The future of thought

In Filters Against Folly, Garrett Hardin suggests that are three modes of thought. Literacy, numeracy and ecology. Thinking in words, thinking in numbers, and thinking in relationships, scale and higher order effects.

Historically, the developments in abstract thought have come in the order listed above. First, we thought in and communicated with words. Initially, orally, and then with the written word. After that, numbers were invented, and between antiquity and modernity we’ve begun to quantify and model more and more of the world. More recently, as the complexities and interdependencies of the contemporary world have become apparent, ecological thinking has become the priority. Our current epistemological status suggests that if we don’t think in terms of ecology then we will cause irreversible harm to the ecosystems—both natural and artificial—that we rely on.

That’s the past and the present. What about the future?

thinking through time

I’m of the opinion that there’s a fourth mode of thought. It is not so much distinct from the first three than a combination of them with a little something extra blended in. Resources like Wikipedia—emphasis on language and ecology (via links)—and software like Mathematica—predictably, mostly numerical—hint at what’s possible, but I don’t believe they go far enough. No, the fourth mode of thought I’m imagining incorporates the abstract and the concrete. It folds in the physical. Two examples of this come from books that I read on the same day. From Hannu Rajaniemi’s short story, Topsight:

“Everything looked the same–except there was a faint green outline around her suitcases. She looked at them.
Suddenly, they become serpents of green light, flowing out of the door and beyond, highways of ghost suitcases that extended all the way to the horizon. She followed them with her gaze and was swept up, a bodiless viewpoint looking down a green line drawn across Britain and the North Sea, crisscrossed by a moving, shifting spiderweb of airplane routes. She blinked and was back in her body. Her legs trembled.”

Sounds a little bit like augmented reality, right? The story continues:

“London, a great blaze in the mouth of the river. Emotion maps made from halo data spread over the city. Little stars where people had sex, great blue swathes of sleep, a network of yellow stress and anxiety of the early morning commuters. Financial markets crashing over them with waves. With a thought, she could go back and forth in time, like in Threads, except it wasn’t just a timeline of people; it was a timeline of everything. It showed how everything fit together. But Threads were there too, social networks forming and dissolving. She saw how they fit with the locations and economics and the transportation and the great snakes of economy that swallowed all the little serpents of light that made the world work.

And then she saw Bibi.
She was there, in the weave of Topsight, a little thing that moved between big things, making connections, pushing, nudging. The app was not just for seeing, but for changing.”

Rajaniemi’s Topsight is a way of seeing and being in the world that emphasises ecology and is experienced viscerally by the user.

Another example—two actually—of the future of thought comes from Greg Egan’s Diaspora. First, an example that emphasises the physicality of abstract thought.

“Yatima experimented, deforming the sphere into a succession of different shapes. ‘I think you’re right. But how does that help?’
Radiya remained silent. Yatima made the object transparent, so ve could see all the triangles at once. They formed a kind of coarse mesh, a six-pointed net, a closed bag of string. Ve straightened all twelve lines, which certainly flattened the triangles — but it transformed the sphere into an octohedral diamonds, which was just as bad as a cube.”

It isn’t necessary to understand the context of that scene to see that Yatima is physically manipulating abstract objects in order to gain intellectual insight, similar to how we might silently tinker with a mechanical device to glean its inner workings.

A page later, Yatima is in the Truth Mines.

“..a cavernous space with walls of dark rock, aggregates of grey igneous minerals, drab brown clays, streaks of rust red. Embedded in the floor of the cavern was a strange, luminous object: dozens of floating sparks of light, enclosed in an elaborate set of ethereal membranes. The membranes formed nested, concentric families, Daliesque onion layers — each series culminating in a bubble around a single spark, or occasionally a group of two or three. As the sparks drifted, the membranes flowed to accommodate them, in such a way that no spark ever escaped a single level of enclosure.
In one sense, the Truth Mines were just another index-scape. Hundreds of thousands of specialised selections of the library’s contents were accessible in similar ways — and Yatima had climbed the Evolutionary Tree, hopscotched the Periodic Table, walked the avenue-like Timelines for the histories of fleshers, gleisners and citizens. Half a megatau before, ve’d swum through the Eukaryotic cell; every protein, every nucleotide, every carbohydrate drifting through the cytoplasm had broadcast gestalt tags with references to everything the library had to say about the molecules in question.
In the Truth Mines, though, the tags weren’t just references, they included complete statements of the particular definitions, axioms, or theorems the objects represented. The Mines were self-contained: every mathematical result that fleshers and their descendants had ever proven was on display in its entirety. The library’s exegesis was helpful — but the truths themselves were all here.
The luminous object buried in the cavern floor broadcast the definition of a topological space: a set of points (the sparks), grouped into ‘open subsets’ (the contents of one or more of the membranes) which specified how the points were connected to each other — without appealing to notions like ‘distance’ or ‘dimension’. Short of a raw set with no structure at all, this was about as basic as you could get: the common ancestor of virtually every entity worthy of the name ‘space’, however exotic. A single tunnel led into the cavern, providing a link to the necessary prior concepts, and half a dozen tunnels led out, slanting gently ‘down’ into the bedrock, pursuing various implications of the definition. Suppose T is a topological space . . . then what follows? These routes were paved with small gemstones, each one broadcasting an intermediate result on the way to a theorem.
Every tunnel in the Mines was built from the steps of a watertight proof; every theorem, however deeply buried, could be traced back to every one of its assumptions.”

I suspect you didn’t get as excited about the above passages as I did. Understandable. But to me those passages are the first manifestations of a possible future of thought that have really struck home. It is the above possibilities that cause me to get excited about the work that Bret Victor and co. are doing at Dynamicland. For example, take a look at this post from Omar Rizwan which details the “Geokit”, a “a ‘kit’ or ‘library’ for building and viewing maps.” After describing the kit in great detail, Rizwan concludes:

“Why maps? Personally, I’ve been interested in maps and cities and public transportation and infrastructure for a few years, and I haven’t gotten to do much original work around that interest, so Dynamicland seemed like a good place to explore it. I was excited to build an idiomatic-feeling ‘kit’ with parts, instead of a one-off program like my earliest work here.

I think maps highlight the advantages of breaking out of the screen. We insult an entire tradition of large, information-rich maps when we cram them onto tiny phone screens, then crowd around them and make finger gestures to squeeze answers out bit by bit.

I figured that in Dynamicland, we could have maps that actually looked like maps. We could have multiple people sitting around a map at a table, sharing a large view, but also applying computational filters and derivations to get at their individual interests. You could explore many places and ideas at once, and keep track of them on the table in front of you, instead of constantly sacrificing context on a limited screen.

Dynamicland is great at spatial interfaces, and maps are spatial. You get tools like dot tracking, page tracking, whiskers, and rotation, as well as whatever else you can tie in from the physical world.

And maps involve real information from the world, which makes them more relatable than a visualization of some mathematical model. I’ve seen plenty of people whip out lenses and turn zoom knobs and poke at layers in an attempt to learn about the place where they grew up. Maps are an early opportunity to use this technology to ask real questions about the world, the same way that I use my phone or laptop to ask questions.”

The history of thought was largely about words and numbers. Currently, the emphasis is on ecology. But in the future? I suspect words, numbers and ecology will still be central to how we understand, but how exactly we go about thinking with them will change. The thing that was key to our evolution—our hands—will regain their lost esteem and technology will develop that enables us to play with abstract information in a definitely physical way.

A final lense for looking at the future of thought: in James Ash’s The Interface Envelope a concept called “resolution” is described in the context of video games. Obviously, we all understand it in relation to vision, either hi-res or low-res. But he talks about it in relation to interaction. For example, first-person shooter games often have the player navigating an arena composed of indoor and outdoor areas. Those areas include typical everyday objects like tables, chairs, doors and walls. A low-resolution environment means that the player cannot do anything with these everyday objects. They represent constraints. Doors are implacable constructs; tables and chairs can’t be moved or used; doors are either open or closed. In a high-resolution environment, however, these things can be used by the player. They represent possibility. A player can knock down or build a wall, climb on top of or hide under a table, pick up a chair and hit another player with it.

Right now, most of the information we consume is low-resolution. We can’t interact with it. Sure I can read a paper book, deface its pages with ink and fold down corners, but I can’t manipulate the text itself or the ideas the text describes. Projects like Explorables are changing this, but they still require me to utilise a glowing rectangle. In the future, glowing rectangles will be obsolete and we’ll exist in a physical world that is augmented with digital technology and comes alive with the information we choose to layer atop it.

At least, that’s what I’m imagining. What do you see the future of thought being?