Source: Numinous productions, Oct 2019
“a new medium for thought”
Such a medium creates a powerful immersive context, a context in which the user can have new kinds of thought, thoughts that were formerly impossible for them
To the extent that such a tool succeeds, it expands your thinking beyond what can be achieved using existing tools, including writing. The more transformative the tool, the larger the gap that is opened.
Conversely, the larger the gap, the more difficult the new tool is to evoke in writing. But what writing can do, and the reason we wrote this essay, is act as a bootstrap. It’s a way of identifying points of leverage that may help develop new tools for thought.
making new tools can lead to new subject matter insights for humanity as a whole (i.e., significant original research insights), and vice versa, and this would ideally be a rapidly-turning loop to develop the most transformative tools.
many tools for thought are public goods. They often cost a lot to develop initially, but it’s easy for others to duplicate and improve on them, free riding on the initial investment. While such duplication and improvement is good for our society as a whole, it’s bad for the companies that make that initial investment.
And so such tools for thought suffer the fate of many public goods: our society collectively underinvests in them, relative to the benefits they provide
Another plausible solution to the public goods problem is patents, granting a temporary monopoly over use of an invention. Many software companies, including Adobe, develop a large patent portfolio. However, the current patent system is not a solution for this problem. In 2017, Dana Rao, Adobe’s Vice President for Intellectual Property and Litigation, posted a call for major reforms to the patent system, stating that:
[the patent] system is broken… What happened? A patent gold rush built by patent profiteers…
Their value lies not in the innovation behind the patent but in the vagueness of the patent’s claims and the ability to enforce it in a plaintiff-friendly forum… Where did the material for these bad patents come from?
The advent of software… This led to idea-only patents being granted with broad and often invalid claims, and eager patent profiteers were only too glad to take advantage.
Is it possible to solve the public goods problem in such cases? The two most promising approaches seem to us to be:
Philanthropic funding for research. This approach was used, for instance, by the field of computer animation and animated movies. Decades of public research work on computer animation resulted in a large number of powerful and (in many cases) publicly available ideas. This, in turn, helped prepare the way for companies such as Pixar and Dreamworks, which developed many of the ideas further, and took them to scale.
Really difficult problems – problems like inventing Hindu-Arabic numerals – aren’t solved by good intentions and interest alone. A major thing missing is foundational ideas powerful enough to make progress.
In the earliest days of a discipline – the proto-disciplinary stage – a few extraordinary people – people like Ivan Sutherland, Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, and Bret Victor – may be able to make progress. But it’s a very bespoke, individual progress, difficult to help others become proficient in, or to scale out to a community. It’s not yet really a discipline.
What’s needed is the development of 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. We’re not yet at that stage with tools for thought. But we believe that we’re not so far away either.
consider our most fundamental tools for thought – language, writing, music, etc. Those are public goods. No-one owns language; to the extent that it is owned (trademarks and so on) it may actually limit the utility of language. These tools are all about introducing fundamental new mental representations and mental operations. Those aren’t owned by any company, they’re patterns owned by humanity.
This argument makes it seem likely that many of the most fundamental and powerful tools for thought do suffer the public goods problem.
work on tools for thought is much less clearly defined. For the most part we can’t point to well-defined, long-range goals; rather, we have long-range visions and aspirations, almost evocations. The work is really about exploration of an open-ended question:
how can we develop tools that change and expand the range of thoughts human beings can think?
the invention of other tools for thought – writing, the printing press, and so on – are among our greatest ever breakthroughs. And, as far as we know, all emerged primarily out of open-ended exploration, not in a primarily goal-driven way.
Even the computer itself came out of an exploration that would be regarded as ridiculously speculative and poorly-defined in tech today.
Fundamental, open-ended questions seem to be at least as good a source of breakthroughs as goals, no matter how ambitious.
it also seems possible that BCIs will be used to enable new mental operations, new mental representations, and new affordances for thought; in short, the same kind of things as are involved in developing non-BCI tools for thought.
Perhaps we’ll develop the capacity to directly imagine ourselves in 4 or 5 or more dimensions; or traversing a Riemann manifold; or the ability to have multiple tracks of conscious attention. These are about changing the interface for thought, the basic abstractions and operations which are allowed.
Papert wanted to create an immersive environment – a kind of “Mathland” – in which children could be immersed in mathematical ideas. In essence, children could learn differential geometry by going to Mathland.
There’s a general principle here:
good tools for thought arise mostly as a byproduct of doing original work on serious problems.
Related Resource: Perell.com, Oct 2019
It’s very difficult to do the hard things that actually block you unless you have such a strong desire that you’re willing to go through those things
Picasso, for me anyway, was really the pivotal figure in realizing that actually what art could become, is the invention of completely new ways of seeing.
As your computer system becomes completely aware of your environment or as aware as you’re willing to allow it to be.
compared with some immersive world that you can walk through and be able to like touch and move around data and I actually think there’s some cool opportunities there and whatnot. But in terms of thinking about the future of being able to visualize numbers and the way that things change and whatnot.
Gumption is almost the most important quality that we have. The ability to keep going when things don’t seem very good. And mostly that’s about having ways of being playful and ways of essentially not running out of ideas. Some of that is about a very interesting tension between having, being ambitious in what you’d like to achieve, but also being very willing to sort of celebrate the tiniest, tiniest, tiniest successes.
Suddenly a lot of creative people I know I think really struggle with that. They might be very good at celebrating tiny successes but not have that significant ambitions, but they might be extremely ambitious, but because they’re so ambitious, if an idea doesn’t look Nobel prize worthy, they’re not particularly interested in it. You know, they struggle with just kind of the goofing around and they often feel pretty bad because of course most days you’re not at your best, you don’t actually have the greatest idea.
a new type of financial instrument ideally will allow people to do is to coordinate in a way that was not previously possible.
there’s probably just an enormous number of such similarly sized, similarly important financial instruments waiting to be discovered. Historically, it’s been very hard to deploy a new financial instrument. You need lots of centralized infrastructure.
Basically, you needed to run a bank. And that’s, to me anyway, potentially the most interesting thing about having truly decentralized currencies, which are fully programmable, is the ability for individuals who are not CEOs of banks to devise new financial instruments.
it’s plausible to me anyway that the 21st century, maybe that’s what it turns out to be about. It’s about actually inventing new types of markets.