Tools for Thought as Cultural Practices, not Computational Objects

On seeing tools for thought through a historical and anthropological lens

Assumed Audience

People familiar with the tools for thought, personal knowledge management, and notetaking space / twitterverse

There are meetups and research groups and thought leaders. But more than anything, people are using the term to describe a new class of software. Tools for thought is now a category tag in the databases of venture capital firms. The phrase appears on the landing page of every hot new note-taking app:

Even when it doesn't appear verbatim, we can see it in the subtext. These tools are here to help you “think better,” and achieve “networked thought”.

These software apps appear to have a clear vision of what a "tool for thought" is. It appears to involve writing notes, connecting them to one another, exploring dynamic views, and then experiencing a kind of emergent wisdom. An enchanting promise.

Yet there's something paradoxical here; the phrase itself and the way we're collectively using it feel misaligned. Taken at face value, the phrase tool for thought doesn't have the word 'computer' or 'digital' anywhere in it. It suggests nothing about software systems or interfaces. It's simply meant to refer to tools that help humans think thoughts; potentially new, different, and better kinds of thoughts than we currently think.

While this might seem like a dumb rhetorical question, what does any of this have to do with computers?

I think it's a question worth answering explicitly and comprehensively. If only to make clear to ourselves why we currently consider apps that allow you to link notes together the epitome of a tool for thought.

What is a tool for thought?

We're a bit too early in the establishment of this concept for anyone to have written a canonical definition yet. And like all significantly complex ideas, any proposed ones will be contested and controversial.

We can, however, get a rough estimation by looking at descriptions from some of the key texts we pass around the community:

“A context in which the user can have new kinds of thought, thoughts that were formerly impossible for them”

Andy Matuschak & Michael NeilsonHow can we develop transformative tools for thought? (2019)

“A means of increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems.”

Douglas EnglebartAugmenting Human Intellect (1962)

“The very use of it would actually change the thought patterns of an entire civilization”

Alan KayUser Interface: A Personal View (1989)

Looking a these, it's easy to think of plenty of examples from human history of tools for thought that fit the bill. Here's a brief list:

  1. Written language3200 BCE
  2. Drawing~73,000 years ago
  3. Maps700 BCE
  4. Hindu-arabic numerals400 BCE
  5. Epic poetry as oral history~2000 BCE
  6. The socratic method500 BCE
  7. The scientific method1000~1400 BCE
  8. Cartesian coordinates1637
  9. Zettelkastens1500s
  10. Aboriginal songlines~60,000 years ago
  11. Spreadsheets
  12. Data visualisation1785

We can debate the degree to which each of these examples fits our understanding of a “tool for thought”. But I'd argue they each profoundly transform the kinds of thoughts humans are able to think. They expand our cognitive abilities and allow us to solve problems that would otherwise be unsolvable.

It might feel strange to call some of these things “tools”. The scientific and socratic methods seem more like techniques for problem-solving. While drawing and writing are surely mediums or representations of ideas rather than “tools”?

Part of this discomfort is a limitation of language. “Tool” is a tricky category that we most often associate with physical objects. But it can encompass everything from fire to a whittling knife to software development kits to democratic voting systems. We could spend time splitting hairs and trying to eliminate things from the category. Or we could choose to be generous in our definition and accept any object, cultural practice, technique, or medium that expands humans abilities as a tool.

Which gives us a mental model that looks something like this:

Of all the examples I listed above, I would put most of them in the “cultural practice and techniques” category. They certainly aren't objects. Some are certainly mediums; forms of representation such as writing and images. But mediums also require technique – you must be taught how to write before you can use the medium of written language.

They are primary ways of doing; what I would call cultural practices. They are specific ways of thinking and acting that result in greater cognitive abilities. Ones that people pass down to generation after generation through culture.

Every one of these also pre-dates digital computers by at least a few hundred years, if not thousands or tens of thousands. Given that framing, it's time to return to the question of how computation, software objects, and note-taking apps fit into this narrative.

The Computational Roots of Tools for Thought

“Tools for thought” as a concept and philosophical mission began in the heart of the personal computing and interface design scene of the 1960-1980's. The phrase has always been used in relation to a dream that is deeply intertwined with digital machines.

My simple interpreation of the term up to this point took the phrase at face value; devoid of its historical context.

Every person who has written about and extensively explored the term “tools for thought” in their work is a computer programmer of some variety; Kenneth Iverson, JCR Licklider, Alan Kay, Douglas Englebart, Bret Victor, and Howard Rheingold, among others.

The phrase was first used by Iverson in his research work on programming notation throughout the 1950s and 60s. His first public paper mentioning it is published by the ACM in 1979.

Howard Rheingold picked it as the title of their 1985 book – a speculative history of how computing might unfold throughout the 1990's.

The end of 2019 and 's 2019 essay on helped kick off the new popularity wave, as well as Andy's and writing advocating for TFT as a field.

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