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Tools for Thought

Last updated Oct 30, 2021 Edit Source

“When designing new tools for thought, let’s think not just in terms of features, but materials – what software laws of physics do we want embodiments of our thoughts to obey?

Related: Extended Mind Hypothesis, Networked thought, interaction design


  1. How can we create tools that aid our thinking?
  2. As an extension, how do we organize the abundance of information we have today so that it is both accessible and useful?
  3. How do we distill all the research debt so that our ideas are easily useful to others?
  4. How can we make mixed media first-class? Allow drawing, images, and video? Bring back the overhead projector!

Can we do this on a browser-level rather than just a standalone app? Building in curius.app-esque support, annotations, note-taking, etc. Minimize context switching

# Word Charcuterie Board

Is there any way to rearrange the fuzzy cloud of ideas in our head easily on paper/screens?

How can we ‘cut’ text without being afraid of it being lost forever? Even with tools like the undo button and Git revision history, the actions of the past are by default hidden. Time is not first class.

On memory and lost knowledge

If a tree fell and nobody remembered, did it really happen?

Very 1984-line-of-thought but those who control the past, how we remember and what history is, controls the present and thus controls the future.

Our tools of memory should be democratized and public. These tools are a public good. They are, quite literally, the infrastructure for mental representations and operations. These are the patterns the dictate our very mental processes.

# Memex

Source by Vannevar Bush

device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it can be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.

Bush envisioned the memex behaving like an “intricate web of trails” similar to the function of the human mind, which he believed works by a method of “association” and not via an alphabetical index. According to Levy (2008, 508), the most “innovative feature” of Bush’s memex system was the establishing of associative indices between portions of microfilmed text—what we now call hypertext links—so that researchers could follow trails of useful information through masses of literature.

Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion.

# Kernel

Source: Remember in Kernel

We live in an information age. The amount of data we produce far outweighs what we consume, so much so that its extended far beyond our ability to make meaningful use of it.

“There is a growing mountain of research [but we] cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, all the conclusions of others as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial […]

A record should be able to be

  1. continuously extended
  2. stored
  3. consulted (e.g. through search)

Right now, most organizing systems are really good at 1) and 2) but suck at 3).

We’re trying to build tools that allow association between ideas easily, relying on relations and relatedness without forcing hierarchies or classification straight away. Then, the path through these ideas can be thought of as ‘user trails’.

# Chunking

We naturally group things into patterns and chunks and allow us to think on and rationalize at higher levels of abstraction, descending into lower levels only when we need to.

This was demonstrated by chess masters in the 1970’s: “Players learn to recognize somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000 patterns of chess pieces. These much more elaborate ‘chunks’ are combinations of pieces that the players perceive as a unity, and are able to reason about at a higher level of abstraction than the individual pieces”

Is it possible to automatically pick up repeated digital desire paths of user trails and pull them into workflows? take advantage of natural spaced repetition to identify saliency

The focus of modern information systems is moving from “data-processing” towards “concept-processing”, meaning that the basic unit of processing is less and less an atomic piece of data and is becoming more a semantic concept which caries an interpretation and exists in a context with other concepts.

Source: Automated knowledge discovery in advanced knowledge management

Are there ways to ‘breadcrumb’ how we navigate? Even something as simple as option+click to leave a crumb and when finishing a session, you can save parts of the trail as a flow.

# Spatial

Can we create spatial reminders that adhere to their contexts? Sticky notes for our mind? A reminder in certain notes to come back later and add to it, etc. Can we build memory palaces? Spatial representations of information? (See https://nototo.app/)

# Emotion

Video is incredibly expressive. You can feel the passion of people who really care about the things they study, build, and work on.

Is it possible to create mediums for thought that convey ‘awe and mystery and surprise and beauty’? I really hope so.

# Execution

Can we embed computation into our notes? Create APIs out of our thoughts and concepts? Compose theorems just as easily as we chain function calls?

# Activism

Source: On Gathering, Mindy Seu

Memory work of this sort is also a form of activism. Whose memories are saved and retold to future generations?

After a conversation, all parties maintain ownership of what transpired, and they continue to hold ties to one another. This form of storytelling is not predetermined, but develops through its unfolding.

# Mediums versus Tools

Linus Lee on Browsers as Tools of Thought

A tool is something that takes an existing workflow, and makes it more efficient. A nail is an efficient way of holding pieces of wood together; a to-do app is an efficient way of remembering your responsibilities. A medium, on the other hand, gives us new agency or power by which we can do something we couldn’t do before.

The best mediums are instead collections of generic, multi-purpose components that mesh together well

# Tasting Notes

Robin Sloan shares his recipe for taking notes that spark novels

But the interesting thing about Robin is he doesn’t look at these things as bricks exactly. They don’t combine together in predictable, linear ways.

Instead, Robin’s notes are more like ingredients—deep yellow saffron, Ceylon cinnamon, black garlic, and white truffle—bits of the world that he throws together into a pot and covers with a heavy lid. He turns up the heat, he adds salt to taste—until out comes a story.

# On inventing new containers

I describe myself as a ‘media inventor’, which I know sounds like a strange label. To me, it means that a lot of my work – not really my novels, but almost everything else – involves inventing a format or container at the same time that I’m writing or imagining what goes into it.