Writing as a tool for thought
Jul 12, Sun, 2020
Welcome to Beyond Bare Hands.
I hope you’re having a good Sunday. And I hope this first issue will make it even better by explaining what it means to augment human intellect and how we can do that with writing.
In this post, I cover:
Why human is an information processing system
Why language is a tool for augmenting human intellect
Why oral societies think differently
How writing changes thinking
What would happen if our writing tools were 3x slower
If you’re interested in diving deeper, there’s a section with references in the end.
Enjoy your reading.
Human as an information processing system
To understand how to augment human intellect, we must first define what a human is and what does intellect stand for.
You can think of a human as an information processing system. You take in some information from the world through the sensory channels (ie eyes or ears), process it somehow in your head, and then create an output to the world through your motor system (ie hands).
That yellow processing thing above the guy’s head is the key part.
If we only had bare hands and some input from the world, we’d not have survived. The only reason we became a dominant race on this planet is that we’ve evolved to process input from the world and build tools that let us do more things than our hands can offer.
Augmenting human intellect
So let’s define intellect as an ability to create tools that let us go beyond bare hands. To augment our biological limitations so that we can solve increasingly complex problems in this world.
But if we create instruments to augment our hands, we must be able to develop tools to improve our ability to process inputs as well.
And that’s precisely what augmenting human intellect is about—creating tools, processes, and methodologies to improve our very ability to create tools. You can think of it as a meta-tool; if done well, it improves on hundreds of different directions.
By this point you’re probably thinking:
“OK, I’ve sold on this idea of tools because I use toilet paper every morning which is obviously better than.. you know.. but it seems suspicious to me that we can go beyond what we’ve got in our heads already; how is this even possible?”
The irony of this statement is its very existence because language is one of the first tools that we’ve invented to improve our ability to improve.
Language as a tool for intellect augmentation
You’re probably aware that language is not innate.
It doesn’t come as a pre-installed app when a tiny new human being pops up. We acquire it as kids, first through imitating sounds and then by developing an understanding of what words actually mean.
But oral language is limited.
People forget things and distort meanings. And if you don’t have a way to fixate an idea in time and space, then you have to repeat it frequently to diminish the risk of losing precious knowledge.
That’s why we’ve come up with adjectives and numerals, and that’s why we strive for stories. It’s our way to make it stick.
“A mighty knight bravely rose his arcane blade and cut off the last head of a horrible fire-breathing hydra that stole the princess.”
A good one, right?
But the storage benefit of writing is peanuts when compared to the second one. Writing changes how you think.
How writing restructures thought
Let’s say you went to Amazonian jungles and found a godforsaken tribe that doesn’t have writing technology yet (they do exist).
If you ask a guy from the tribe to describe what a tree is, he’ll point to one with a finger and say, “That’s a tree.”
And if there’s no tree around, he’ll get angry and frustrated and start saying things like: “This is OBVIOUS, everybody knows what a tree is!”
If I ask you what a tree is, you immediately have a picture in your head. But it’s not a picture of some specific tree, it’s more of a general idea of a tree. You visualize an abstraction in your head.
But oral societies don’t go abstract. Their language is focused on the objects of daily use, such as a knife, a tree, or a man. They don’t get a chance to distance from their thinking to analyze and develop new thoughts based on the ideas they’ve already got.
The lack of writing technology results in the absence of abstractions.
This is called the Whorfian hypothesis in linguistics—the way people think is affected by their languages. And the development of language relies on manipulating symbols.
How symbol manipulation augments human intellect
In 1962, Doug Engelbart came up with a Neo-Whorfian hypothesis.
He thought that if this Whorf guy was right, then speed of symbol manipulation is one of the bottlenecks to augmenting human intellect because it limits our knowledge transfer capacity. And if we somehow increased the speed of operating symbols, we’d improve our ability to improve because more knowledge would be created.
But humans don’t like new truths—and especially don’t like when someone tells them they’re not that smart as they think they are.
That’s why Doug designed an experiment to “de-augment” a human.
He took a brick and a pencil. And a bit of scotch tape. He attached the pencil to the brick and then measured how quickly a person would write a sentence with a new “brick-pencil” device.
On average, it took a person 65 seconds to write a sentence with a “brick-pencil” and 20 seconds to do the same thing with a normal pencil.
3.25x speed drop.
Now consider that writing is how we’ve been transferring knowledge for thousands of years. And as our progress is a byproduct of what we know, we can assume that if we had 3x slower “brick-pencils,” we’d progress much slower than we did.
In 1962, Doug believed that our current tools are like “brick-pencils.” That we got stuck in “the page” effect of presenting information on a computer like it is a clay tablet from thirteen thousand years ago. With just a few more pages.
But just like nobody believed Tsiolkovsky in 1903 that we’ll someday be doing space exploration, nobody believed Doug as well. And fifty-eight years later, we haven’t advanced much.
It’s a sad truth but also a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because today’s technology lets us operate symbols much faster than writing with bare hands.
Next week, I’ll share my way of operating symbols 3-5x faster than any modern keyboard so that you don’t have to write with a brick all day long.
P.s. It’s a rational argument that to write faster, you need to know what to say. We’ll get to this later, but now consider this: if you’re a man with legs, it’s better to use them than to blame the world you can’t fly. Maybe if you start operating symbols faster, you’ll develop more ideas what to say as well?
Doug’s 1962 paper on augmenting human intellect (PDF; many hours to read)
Doug’s “mother of all demos” from 1968 where they presented tech that doesn’t exist in 2020 (video; 5 mins to watch)
Ong on writing as a technology that restructures thought (PDF; a few hours to read)
Now do me a favor and make yourself smarter.
If you take 40 seconds to go through the questions below, you will not only remember and understand the stuff you just read better but actually create new neurons. This is called neurogenesis.
The questions let you reap the most benefits of reading these posts. Don’t skip them.
How come that a human is an information processing system?
What does it mean to augment human intellect?
Why oral societies think different thoughts?
What are the two benefits of a language?
What was Doug’s experiment about?