Document as machine

Machine (noun): an apparatus consisting of interrelated parts with separate functions, used in the performance of some kind of work.

Yesterday’s post got me thinking of active documents as machines. By “active document”, I mean the sort of document you sometimes find on the Web, where parts of the document are able to interact with you and with the world, changing over time and in response to user actions.

My post yesterday was an example of that. The diagram on the left was a simulation of a human face. The diagram on the right consisted of a set of sliders. User interaction with the diagram on the right caused active changes to the diagram on the left.

That document is, in effect, a machine with two separate but interrelated parts. Clearly there is data flowing behind the scenes from the diagram on the right to the one on the left.

The user understands intuitively that this data connection exists, even though it is not immediately visible. By its very visual design, this is a machine that is asking to be used.

This ontological framing of an active document as a machine can be very useful, because it immediately prompts us to ask certain questions: What are the component parts of that machine, and what is the nature of the work it is performing? And I think these are exactly the right questions to ask.

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