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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 ideaslike 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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