In the past week, something finally clicked for me: mediums > tools.
About a year ago, I was the recipient of a 2+ hour lecture from Alan Kay on everything from the history of computing to the promise of the computer as a new type of medium. I furiously took notes and over the past year I’ve been traveling down all of the trails that Alan pointed out that day.
One trail was “mediums for thinking.” It’s common these days to refer to various pieces of software as “tools for thought”, after Howard Rheingold’s 1985 book of the same name. While each of these pieces of software is individually a tool, I agree with Alan (he discusses this at length in User Interface: A Personal View) that a medium for thinking is a more useful abstraction than tools. For one thing, a specific medium for thinking may have dozens or hundreds of different specific software applications, which I would refer to as “tools,” that facilitate thinking using that specific medium.
But it’s deeper than that.
A medium for thinking is a mode of expression. It’s a format or formalism, a specific structure to information, that allows us to anchor our thinking in that medium. Ted Nelson in The Crafting of Media defines a medium as a “a set of presentation elements, and relations among them, that may be used by a person to create an object, environment or experience for someone else.”
Let’s make this concrete and consider a simple but specific medium for thinking: the venerable outline. An outline is simply a bulleted list with indentation levels. Outlines are the medium expressed in org-mode, Taskpaper, OmniOutliner and dozens of other tools. You might question whether the outline actually qualifies as a medium for thinking. I present my case in the words of various users of org-mode:
Org-mode is one of those tools that change the way you work and think forever.
I think a main reason for [Org-mode’s] utility is that basic use requires little thought. When I’m using it for brainstorming, it’s almost like I’m not aware that I’m using any program — I’m just thinking.
– Someone, in Charles Cave’s survey of Org users
Org-mode is like heroin. After the first hit. You’re addicted. Then, that’s all you can think about.
You can read more quotes here.
Why would anyone so rapturously eulogize a mere tool? Note the specifics amidst the quotes: thinking in outlines changes how you think. Your patterns of thought conform to the medium. McLuhan’s idea that “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” points to exactly this idea: the mediums for thinking that we employ rewrite our brain, forever altering our patterns of thought.
I’m still working out the implications of tools being instances or embodiments of mediums for thinking. Here are a few ideas I am exploring:
Tools can embody multiple mediums (multi-media?)
Consider slide decks. A slide deck is a medium for thinking. In Keynote, a tool for creating slide presentations, you can create an outline by “indenting” the slides underneath one another.
Transforming between mediums
It’s possible to transform between different mediums. For example, an outline can also be represented in a spreadsheet using rows for lines and columns for the indentation levels.
At this point, I have many more questions as a result of this epiphany:
As I pore over my notes this morning from my conversation with Alan, I find a half-dozen more trails that relate to this idea of computing as a medium. I’m grateful to have taken this one step down the path, but I’m more aware than ever that Alan Kay, Ted Nelson, Marshall McLuhan and others blazed this trail decades ago. The trail is overgrown for lack of use, but I’m also starting to meet fellow travelers who have blundered onto the trail as well.
I hope you’ll join me for some bushwhacking!
If you’re into “how I made this” stories, I have two tasty morsels for you: