After Trying To "Kill Math," An Ex-Apple Designer Aims To Kill Reading

Bret Victor thinks that text itself should be as interactive as graphics or apps. And he's built an open-source Javascript library to help the idea catch on.

If you thought I was hard on Microsoft’s "Future of Productivity" video, read interface designer Bret Victor’s take on it (money quote: "Are we going to accept an Interface Of The Future that’s less expressive than a sandwich?"). Victor, a former designer at Apple, is a guy who thinks big about UIs and builds working prototypes of his ideas--like his "Kill Math" project, which replaces abstruse differential equations with intuitive interactive visualizations. His latest creation, called Tangle, is an attempt to redesign the "interface" commonly known as the written word--and reinvent the experience of reading text online.


[A screenshot of a reactive document: When you drag the cursor on the chart at the bottom, all the figures change. The math has been programmed into the interaction, so that all of these formulas are alive. Click to view interactive version.]

Victor calls his concept "reactive documents," and the basic idea is that digital text should leverage the inherent interactivity of the web--turning written arguments into "apps" that the reader can manipulate and test, instead of just consume. But instead of doing this with fancy infographics or chrome, Victor uses Javascript to embed interactivity into plain-text sentences, phrases, even individual words. In his prototype "Ten Brighter Ideas", Victor turns 10 written arguments for energy conservation into "explorable explanations." For example, mousing over an assertion about "turning off the lights" launches a written premise: "Suppose 20% of US households always turned off lights in unoccupied rooms." The statistic "20%" looks like a normal hyperlink, but clicking it invokes a tiny sparkline-like slider that the reader can move back and forth, increasing or decreasing the numerical value--which then changes every other written assertion following from that premise, live and interactively.

The appeal of Victor’s system is hard to explain--it makes much more sense if you just try it out--but the thinking behind it is visionary. "Imagine a world where we expect every claim to be accompanied by an explorable analysis, and every statistic to be linked to a primary source," he writes. With "reactive documents," critical reading--and by extension, critical thinking--becomes an interactive process. We don’t just read a document; we can also use it, exploring the limits of and connections between ideas by physically manipulating the properties of the information behind them.

And since the whole point of fusing interaction design, programming, and writing in this way is to make communication more transparent, Victor created the open-source Javascript library called Tangle so that anybody (well, anybody with basic coding knowledge) can create or tweak their own "reactive documents." And making or reading one doesn’t have anything to do with pretty fonts, fancy animations, or proprietary algorithms. In Victor’s vision, the millennia-old "interface" of the written word remains unchanged. It’s simply enhanced--because "digital documents aren’t subject to the constraints of paper."

Will the future of writing and reading online be forged by writer/programmers and reader/users inspired by visions like Victor’s? I’m not sure, but after seeing "reactive documents" in action, I’m already wishing that every op-ed writer and journalist at the New York Times would start using Tangle. Hey, they’ve got an R&D lab over there--maybe they should think about collaborating with Victor before he wins a MacArthur genius grant.

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17 Comments

  • Christiansen If

    I wish I can use this open-source to explain a verrryyy complex idea which is Graphic Design related to finance. Notthingham Trent University UK.

  • Giulio Menna

    Mentioned this in my New Media and Society essay in the Book and Digital Media course at Leiden University :)

  • lindsay1988

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  • Daniel

    This is a brilliant idea. I wouldn't have struggled so much with some of my physics and calculus books if they had had this kind of interactivity. The charts and physics of the screenshot, for example, are pretty advanced. Here you can see what happens when you play with the values without having to do a ton of problems (with pencil and paper.) This tool feeds my curiosity. 

  • Tomlebree

    I think he is actually trying to improve understanding, not kill reading - that
    is, as headlines go, pure sensationalism. In simple terms this service gives you more to read. Not less.

  • Ken Stein

    When we take in a web page, or more generally a page of information, we aren't privy to the process by which the author selected the information. It seems like Bret wants authors to illuminate the process by which they select for the information to present.  If true, then we ought to be providing authors the ability to present their content creation process with a selected amount of 'resolution' where 'resolution' is temporal.  Show only the results you get a blog.  Show everything from conception to results you get a documentary.  Involve an audience in real time and you have something new.  That's what we're developing at Postjockey.com.  Take a look sometime and if you inquire, I'll provide you a beta account.  Thanks.

  • Basimerly

    Of course he is harder on it, he is an ex apple guy.  Its been a long time since Ive seen any critical takes on an apple product on Fast company, anything more than a tidbit here or there.  Yet, I was in the Apple store in Georgetown D.C. last week and sure enough, it was packed on a Wednesday night and person after person from many walks of life kept on having serious problems with their products, and the blue man group looking employees continually had no solutions other than set up an appointment and wait three hours to three days.  Luckily we only had to wait two hours to see someone about my girlfriends iphone (her appointment was at 6, we were seen by 8...).  I own an iPhone as well, and I love it ! ( for the record though, I am a PC guy, hate mac) , but come on Fast Company didn't South Park already make a smug level episode ?    Enough Apple smug on Fast Company, if you want to be an Apple magazine, just name yourselves that.  Otherwise try some balanced reporting. 

  • Charlie Seto

    It requires us to move beyond paper. Or wait for the much-waited-for-e-paper, which would require local storage, central processing and RAM on a sheet of paper.

  • Rochardben

    I think the banking/lending industries could make use of this function. It would really help people visualize the impact of interest rates.

  • Missoulagrace

    This is a really cool, and potentially very useful, tool, especially as people seem to continue to lose the ability to intuit when it comes to math. I do think that this is, essentially, a MATH tool-- albeit one embedded in "word problems"-- not a "reading killer."

  • BetterBio

    Hi John! This article has me super-excited and prepared to brush up on my Java.

    Please follow up sometime with cool ways people are using it - thanks!