Democratizing Text: Multiplicities, Bicycles for the Mind, and Neurological Pluralism

David Sparks commented on my piece on contextual computing with these thoughtful words on democratizing text.

There is a movement afoot to democratize text and hyperlinking on the web, in apps, and across our computers. For the longest time we’ve been spinning our wheels using computer data (particularly words) as digital approximations of the printed words that came before them. That needs to change. Using hyperlinking and contextual computing, we take the written word (and the underlying paradigm about how we work on a computer) from one dimension and convert it to three dimensions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself and I truly believe dynamic, bi-directional linking across files and apps can dramatically improve the way we use our computers and develop our days. It is the way for computers to truly serve the role as “bicycles for the mind“.

Source: The Growing Movement for Hyperlinking and Contextual Computing – MacSparky

I really like the invocation of “bicycles for the mind”. I want a future of text that enables accessibility, positive niche construction, and differentiated instruction in service to neurological pluralism. “Bicycles for the mind” is useful framing to get us there.

ANI launched its online list, ANI-L, in 1994. Like a specialized ecological niche, ANI-L had acted as an incubator for Autistic culture, accelerating its evolution. In 1996, a computer programmer in the Netherlands named Martijn Dekker set up a list called Independent Living on the Autism Spectrum, or InLv. People with dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, and a myriad of other conditions (christened “cousins” in the early days of ANI) were also welcome to join the list. InLv was another nutrient-rich tide pool that accelerated the evolution of autistic culture. The collective ethos of InLv, said writer and list member Harvey Blume in the New York Times in 1997, was “neurological pluralism.” He was the first mainstream journalist to pick up on the significance of online communities for people with neurological differences. “The impact of the Internet on autistics,” Blume predicted, “may one day be compared in magnitude to the spread of sign language among the deaf.”

Source: The neurodiversity movement: Autism is a minority group. NeuroTribes excerpt.

“Writing is the path to power for those born without power.” We’ve seen that in neurodiversity, disability, and other self-advocacy communities. That’s a big reason why “Multiplicities are an intention: We build the best collaboration, the deepest learning, when we expand the opportunities for complex vision.”

Writing is too important because, though forms and structures will differ, writing is the path to power for those born without power. This importance lies not in how to write a “five‐paragraph essay” or a “compare and contrast” book review but in the capability to clearly communicate visions both personal and collaborative. Whether the work is a tweet that generates action when that is needed, or a text message to an employer, or the ability to convince others in the political realm, or the expression of one’s identity in a form that evokes empathy in those without similar experience, “communicating” “well” is a social leveler of supreme importance.

In both cases, methodology become less important than process. Our students read on paper, or through audio books, or through text‐to‐speech, or by watching video, or by seeing theater – or by observing their world. They write with pens, keyboards large and small, touchscreens, or by dictating to their phones or computers, or by recording audio, or by making videos, or by writing plays or creating art, or playing music. We do not limit the work by attacking those with disabilities or even inabilities – or even other preferences, because that robs children of both important influences and of their individual voices. Multiplicities are an intention: We build the best collaboration, the deepest learning, when we expand the opportunities for complex vision.

Thus we begin by moving the teaching of writing from the training of a specific skill set toward an interpersonal art form that flows from students and builds communities. Then, through the reimagining of teaching places into “learning spaces,” we craft “studios” where all the technologies of school – time, space, tools, pedagogies – liberate and inspire rather than deliver and test. Then, using those recrafted technologies, we allow communication learning to flow.

Source: Socol, Ira. Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools (Kindle Locations 3725-3739). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Written communication is the great social equalizer.” Our future of text must respect pluralism and multiplicities. “Digital approximations of the printed words that came before them” often compromise that future. So much of what I see from school is inaccessible in some way. Page-based word processors dominate education while many who write for a living or a hobby are using portable, accessible, and increasingly ubiquitous Markdown, a now 16-year-old technology.

At the 2013 Computers & Writing conference, we (Derek & Tim) started talking about the broad Markdown affinity space: Podcasts, blogs, self-published books, and social media conversations. We were particularly interested in the absence of these conversations within our field. How could a nearly ten-years-old writing technology continue to grow in professional and enthusiast spaces but also be largely absent among those who teach and research writing?

Source: Writing Workflows | Introduction

“Methodology become less important than process.” The answer is not to prescribe Markdown but to support multiplicities, process, and flow. That’s part of the magic of Markdown and plain text and hyperlinks.

I spend a lot of time in text editors. Almost everything I write starts in my favorite text editor. A text editor is my thinking space. It is a place for moving around blocks and tinkering with parts. It is a place to explore my mind and write it the way I want it to read. Iteration and ideation happen in my editor. My notes are not just a record of my thinking process, they are my thinking process. Text editors are extensions of mind that facilitate thinking.

All of this happens in beautiful, wonderful plain text.

Source: Writing in Education and Plain Text Flow

What Sparks and many other proponents of distraction-free applications or Markdown syntax are pointing toward is the importance of workflows that “regulate thought and affect and channel attention and action” (Prior & Shipka 2003, 228). They are pointing to workflows that produce (and are produced by) mental states that support writers in whatever activity they seek to accomplish. For these writers, designing a workflow means crafting a digital environment responsive to physical conditions that supports and helps bring about concentration, focus, creativity, and many other states. Any tour through writing advice from the past one hundred years or so will cover some of the same ground: writers who have morning rituals, who use particular (physical) tools, who depend on specific brands of notebooks for incubation and invention. What we want to point to with these case studies is, first, the benefit of attending more carefully to the role of digital tools and environments and, second, the inseparability of these workflows for writing activity. Workflows aren’t activities that simply precede writing, make writing easier, or make it more enjoyable. Workflows may involve those aspects, but we are suggesting something broader and more foundational: workflows, as we define them here, are what writing activity is made of.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 3

My macOS Keyboard Flow

This lists some of the hotkeys and applications that constitute my core productivity flow on macOS.

My workflow is very plain text and Markdown heavy.

I’m a text and information worker, and these are some of my tools.


HyperKarabiner Elements maps my Caps Lock key to Cmd+Ctl+Opt+Shift. This serves as my Hyper key. It also serves as an escape key when pressed and released (as opposed to using it as a modifier in a chord with other keys). This dual behavior is very useful. Launching with a Hyper key chord and then dismissing with the Hyper key is nice flow. If you have an app or miniwindow that doesn’t dismiss when it’s hotkey is pressed again, try putting it on a dual behavior Hyper key so you don’t have to reach for Escape or Cmd+w.

<KM> – This indicates the keybinding is handled by Keyboard Maestro, a favorite workflow automation tool.






  • Hyper+h, Hyper+v = Paste from HTML <KM>
  • Hyper+u = Clip web browser selection to Ulysses <KM>
  • Hyper+l = Markdown Link from Front Browser, Markdown Link from Selected URL, Markdown Source: Link from Front Browser, Markdown Source: Link from Selected URL <KM>
  • Hyper+c = Copy as Markdown | Copy as HTML | Copy as Rich Text <KM>
  • Hyper+q = Blockquote selected text <KM>


  • Hyper+↑ = Fullscreen document <KM>


  • Hyper+delete = Kill entire line <KM>
  • Ctl+s = Select current line <KM>
  • Hyper+c = Paste selection into last application <KM>
  • Option+esc = Speak selected text


  • Cmd+Ctl+Opt+m = Share task[s] via Messages <KM>


Workspaces & Windows

  • Cmd+tab = SuperTab app switcher
  • Cmd+Ctl+Opt+h = Hide all applications <KM>

Workflow Thinking and Purposeful Friction

By stepping away from the familiar and searching for potential friction points, however, a writer can better understand how particular tools or formats shape and structure their work.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

I’m a few chapters in and enjoying the pre-peer review draft of “Writing Workflows: Beyond Word Processing”. It looks at the workflows of three writers who work like I do: Markdown, plain text, and lots of automation and tool experimentation.

The book “introduces the concepts of workflow and workflow thinking as a way to describe, analyze, and share mediated approaches to writing and knowledge work.” I like their “workflow thinking” concept. I’ll work it into my post on Writing in Education and Plain Text Flow where I advocate for plain text and a workflow approach to writing in education.

From our participants’ practices we draw the concept of workflow thinking-the act of reading knowledge work as modular and intertwined with technologies. Workflow thinking allows our participants to break any given project into a series of shorter process steps-a perspective that is well in line with rhetoric and composition’s understanding of process and its typical pedagogical practices. Workflow thinking, however, foregrounds the mediated nature of that work. It looks at each task or component and asks a question of the writing technologies and available affordances within that component: “Through which technologies will I accomplish this task? Why? What does a change in technologies offer here?” For our participants, a shift in these practices might afford them mobility or the removal of drudgery or new ways of seeing a problem or new invention strategies. In each case, however, they are able to use this mediated and modular thinking to reevaluate when and how they approach knowledge work.

This book offers workflow thinking as a counterpoint to contemporary discussions of digital writing technologies-particularly in regards to the increasing prominence of institutional software. As more universities sign on to site licenses for platforms like Office 365 and Google Apps for Education, and as more students and faculty become comfortable with working within those applications, writers risk a “cementing” of practice-a means through which writing tasks begin and end in institutionally-sanctioned software because it is free or pre-installed or institutionally available or seen as a shared software vocabulary. A lens of workflow thinking pushes against this, instead asking “what are the component pieces of this work?” and “how is this mediated?” and “what might a shift in mediation or technology afford me in completing this?” In short, we see workflow thinking as a way to reclaim agency and to push against institutionally-purchased software defaults. This perspective has origins in early humanities computing (particularly in 1980s research on word processors), as we will more fully discuss later in this chapter.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

I also like their concept of friction, particularly purposeful friction.

In offering the concept of workflow thinking, we diverge from the business & systems-focused concept of the workflow (one that is often used by our participants) in suggesting that workflow thinking should not privilege efficiency above all else. Just as there are compelling outcomes to automating a mundane computing task via a program or script, there are also compelling outcomes to purposefully introducing constraints to a modular workflow component—for example, writing a draft in crayon (Wysocki, 2004)—and purposefully introducing friction into process.

Source: Writing Workflows | Introduction

These writers are constantly reexamining their processes, looking at the potential of mediating technologies, and searching for friction-places where they think there’s a better way to accomplish a task, where they find unnecessary steps in a process, or where they describe software as getting in their way. Workflows allow them to search for and eliminate friction, better matching writing tools to the writer’s affective preferences and creating new ways of seeing and doing knowledge work.

The concept of friction offers one possible explanation for Word’s ascent and the general disappearance of word processing research. Friction is most noticeable when first adopting a new piece of software, as each task seems to take longer than it should. Once software is familiar and process is routinized, friction fades to the background. And once it seems normal, a specific use case isn’t frictional-it’s simply the way the software works. Over time, that friction melds into a user’s everyday interaction with the computer. (This is one way in which our participants deviate from typical computing patterns; they seek out and read for moments of friction.)

Word’s familiarity and ubiquity means that many writers can use it without problem; any perceived friction recedes to the background as a part of a typical use case. This familiarity serves a purpose, “as people prefer their technologies transparent: they do not like to think about the features of their word processors any more than they like to think about shifting gears in an automobile, and they prefer to look through a given technology to the task at hand” (Haas, 1996, p. 25). The narrowing of the word processor market facilitated this perspective-moving (to follow Haas’s analogy) writing software from a manual to automatic transmission. Today, many writers open Word, step on the gas, and go. Moving out of this mindset, as Haas argues, “entail[s] looking at, rather than through, the literacy technologies we use every day. This will be difficult, and indeed not always practical. In the conduct of most work it is important to be able to treat technology transparently; after all, we have classes to teach, books to write, and children to raise” (p. 23). Said simply: To study friction is to reintroduce friction into writing. Word became transparent and useful, and the word processor lost its luster as an object of inquiry.

For participants in the workflow affinity space, searching for friction means identifying and eliminating moments when software gets in the way. They might recommend that writers step back from familiar software and consider how friction has become normalized in day-to-day use cases.

Word will appear to be a frictionless technology until Word is no longer a readily available tool. Then, when Word files aren’t easy to open, friction will reappear. By stepping away from the familiar and searching for potential friction points, however, a writer can better understand how particular tools or formats shape and structure their work.

There is also a way to see friction as generative by purposefully introducing it to one’s process through difficult or troublesome technologies. This approach to friction departs from the efficiency-minded priorities of the writers we profile in this book, but it aligns well with the creative and inventive priorities of many writing pedagogies. This might look something like Anne Wysocki’s (2004) writing assignment that suggests instructors “give students a short (1-2 page) writing assignment-and then ask them to turn in the assignment written in crayon (any color or colors) on any paper” (p. 27). Crayons, in an academic context, are pure friction; they are difficult to work with, they smear, they can look messy or unprofessional, and they subvert expectations. However, the friction imposed by crayons might help a writer better understand mediation and see their work in a new way. This friction can be inventive and productive, and it aligns with Marcus’s invisible writing exercise: Swapping monitors won’t help a writer produce a polished draft, but it might help them generate ideas or see their work in new ways. It is purposeful friction.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

In the introduction, the authors ask a question I’ve wondered about regarding the continued dominance of page-based word processing in education while so many hackers, writers, scientists, and screenwriters are using Markdown, a now 14 year old technology.

At the 2013 Computers & Writing conference, we (Derek & Tim) started talking about the broad Markdown affinity space: Podcasts, blogs, self-published books, and social media conversations. We were particularly interested in the absence of these conversations within our field. How could a nearly ten-years-old writing technology continue to grow in professional and enthusiast spaces but also be largely absent among those who teach and research writing?

Source: Writing Workflows | Introduction

I put some of my favorite quotes from the book on my microblog. I’ll add more as I proceed through the book and digest.