"The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think."
Now that we understand the importance of intention and the conscious acceptance of constraints as that which breeds personal freedom, we can present our thesis for the week:
To establish our first pillar, we'll mix a Vannevar Bush essay from 1945 and a 2019 essay from Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen:
How does this fit into KERNEL?¶
We must be clear on what "taking back the web" means. The internet came with grand dreams, though we're mostly stuck with artificial social spaces, overwhelming algorithms, and extractive incentives which are mining our attention as a means of propping up a failing economy.
These two essays draw out a common thread of thought stretched across 74 years in order to illustrate what sorts of freedom are actually on offer in this world wide web of ours. Since 1945, one critical feature has revolved around constructing new media for free and creative thought.
At first it may seem unrelated to blockchains, but tools for thought are public goods and suffer from the same problem of incentives as all other public goods. They are thus the perfect example of paradigm shifts which require us to understand why programming regenerative incentives matters, and what economic code can really be used to achieve in the long-term.
"The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected."
We'll be taking great liberties by summarizing both of these essays extensively, so we recommend you take the time to read them in full. There is no substitution for knowing your roots, or seeing how the branches grow today.
Bush is writing as Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development at the end of WWII. His aim is to interrogate what all the scientists will do once the war is over. He urges scientists to take on the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge. This is about a new relationship between thinking humans and the sum of what we know. He begins with an idea we will return to with Juan Benet: cooperation.
"The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership [...] They have been part of a great team. Now, as peace approaches, one asks where they will find objectives worthy of their best."
Free yourself to work together¶
- Pointing out that science has given us increased control over our environment, improved how we meet our basic needs, boosted health (mental and physical), extended lifespans, provided swift communications and allowed us to create a record of ideas that endures beyond any one individual life, Bush comes to the central problem we still face today:
"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 [...]
"The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record."
This is Bush's central theme, and it is timeless. We discussed how the record we use for establishing our shared history and for recording our transactions became one and the same thing in 2009, but we have yet to attend to this central question: how can we best use it?
The technology of the 1940's was very different, and Bush spends much time discussing the rise of complex machinery with interchangeable parts which could serve reliably, then the advances in photography and facsimile transmission, followed by the advances in voice recording. He uses these to imagine a world where scientists walk around with a camera on their head, recording their observations (both verbal and visual) and storing these on microfilm, which is the core technology he uses to spool out the rest of his ideas. We're summarizing extensively, but here are the critical points he makes in Sections 2 and 3.
"A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted."
"[Using microfilm] the Encyclopædia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk [...] Compression is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it [...] Compression is important, however, when it comes to costs. The material for the microfilm Britannica would cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent."
- Section 4 is about mechanization of the repetitive processes of thought which, to Bush, includes advanced analysis because creative thinking is concerned only with the selection of data and the process to be employed. The manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence can be relegated to machines. Our technology must allow users
"to free their brains for something more than repetitive detailed transformations in accordance with established rules [...] A mathematician is not one who can readily manipulate figures [...] S/he is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, capable of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes employed."
- Section 5 begins with the manipulation of logical processes beyond arithmetic and then dives into the final and most critical part the human record: consultation.
Selecting the trail¶
"We can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This [...] involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge. The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed [...] Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing.
"[Instead of alphanumeric indices] the human mind [...] operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain."
- Bush introduces the "memex" - a supplement to memory which pulls together microfilm, recording technologies, and associative selection. It won't be as fast or flexibile as the brain, but it could at least improve the clarity and permanence of our recall.
"This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing [...] Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space."
- Bush is really talking about building "user trails" through these associative indices. In much the same way that one book is the associative trail of a mind moving through and selecting certain information; Bush has designed a machine to build trails of trails. These trails could also be shared: my trail passed into your memex and vice versa - a far more efficient and less lossy means of collaboration than simply recommending a book or two.
"Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified [...] There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record."
- Bush then spends some time speculating on technologies which directly manipulate the human nervous system. He ends with this:
"[Science] may yet allow us truly to encompass the great record and to grow in wisdom. We may perish in conflict before we learn to wield that record for our true good. Yet, in the application of science to our needs and desires, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome."
The mnemonic medium¶
- Media for thought are all around us: Bush cites the abacus which, through the positional display of number relationships it implies, led the Arabs to the concept of 0. Media for thought create powerful immersive contexts in which to explore new classes of ideas which were formerly impossible. Matuschak and Nielsen take this much, much further.
"Alan Kay summed up the optimism of this dream when he wrote of the potential of the personal computer: 'the very use of it would actually change the thought patterns of an entire civilization' [...] for better and worse, computers have affected the thought patterns of our civilization over the past 60 years, and those changes seem like just the beginning."
Leveraging the insights of cognitive science, we can create media that make it effortless to remember what you've read. The medium builds in the key steps involved in memory. In this context, it means adopting highly specialized flash cards in an essay, and spaced repetition (SRM) reminders after reading. These may sound trivial, but it takes advantage of a fundamental fact about human memory: as we are repeatedly tested on a question, our memory of the answer gets stronger, and we are likely to retain it for longer.
Matuschak and Nielsen discuss many preliminary results and argue that though this may seem like "just" an essay with fancy flashcards, simple media can still be profound in their unexpected implications. Just look at writing. Or money.
Why all this focus on memory, though? Will building mnemonic media really free our thought? Remember, Bush showed how new media free our brains from rote tasks: mathematicians are not calculators, but people skilled at intuitively grasping higher order logic.
"Memory systems can be extraordinarily helpful for mastering abstract, conceptual knowledge [...] because of the way the mnemonic medium embeds spaced repetition inside a narrative. That narrative embedding makes it possible for context and understanding to build up."
- The key in all this is how you craft the cards: the idea being to make a scalable memory laboratory which can answer some very deep questions about human memory, how it might be improved and practiced, and what impact it can have on our thought and learning.
"We’ll see that memory systems are a small part of a much bigger picture [...] Seriously developing memory systems is likely to lead to one or more transformative tools for thought."
Network structures for knowledge¶
Critically, memory systems need to ensure that people don't just learn surface features; they need to help users in innovative ways when they do forget; and they need to encode stories into the mnemonic medium. In this sense, you can see the mnemonic media as carrying two texts: the actual one and the reflected one, built up by all the knowledge encoded in cards.
However, it is a mistake to think "good memory system == spaced repetition". There is also elaborative encoding and the sort of associative trails Bush was talking about; and techniques like the method of loci, though this isn't as useful for remembering abstract, conceptual knowledge (esp. for novices). Seeing this broader perspective allows us to ask much deeper questions, like:
And what does memory have to do with understanding and creativity?
Conceptual mastery and creativity is actually enabled by a mastery of details. By largely automating away the problem of memory, the mnemonic medium makes it easier for people to spend more time focusing on other parts of learning, making the awkward early stages easier to get through. The link between memory and mastery goes much deeper though, right down to the idea of chunking, as demonstrated with 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 [...] Memory is, in fact, a central part of cognition."
- Of course, we still need to know what to memorize and what the impact of such media will really be on people's cognition and behaviour. My sense is that having transportable user trails, like Bush imagined in '45, would be extremely useful. How to make this wealth of knowledge easily shareable? Just encode them as 12-word mnemonics inside a world computer...
- Nielsen and Matuschak then discuss what it would have taken to get from Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numeral from a design perspective.
"The design and mathematical insights are inextricably entangled: the mathematical insights are, in some sense, design insights, and vice versa [... This is] a general truth: the most powerful tools for thought express deep insights into the underlying subject matter [... Mnemonic media] will express deep original insights into memory [...] A truly great memory system will be cognitive science of the highest order."
- This general truth reveals the deep difference between what Alan Kay called "pop" and "research" cultures. Pop culture is great at producing products we consume, but is insufficient for creating new tools for thought.
"The warning is this: conventional tech industry product practice will not produce deep enough subject matter insights to create transformative tools for thought [...] The aspiration is [...] to create a culture that combines the best parts of modern product practice with the best parts of the modern research culture."
"This is not the common argument that making new tools can lead to new subject matter insights for the toolmaker, and vice versa. New tools can lead to new subject matter insights for humanity as a whole, and vice versa, and this would ideally be a rapidly-turning loop to develop the most transformative tools."
"Doing this is a cultural struggle. It seems to be extraordinarily rare to find the insight-through-making loop working at full throttle [...] You have brilliant researchers who think of making as something essentially trivial, 'just a matter of implementation'. And you have makers who don’t understand research, who see it as merely a slow and dysfunctional process."
Extending our mnemonics¶
- The second half of the essay explores tools for thought more generally, starting with two videos well worth experiencing yourself.
"Watching this video is a remarkable emotional experience. It’s obvious the person narrating the video loves mathematics, and you cannot help but empathize [...] It’s tempting to overlook or undervalue this kind of emotional connection to a subject. But it’s the foundation of all effective learning and of all effective action [...]
"Is it possible to create a medium which has the emotional range possible in video – a range which can be used to convey awe and mystery and surprise and beauty? [...] To create an integrated medium, with a unified and carefully crafted emotional and intellectual experience?"
We must take emotion as seriously as movie, music, and video game designers do. All of these people have elaborate models for emotional response, which we must also take into account if we are to augment our freedom to think with digital tools.
Tools for thought are public goods. Thus they suffer from the same issues around funding and building the right kind of practices and processes required for real development.
"Consider our most fundamental tools for thought – language, writing, music, etc. Those are public goods [...] These tools all introduce fundamental new mental representations and operations. Those aren’t owned by any company, they’re patterns owned by humanity."
"We need to develop a powerful praxis, a set of core ideas which are explicit and powerful enough that new people can rapidly assimilate them, and begin to develop their own practice."
- Why is it worthwhile devoting yourself to an open-ended endeavour like this which isn't as well-funded as many other sectors in tech? Well, because:
"The creation of language – the ur tool for thought – is perhaps the most important occurrence of humanity’s existence [...] Similarly, the invention of other tools for thought – writing, the printing press, and so on – are among our greatest ever breakthroughs."
- What will new tools for thought really look like? Our contention is that protocols for money are exactly one such tool and - given that money preceded writing - they are also an ur tool.
"If we could communicate the experience in an essay, then the tools would be failing at their job; they would not be transforming a person’s thinking, or even their consciousness."
- Let's go one step further, by considering an economic argument about what factors actually effect long-term wealth inequality (turns out it's not initial distribution, but the nature of transactions). Because this surprising result is arrived at computationally in an open-source Jupyter notebook, you can test it yourself, and are invited to find initial distributions which do effect long-term inequalities if you can. The authors call this
"Scaffolded exploration: a way to build up your own understanding, and perhaps even push the frontiers of knowledge. It’s tempting to regard [Jupyter notebooks] as merely a mashup of essay and code. But really they’re a new media form, with different possibilities from either essays or code, and with striking opportunities to go much further.
"There’s a general principle here: good tools for thought arise mostly as a byproduct of doing original work on serious problems [...] Furthermore, the problems themselves are typically of intense personal interest to the problem-solvers. They’re not working on the problem for a paycheck; they’re working on it because they desperately want to know the answer."
- The ultimate aspiration here is to develop canonical media in these new tools, like 2001: A Space Odyssey created for movies. Nielsen and Matuschak suggest that:
"One fun project would be to develop an executable form of the most recent IPCC climate assessment report. Instead of a report full of assertions and references, you’d have a live climate model for people to explore. If it was good enough, people would teach classes from it; if it was really superb, not only would they teach classes from it, it could perhaps become the creative working environment for many climate scientists."
- The best example of this currently is The Structure and Interpretation of Classical Mechanics:
"Many theorems aren’t just expressed in static form, on the page, but live, as code which can be modified by the user. Theorems become APIs, which can literally be applied to other objects, and chained together. It uses a much more powerful underlying model than Jupyter, developing a new symbolic language as part of the book."
"It’s striking to contrast conventional technical books with the possibilities enabled by executable books. You can imagine starting an executable book with, say, quantum teleportation, right on the first page. You’d provide an interface – perhaps a library is imported – that would let users teleport quantum systems immediately [...]
"You could begin an executable book with material the users already care about, can connect to easily, and find motivating [...] but such an opening won’t suffer the drawback of popular science, of being vague and imprecise. Rather, the interface would be completely well specified and could be scaled out, applied in ever-expanding contexts. The understanding would be transferable. Even a user who has understood only a tiny part of the material could begin tinkering, building up an understanding based on play and exploration."
- This is the first part of what it really means to "take back the web". It's about building public tools for thought which - like language - are really patterns owned by humanity as a whole, in which we can playfully explore with each other the very edges of our shared record of knowledge, adding new pieces as scaffolding for those who follow to continue the fun.