learning and education, with a bias towards unschooling, deschooling, alternative ed, informal education/learning, and all that contrasts with the widespread notions of conventional schooling and learning
Technology tends to become mythic. I use this word in the sense in which it was used by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes. He used the word "myth" to refer to a common tendency to think of our technological creations as if they were God-given, as if they were a part of the natural order of things. I have on occasion asked my students if they know when the alphabet was invented. The question astonishes them. It is as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented. The alphabet, they believe, was not something that was invented. It just is. It is this way with many products of human culture but with none more consistently than technology. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers--they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context.
It’s tempting to overlook or undervalue this kind of emotional connection to a subject. But it’s the foundation of all effective learning and of all effective action. And it is much easier to create such an emotional connection using video than using text.
The broader point here is about taking emotion seriously. Historically, a lot of work on tools for thought has either ignored emotion, or treated it as no more than a secondary concern. Instead, that work has focused on new skills acquired, on what the user “learns”. They’ve been designing for Spock, when emotional connection is a high-order bit. Do users feel disinterested? Afraid? Hostile? Anxious? Or do they internalize a sense of excitement, of beauty, perhaps even an expansion in their own goals, an expansion of their self?
By contrast, media forms such as movies and music and (often) video games do take emotion seriously. The designers of such forms often have incredibly elaborate models of user’s emotional responses. These models range from detailed, second-by-second understanding, to deep thinking about a user’s overall emotional journey. We believe it’s possible and desirable to use such approaches in the development of tools for thought.
At the same time, a positive emotional experience alone is not enough. For tools for thought to attain enduring power, the user must experience a real growth in mastery, an expansion in their ability to act. And so we’d like to take both the emotional and intellectual experience of tools for thought seriously. Mnemonic video is a good venue for such exploration. To paraphrase Einstein, attaining a detailed understanding without forming an emotional connection is lame; while forming an emotional connection without detailed understanding has no enduring power.
Similarly, 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. Someone didn’t sit down and think “I need to invent the computer”; that’s not a thought they had any frame of reference for. Rather, pioneers such as Alan Turing and Alonzo Church were exploring extremely basic and fundamental (and seemingly esoteric) questions about logic, mathematics, and the nature of what is provable. Out of those explorations the idea of a computer emerged, after many years; it was a discovered concept, not a goal. Fundamental, open-ended questions seem to be at least as good a source of breakthroughs as goals, no matter how ambitious. This is difficult to imagine or convince others of in Silicon Valley’s goal-driven culture. Indeed, we ourselves feel the attraction of a goal-driven culture. But empirically open-ended exploration can be just as, or more successful.
But 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. And that means tech companies focus elsewhere; it means many imaginative and ambitious people decide to focus elsewhere; it means we haven’t developed the powerful practices needed to do work in the area, and a result the field is still in a pre-disciplinary stage. The result, ultimately, is that it means the most fundamental and powerful tools for thought are undersupplied.
One striking difference is that AGI and BCI are based on relatively specific, well-defined goals. By contrast, 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?