Tools for Thought, Not Shortcuts for Thinking

Assumed audience: Other writers and thinkers (especially others like me with a penchant for tool-obsession).

Doug Engelbart, writing some 61 years ago, in Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework:

You can integrate your new ideas more easily, and thus harness your creativity more continuously, if you can quickly and flexibly change your working record. If it is easier to update any part of your working record to accommodate new developments in thought or circumstance, you will find it easier to incorporate more complex procedures in your way of doing things. This will probably allow you to accommodate the extra burden associated with, for instance, keeping and using special files whose contents are both contributed to and utilized by any current work in a flexible manner — which in turn enables you to devise and use even-more complex procedures to better harness your talents in your particular working situation.

This is the key thesis of Engelbart’s view of computing as a tool for thought”; along with Vannevar Bush’s famous essay As We May Think, this is one of the foundations of that entire framing for computing. Especially compared to e.g. social media, this is a far more compelling and positive approach to computing. I am not especially sure, however, that it is all that the current way of hype around tools for thought” makes it out to be.

Note that the first bit, around integration and change of one’s working record as a means of becoming more productive, is the part which folks have been dreaming of ever since — but the second sort is the hard bit, because it’s actually very difficult to be able to make that kind of editing truly easy. Also worth considering whether decreases in friction are always a net positive for thinking: most computing enthusiasts (historically, myself included!) have assumed the answer is always yes”, but as I noted in my paper journal the same day I read this Engelbart essay: the way that writing with paper and pen forces me to slow down itself seems to be part of the significant wins it creates for thinking.

Computers can be useful tools for thought; but much of what goes around in the tools for thought” space at present is caught instead on the idea of going faster, of an offboard memory”, and so on: more of the productivity spin, more of the idea that the problem with human thinking is that it is insufficiently like a computer’s memory. This is, to put it mildly, an exercise in missing the point. Computers can indeed be useful tools for thought; but the Engelbart vision — all about speed and complexity and flexibility — is, I think, deeply mistaken.

How then, are computers useful as tools for thought? Not as replacements for slower human cognition (slower is sometimes — indeed, often! — better), or for pen-and-paper notes, but as complements to them. The trick is to see how best to situate them as complements: a theme to which I expect to return regularly in this space.