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 "note-taking" space / twitterverse

There are and research groups and thought leaders and . 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 knowledge management 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 more”.

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 tool for thought is...

“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)

“A truly new medium [where] the very use of it would 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:

I would categorize most of the examples I listed above as cultural practices and techniques. They certainly aren't objects. Some are mediums; forms of communication and representation such as writing and images. But even mediums require technique – you must be taught how to write before you can use the medium of written language.

They are primary ways of doing; 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

My simple interpretation of “tools for thought” up to this point takes the phrase at face value – devoid of any historical context. Any sincere and holistic exporation of the phrase has to consider who came up with the term, and what particular cultural and historical contexts they were part of.

If you look around at the commonly cited “major thinkers” in this space, you get a list of computer programmers: Kenneth Iverson, JCR Licklider, Vannevar Bush, Alan Kay, Bob Taylor, Douglas Englebart, Seymour Papert, Bret Victor, and Howard Rheingold, among others.

I would be remiss not to point out all of these figures are male, white, from North America, and associated with various prestigious technical universities such as MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and UC Berkley. This demographic is so overwhelmingly consistent they're sometimes called the “patriarchs” of tools for thought.

This is relevant because it means these men share a lot of the same beliefs, values, and context. They know the same sorts of people, learned the same historical stories in school, and were taught to see the world in particular kinds of ways. Most of them literally worked together, or are at most 1 personal connection away from the next. Tools for thought is a community scene as much as it's a concept. It emerged out of the personal computing and interface design community in California between 1960 and the mid 1980's.

This gives tools for thought a distinctly computer-oriented, male, American, middle-class flavour. The term has always been used in relation to a dream that is deeply intertwined with both digital machines and white-collar knowledge work.

A Short Historical Tour of TFT

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

While Iverson was the first to give this idea a distinct name, others were already exploring many of the same themes using different language. J.C.R. Licklider's book presented the concept of a “thinking centre” and Vannevar Bush's

The terms “augmented intelligence” and “intelligence amplification” were also floating around. One of the more significant bodies of work using this kind of language is 's , published in 1962.

After Englebart's well-publicised presentations and writing made the rounds, many other thinkers became interested in the problem of expanding human reasoning with machines. Much of the relevant innovation happened at where thinkers like and built the foundations of modern personal computing. Kay's team chose to talk about it in terms of giving people “personal dynamic media” to think with. In his 1989 essay , Kay...

Much of this history is outlined in Howard Rheingold's 1985 book – an account of major innovations that led to the personal computer and the philsophical lineage of those building it.

I'll refrain from recounting the entire history here. My point is that all of these thinkers exclusively focus on computers as essential to enabling new ways of thinking. They aren't exploring how meditation, architecture, complementary medicine, or music composition might enable new kinds of thoughts. The computer is essential.

Now is a good time to point out plenty of people have used the phrase outside of the context of computers. C.H. Waddington published a book by the same name as Rheingold eight years earlier in 1977

Barbara Tversky has four decades of research on cognition, embodiment, and visualation where she repeatedly uses the term.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett published Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking in 2013

We'll return to these non-computational interpretations of “tools for thought” later on. They shouldn't be dismissed or cast as irrelevant to the narratives that computer nerds have written.

Computers as the Meta-medium

Is this particular focus on computers justified?

Alan Turing first called computers “universal reasoning machines” – machines capable of simulating many other kind of machines. General purpose machines expand what is possible. Computers as a meta-medium that can mimic all other kinds of mediums. They mimic paper and pencil, calculators, painting canvases...

Computers can dynamically simulate

It would be more accurate to rename tools for thought to computational mediums for thought. Or CMFT for short.

CMFT would actually be a subset of the larger field of tools for thought, since as we established earlier, the vast majority of historical tools for thought are not in the least bit computational.

[image of CMFT as a subset of TFT]

Which should make us pause to ask: Are CMFT's significantly different to other TFTs?

The Second Wave of Tools for Thought

A major narrative within the tools for thought community is the loss of historical progress. There's a lot of lamenting the historical break between the early pioneers of personal computing and the current state of computing. The nineties and early oughts are cast as the fallow times. While software “,” millions came online, and Windows 95 graced every desktop, this period is seen as a turn away from the original vision.

Bret Victor was the first to call attention to this historical gap in a series of talks between 2013 to 2015.

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.

Matuschak and Neilson's essay made a dent in the software development community.

Rise of the Note-takers

Around the end of 2019, as Matuschak and Neilson's essay is being passed around, we begin to see the rise of a few new "note-taking" apps. I put "note-taking" in quotations because the activity we're going to talk about here is only tangentially about taking notes, but we've all taken to using the idea of note-taking as a shorthand way to refer to it.

What we are talking about is software that allows people to enagage in a few key activities:

  • Write in a linear text format
  • Collect information
  • Store information
  • Search and find information
  • Connect information

Before this moment, the major players in the market are tools like Evernote, OneNote, Notion, and Apple Notes. There are plenty of smaller apps serving niche use cases. But there's a clear inflection point in mid-2020 in this field where the number and diversity of “note-taking” applications drastically increases. [need evidence for this claim]

is one of the central software characters in this story. In late 2019 and early 2020 the beta version gains a slew of new users

Obsidian comes out in xxxx. Logseq is released in xxxx. At this point it seems the floodgates are open.

In short order we get Clover, Craft, Remnote,, Scrintal, Heptabase, Reflect, Muse, Thunknotes, Kosmik, Fermat, and XXX.

There's a scramble to make sense of all these new releases and the differences between them. YouTube and Medium explode with DIY guides, walkthrough tours, and comparison videos. The productivity and knowledge management influencer is born.

[ giant wall of productivity youtube nonsense ]

The strange thing is, many of these guides are only superficially about the application they're presented in. Most are teaching specific cultural techniques:

Zettelkasten, spaced repetition, critical thinking.

These techniques are only focused on a narrow band of human activity. Specifically activity that white-collar knowledge workers engage in.

I previously sugegsted we should rename TFT to CMFT (computational mediums for thought), but that doesn't go far enough. If we're being honest about our current interpretation of TFT's, we should actually rename it to CMFWCKW – computational mediums for white-collar knowledge work.

Thinking Beyond Note-taking

  • Forecasting and prediction markets

    • Guesstimate
    • Squiggle
  • Better critical reasoning

    • Socratic debate
  • Audio and visual

    • Photoshop
    • MaxMSP
    • Logic Pro
      • Jacob Collier streams
  • Game dev and dynamics

    • Houdini
    • Blueprint
  • ML Assistants

    • Elicit for rigorous research
  • Spatial understanding

    • Nothing that teaches alexander technique, movement, spatial awareness

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