I see plenty of discussions in and around the community about the terminology we tend to use, throwing terms like note-taking, note-making, PKM (personal knowledge management) and tools for thought around and using them somewhat interchangeably.
But, what do they mean? Are we all talking about the same thing, or are there significant differences?
In this essay, I take a stab at defining what a tool for thought is.
Thinking Out Loud
At its simplest, we can take any of these terms and say that they can be anything that helps you think by externalising your thoughts somehow. Looking back over human history, it’s primarily how information has been passed along to us beyond the oral traditions. Writings or drawings on cave walls or papyrus, using stones to count or keep track, and even markings in sand, though far more transient, all help externalise thoughts to augment the brain’s natural ability.
More recently, we have invented simple but powerful tools that enable us to capture fleeting thoughts, catalogue them, and provide infinite flexibility in ordering and arranging them in front of our eyes, mixing writing and drawing to connect disparate ideas for creating new insights. Yes, pencil and paper are very effective and versatile tools for thought.
Even a book could be considered a tool for thought; it is a device which enables an author to externalise and elucidate their ideas and with which you can later have conversations with the author.
So perhaps we should be more specific; let’s define what a modern, digital tool for thought is.
In The Information, James Gleick describes memes propagating themselves, leaping from brain to brain, competing with one another for limited resources of brain time and bandwidth, but most of all for attention.
Memes, or infectious ideas, are enabled by their host organisms, initially only able to be kept alive by spreading through word of mouth. They could now begin to be captured and recorded to massively increase their chances of survival and replicate into more hosts.
We, as the hosts, accept these parasitic “organisms” and willingly spread them further, and now faster and more widely than ever before.
Just as viruses and parasites need ideal environments to spawn and thrive, we can think of modern digital tools for thought as Petri dishes providing fertile fields to incubate and accelerate the replication of thoughts and ideas. Then through collaboration and publishing mechanisms, they can infect other hosts on an unprecedented scale. A pandemic of ideas, if you will.
Let’s consider what critical properties ideas need to spread?
Thoughts are often fleeting and fragile, and if not captured quickly in context, they have little chance of surviving.
Ideas need to be good; interesting, novel, useful ideas are more likely to be used and spread by their human carriers. Tools which can help augment puny human brains to think better will help to provide more opportunities to incubate the fleeting thoughts into good ideas.
Mutations and promiscuity: Creativity could be defined as a measure of "idea sex" and mutation. Your brain’s ability to generate new ideas can be increased both by practice and being guided or prompted to seed more. Mutating existing ideas creatively or grafting disparate ideas together can also result in new insights and further good ideas.
Spreadability: An idea that never leaves its host will not be particularly successful. The ease with which it can be shared and spread can heavily dictate its success.
I’m going to take a stand and say that for something to be classed as a modern digital tool for thought, it must be measured against these traits and be able to address each point. They also provide a good heuristic for evaluating the effectiveness of those tools and what might be most appropriate for our differing uses.
The ability to capture a thought is both essential and a minimum bar for entry. The variety and ease of capture can differentiate a tool’s usefulness. The best meet you where you are. That’s why paper is often a fantastic tool for capture. It’s immediately available and ready to use as long as there’s something else around for making marks on it.
Here’s where some stalwart note-taking apps like Evernote can stand out; they have had years of iteration for creating capture tools to get rich information into it.
Native integration with operating systems and their methods for sharing information across application boundaries can also massively increase the ability for capturing and interoperability.
Can the tool help you to think better or make better decisions? This can be quite a broad definition, the ability to make lists and reorganise them meets these criteria, but it can be extended much further. How well can the tool stretch to help you organise and manage your thinking over time? Does it make it easy for you to logically construct arguments and weigh up the pros and cons of a decision, and then later review them so you can update your beliefs or knowledge and thereby objectively helping you to become a better thinker?
It should be able to help you to build algorithms of thought to help guide you through specific problems and find solutions.
The volume of information can become overwhelming over time, so it is also vital that a tool offers ways to help manage and organise this information and, more importantly, help you find and resurface it at the right time.
Closely related is the ability to generate new ideas and insights. To help your brain do this, you want ways for previous ideas to resurface to you at opportune times. A tool for thought should be able to program your attention (in positive ways), getting your brain to see something at the right time to take action on it.
It should also be able to guide you to have more ideas. Can your tool give you creative prompts or ask questions to prime your brain and get it flowing.
How easy is it for you to collaborate with others? Gathering diverse viewpoints and enabling others to bring their insights and ideas together with yours means a far greater chance for new ideas to spawn.
Does the tool provide easy publishing mechanisms to get the ideas out into the world to begin infecting others? This could be as simple as quickly tweeting them or sharing them via other social networks, including email.
If ideas aren’t easy to consume, they won’t be spread. Therefore it’s crucial to arrange and format them well to make that consumption more palatable.
Finally, while not a property, we also have to think about complexity. A single tool cannot be too complex to do all these things well. Ideally, a tool should have all these traits natively; an integrated whole, flexible by design, and can be extended logically. A tool could have all the key properties, but if it’s too hard to use, all is for nought, and the ideas will die.
I think that there should be tools that only do one or two of these things well, but having them be interoperable is still a challenge that is yet to be overcome. While they can form a toolchain that answers all these properties, to help avoid ambiguity, they should not be classified as a tool for thought. They can simply be a note-taking app, a capture tool, or a drawing tool. Perhaps we’ll begin to see stacks of these single-use applications get designed to work well that together they can be considered a complete modern digital tool for thought.
This is a relatively new idea of mine and I'd love to hear what you think. Have I missed anything you think is crucial, or perhaps you can spot some bias or gaps in my thinking. Hit reply, and tell me your thoughts.
If there are particular topics you'd like me to cover in future essays, do let me know.
Until next time,
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