here, this is one of the great joys of being a computer scientist: you can create your own tools. We can now see this technology making it out to general public. I can see the MySpace generation switching to new ways of reading text immediately. If it makes us better readers, and more prolific readers, then we will have a new lens on an old medium. Computer science is a medium-maker. Of course, this particular project is just a proposal and in the early stages of research. Whether it is worth pursuing in its current form, or at all, depends on further study. But I'm glad someone is studying this. The idea questions assumptions and historical accident, and it uses what we have learned from cognitive science and medical science to suggest a new way to do something fundamental. As I said, very cool. -----