Tools for Thought

Question I return to
How do the shapes of our tools influence the shapes of our ideas?
I’m curious about
How different tools make it easier (or harder) to think different types of thoughts
I want to
Help more people imagine better

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” — Winston Churchill


I’m curious about how different tools make it easier (or harder) to think different types of thoughts.

Tools come embedded with both explicit and implicit assumptions and beliefs about the world, and this creates an interesting feedback loop between tool and user.

Some architects are apparently able to look at a contemporary building, and tell which software that building’s architects used in making it. Apparently, different tools make certain design moves harder or easier than others, and you can see the fingerprints of their respective constraints as similar forms and shapes in the buildings made in those tools.

Many years later, a musician friend told me that he could tell what sort of software was used in the making on a song, for similar reasons.

(In architecture school, I saw this show up in my own work in various ways. I sometimes found myself thinking “inside the software.” That is, instead of coming to the tool with an idea, I found myself moving elements around, taking the path of least resistance and letting the machine make decisions for me. Many years later, I still feel weirdly guilty about this aspect of the creative process. On one hand, it feels like cheating. But on the other hand, I believe strongly that the best tools are a collaboration between tool and user, where the resulting work is a product of shared authorship…)

Not only do tools embody ideas, but they can serve as vectors for ideas. Said differently, tools do not passively communicate ideas, they constrain and influence the types of ideas that are possible.

Why I care about this

One reason I care about this is because I suspect that many bad things happen in the world not as a result of malice, but a result of a poverty of imagination. I think most people aren’t necessarily ill-meaning, I think they often lack the imagination to imagine better. Better tools might help us feel our way to better ideas.

Another reason I care about this is because I’ve caught an idea virus from Patrick Collison. Please forgive this poor attempt at paraphrasing (and I imagine others have discussed this before Patrick, but I caught the bug from him), but it goes something like this: as a species, we used to innovate a lot more quickly. At some point within recent history, the pace of innovation has slowed dramatically, despite large investments in resources. What happened?

This idea (which Patrick and Tyler Cowen explain more eloquently here) burrowed itself into my brain and it won’t leave me. I’m haunted by the idea that we’re living in a local maxima, and that if we had even simply maintained our pace of innovation, the world would be a dramatically better place for everyone. If this is true, then we urgently need better tools to be able to imagine better worlds.

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