I don't know the magnitude of the set of passions embraced by humanity. Certainly, a single human being can only embrace a tiny fraction of the universe of passions.
We are drawn to others who share our passions, and so it's possible to believe that "everyone" or "most people," or "society" share our passions, when it's really a very tiny fraction.
Conversely, it's possible to believe that we're special, because we are so few.
I say all this because as I was lying awake, thinking about this, I kept using the pronoun "we," but then it occurred to me that the vast majority of people don't know or care about what I was thinking about.
What I was thinking about was a current passion among some of us, "tools for thought."
And let me also add that it is only we, the privileged, who have the "cognitive surplus," who can indulge our passions. We're not fully engaged just trying to meet the requirements of survival, as many people are. Or trying to achieve something of whatever we believe the narrative arc of our life should be.
We have the time to "think" about "tools for thought."
I should stop using "we" and confine my "thoughts" to the first-person singular.
I don't think we understand what thought is, how it arises.
Existence precedes narrative.
This was my emotional reaction to Dr. David Weinberger's internet triumphalist declaration that "We are writing ourselves into existence."
I maintained we were painting ourselves into corners.
Existence preceded language, therefore "thought" precedes language. Language is an abstraction that makes the interior product of thought accessible to other minds. I can show someone how to chip flint to make an axe (If I knew how to chip flint to make an axe.). I can show someone how to make fire.
More complicated ideas require abstractions and language was probably the first "tool for thought."
Except it wasn't necessarily for thought, because thinking can occur below the level of language. Language imperfectly reifies thought, and allows it to be shared, again, imperfectly.
"You don't know what I mean."
I was educated as an engineer. I have had a lifelong interest in technology, especially the advance of technology. Why was this? Was it because as a child I watched television and I saw moving images of airplanes set to thrilling music?
"From out of the blue of a western sky comes a new breed of lawman, Sky King!"
In the early hours of the morning, before I had to go to school, a Detroit TV station broadcast a cartoon called Space Angel. Later I watched Jonny Quest in prime time. (Checking to see if I was recalling this correctly, I learned that Space Angel and Jonny Quest both came from the same artist. I did not know that. Or, if I did, I'd forgotten. Makes sense though. He liked big fins on his air and space craft.)
Did television imbue in me an emotional response that stirred an interest in technology? Jonny Quest appeared in 1964, when I was seven. I was a mediocre student in elementary school, as I would later be a mediocre student at the Naval Academy. But in the sixth grade Mrs. Lupica, our librarian at Peterboro Street Elementary School, introduced me to Robert Heinlein with Have Spacesuit — Will Travel. (She'd previously convinced me to read a book called Henry 3, about which I recall little except it was about a lonely boy and perhaps a hurricane in New York City.)
Well, Heinlein did it. I read every science fiction novel in that library. Math and science became interesting and I guess puberty had something to do with re-wiring my brain because the rest of junior and senior high school were a breeze. Everyone thought I was an outstanding student, when in fact it was just all so easy and I learned nothing about being a student. Hence going on to be a mediocre student at the Naval Academy.
Anyway, I studied engineering at the Naval Academy because I wanted to be a pilot and then an astronaut. But because my vision wasn't 20/20, and I was a mediocre student, naval aviation was barred to me. But I still loved technology.
For most of my life, I've observed the advance of technology, and for much of it I believed in its problem solving potential. Ironically, it's the internet that kind of finally killed that idea, chiefly encountering the thoughts of the minds behind The Cluetrain Manifesto, and Howard Rheingold who wrote a book called Tools for Thought, and also coined the term "smart mob."
Existence precedes narrative. Thought occurs below the level of language, and it is bound tightly to emotion, to feeling. I had a visceral reaction to the construction "smart mob." I don't think Howard Rheingold had ever been near a mob. I had. They are terrifying things, and they are by no measure "smart," nor can they be.
"Go home, Howard. You're drunk."
Technology can be intoxicating. Because it allows us to do things we couldn't do before, and gives us the illusion of power. Rather, it allows us to do things in ways we couldn't do them before.
Technology changes how we do things. It does not change what we do. Our problems lie in the latter. Technology expands what we do in space, and compresses it in time. I suppose our artifacts are an expansion in time, particularly the more durable ones, like the pyramids.
But habits are powerful things, and for better or worse, much of my attention still goes to technology and the news about it. Sometimes it's interesting, and I can still derive some enjoyment from it. But I'm no longer enamored with it.
And I don't believe in the notion of "tools for thought." I understand the "external brain." The use of manipulatives to facilitate analysis, drawing lines in the sand, printing graphs on the computer. But thought occurs in the brain, and we're, well at least, I'm not certain how.
Tools for thought? Caffeine and a sandwich.
How does technology facilitate choosing what to think about? Does it facilitate that? Or does it mislead us? Does it suggest avenues of thought? Recall the drunk looking for his keys under the street lamp, because "that's where the light is."
When you've got a great hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Do the challenges we face stem from a dearth of tools, or an inability to think clearly? To know what's worth thinking about?
Why do we keep repeating the same mistakes? We know, for instance, that building more roads does not solve a "traffic problem." Partly it's because we've created institutions whose existence depends on building roads.
The automobile is a technology, a "tool for movement," that has brought about a whole sea of unintended consequences; because we were, and remain, incapable of thinking past them, imagining what problems might arise. Or because the emotional value of those thoughts didn't overcome the desire to make money by building cars or roads anyway.
The "smart phone" is similarly a new technology that, at first, seems wonderful. So why are we talking about banning them in schools?
We've thought about externalities. We know that our "capitalist" system doesn't doesn't include the cost of our products in their price. We know this, and we know it will doom us, yet we do nothing about it.
"Tools for thought," mostly is about drawing lines in the sand. Or links between files. It can facilitate some forms of analysis, if you're asking the right questions. But focusing on the tool, without thinking about the question, is just mental masturbation.
We are better off thinking about our faculty of attention. It's limited. What do we choose to direct it toward? How do we choose?
We are better off thinking about our ignorance. (The nature of ignorance is that we don't know what we don't know.)
We are better off thinking about how limited our cognitive abilities really are. If we understand their limitations, we might choose to use them toward better aims.
I think this fascination, this passion, for tools for thought is a waste of time.
I think our time is better spent thinking about how we choose to live in this world. What are the consequences of our choices? What is a "good life"? How do we "make meaning," in this life? Is it by "linking all the things." Tending our "digital gardens"?
Time, attention and thought are finite resources. The most powerful thing you can do with them is choose wisely.
I'm not holding myself out as an example. These are just my thoughts as I was able to distill them from an emotional response I had to a little meetup.
As always, I'm an authority on nothing. I make all this shit up. You are strongly encouraged to do your own thinking.
Originally posted at Nice Marmot 04:16 Monday, 4 December 2023