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."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.
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.