Bret Victor – Humane Representation of Thought



New representations of thought — written language, mathematical notation, information graphics, etc — have been responsible for some of the most significant leaps in the progress of civilization, by expanding humanity’s collectively-thinkable territory.

But at debilitating cost. These representations, having been invented for static media such as paper, tap into a small subset of human capabilities and neglect the rest. Knowledge work means sitting at a desk, interpreting and manipulating symbols. The human body is reduced to an eye staring at tiny rectangles and fingers on a pen or keyboard.

Like any severely unbalanced way of living, this is crippling to mind and body. But it is also enormously wasteful of the vast human potential. Human beings naturally have many powerful modes of thinking and understanding. Most are incompatible with static media. In a culture that has contorted itself around the limitations of marks on paper, these modes are undeveloped, unrecognized, or scorned.

We are now seeing the start of a dynamic medium. To a large extent, people today are using this medium merely to emulate and extend static representations from the era of paper, and to further constrain the ways in which the human body can interact with external representations of thought.

But the dynamic medium offers the opportunity to deliberately invent a humane and empowering form of knowledge work. We can design dynamic representations which draw on the entire range of human capabilities — all senses, all forms of movement, all forms of understanding — instead of straining a few and atrophying the rest.

This talk suggests how each of the human activities in which thought is externalized (conversing, presenting, reading, writing, etc) can be redesigned around such representations.


Related Resources:

Wired, Jan 2014

MOST FORWARD-LOOKING DESIGNERS think about what might happen in the next five years. Bret Victor is more concerned about the next 500.

Print media, Victor says, has served us well. It helped us come up with new ways of representing knowledge that have been instrumental to human progress—things like charts, graphs, and mathematical notation. And yet print media has limitations. Namely, it engages a very narrow slice of our intellectual capabilities. Print is based on our eyeballs interpreting symbols. It doesn’t utilize our innate understanding of spatial relationships; it doesn’t take advantage of how deftly we learn by touching, holding, and manipulating objects with our hands.

Victor dubs it “the dynamic medium.” The basic idea is some sort of physical matter that has the ability to rearrange itself dynamically—think maybe some sort of computerized sand that could take any form at any time. Victor’s not concerned with the technological implementation of such a medium, though he’s utterly convinced that it will be feasible. He’s more interested in the intellectual breakthroughs it could yield.

What excites Victor about the dynamic medium is the possibility of new representational tools—leaps equivalent to the charts, graphs and notation of past centuries. Instead of reading about the global economy in all its intricacy, for example, imagine if you could hold a working model of it, or get inside it and have the model surround you.

as Victor sees it, human progress will eventually depend on such tools, ones that let us explore complex systems and concepts with our hands as well as our minds. (Victor’s big on the power of thinking with our hands.)

Medium, date indeterminate

He sees himself less as a designer/developer/engineer than as a researcher of computer-augmented creativity, much like his mentor Alan Kay (who pioneered graphical user interfaces and object-oriented programming) and his hero Douglas Engelbart (of “The Mother of All Demos” fame).

Victor declares that “the power to understand and predict the quantities of the world should not be restricted to those with a freakish knack for manipulating abstract symbols.”

 what would “post-paper” thoughts look like? Victor admits he has no idea. He just has a conviction about the medium that will enable them. “The important thing isn’t thinking about computers or programming as they are today, but thinking about moving from a static medium like marks on paper to a dynamic medium with computational responsiveness infused into it, that can actually participate in the thinking process,” he says.

how the media in which we choose to represent our ideas shape (and too often, limit) what ideas we can have.





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