Tools for Thought as Cultural Systems, not Computational Objects

The written version of my talk on seeing tools for thought in historical perspective

Assumed Audience

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

The phrase appears on the landing page of every hot new note-taking app:

The phrase was first used by Kenneth Iverson in their 1979 paper . Howard Rheingold picked it as the title of their 1985 book – a speculative history of how computing might unfold throughout the 1990's.

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.

There's something odd in the way people are currently using the term though.

If we take the phrase at face value, as anything that helps humans think different kinds of thoughts, the list of historical examples should certainly include:

  • Written language
  • Hindu-arabic numeral system
  • The Socratic Method
  • The Scientific Method
  • Data visualisations
  • Spreadsheets
  • Cartesian coordinates

All of these things pre-date digital computers by at least a few hundred years (if not thousands).

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