The Expression Revolution

So you are sitting there, with a cup of tea in hand looking out into the future nebulous dust clouds of human progress. With the warm waters of the 20th century receding from the shore, the novelty of electricity, automobiles, financial innovation, telecommunications and globalization are waning. What, you ponder as your cuppa cools, will be the big next thing?

And then you realize, maybe it’ll be the same thing that has driven human history since history began: new and better means of expressing ideas.

Take a look through the tunnel of human evolution to see what I mean. First, watch us humans grunt and point. Then speak. Then draw on cave walls. We developed writing. Craft. Jewelry. Theater, music and dance. The printing press, the personal computer and Word Processor, TV and recorded music. Photographs. YouTube. At each step, our ability to express ideas advanced, and so have we.

Web 1.0 and 2.0 connected us better to each other. I expect the next wave of technical innovations will allow us to express ourselves to those connections better.

Good expression does three things: it lets us develop our ideas (like using a pencil to solve a math problem), share those ideas, and develop ideas together.

The Expression Revolution will cover all three. For instance, imagine what the following ideas could do:

  • Stretchable Paper. Often you take notes or draw a picture and want to tuck in an extra item or bullet point. Imagine if you could just stretch the paper and create that space, like writing on pizza dough? Or if you run out of room at the bottom, just pull and there would be more writing surface. Limitless imagination!
  • Scrolls. Perhaps the quickest way to fix the problem of the constraints of the letter-size sheet is to go back to the original: a scroll. If we printed on scrolls, we would be unconstrained (in one dimension at least) without having to worry about pages breaking across tables for instance. The “story” aspect of our tales would be more intuitive and memorable. Scrolls have a natural flow to them that a stack of pages lacks.
  • Infinite Paper. The screen you are reading this email on is inherently limiting. How often have you had to artificially split up an Excel table or a PowerPoint slide or 360 view just to fit it on a page? Projection technologies will no doubt become more popular in the coming years, which allow us to fill whatever surface we have information.
  • Excel for Anyone. Dear Microsoft: Excel is a programming language, not a communication language. Trying to read someone else’s financial model in Excel (or anything actually) is like trying to surf the web by reading pages of HTML code. Think about it: how often have you received an email with an Excel attachment that you glanced, opened, and then shut quickly before actually looking through it? One reason I think Excel is so horribly unreadable is that each data point really should show 3 things: the name (e.g. Revenue in 2011), the value ($100), and how it was calculated (=5 items x $20/item). Instead it just shows one and asks you to perform small acrobatics of looking up cell B47 to figure out where it came from. Worse: if you copy and paste an Excel into a presentation or print it out, all you usually see is the value of a cell and maybe a row/column heading with a short name so it fits in the character-limited column width. The logic of the calculations is completely hidden. If you could design a display method that makes those calculations and the numbers they generate easy to read and understand, you could significantly increase the number of people who could catch problems, collaborate on developing hypotheses and inputs, and evaluate the results. Could a better Excel have prevented the financial crisis? I wonder…
  • Autofill Pictures. You want to draw something but your artistic skills are, er, limited. This technology would let you indicate what you want to draw and draw it better than you could, the way that architects or police investigation sketchers do.
  • Easy Animation. So much meaning is conveyed by the order in which ideas are expressed, as anyone who has played Pictionary knows. How much better to send a file that easily plays for you, for instance drawing a picture live, filling in an Excel sheet line by line, or adding text? Many have tried, but the winning solution still awaits (I’m looking at you, Adobe).
  • Danceable Music. We dance to music; what if it flipped, and music were created by how we danced, maybe via XBox Kinect? Dance Dance Revolution indeed.
  • Drawing Class. And while such assistive technologies are helpful, another way to improve expression is through skills: going to school. I wished they taught us how to draw in my MBA: how to sketch realistic-seeming objects, that made things clearly understood, and looking good… Being able to draw a powerful picture is worth a thousand words. And no, PowerPoint SmartArt isn’t drawing.
  • And many more…

Stanford just published an article about how the Humanities are reasserting themselves at a school known so much for tech startups. I wouldn’t worry so much, Stanford: humanities-based starts up will soon have their day too, as we look to get better at dancing, drawing, writing, translating, arguing, and acting out our ideas.

If this Aabservation didn’t strike a chord with you, I’m not concerned. In a few years, I’ll use these new tools to rewrite it as a song, and bet that’ll help you sing along.

Until then, all the best, via Arial 10 pt font,