Tools for Thought

As you read this, your mind is active, but your body is still. That’s because computers unleash the mind, but suppress the body. 

Sitting at a desk all day is debilitating. Artificial exercise is proof of this. Gyms are evidence of an intellectual environment that doesn’t consider our basic need for activity and movement. As Marshall McLuhan famously said: “First we shape our tools. Then our tools shape us.”

The current shape of computers is an accident of history. Computers are relics of the Literate Age when books ran the show. There were good reasons for the dominance of books. For years, words on a page were the best way to spread ideas across space and time.

Unfortunately, we’ve regressed. When it comes to activating the body, computers are even worse than books. You can hold a book. You can feel the pages and touch the dry ink. Better yet, when you’re working with pen and paper, you can move freely between drawing and writing because the pen and paper don’t care which one you pick. 

As musician Brian Eno said

“What’s pissing me off is that [computers use] so little of my body. You’re just sitting there, and it’s quite boring. You’ve got this stupid little mouse that requires one hand, and your eyes. That’s it. What about the rest of you? It’s imprisoning. So, we need to make whole-body computers that get the heart pumping, through which we can dance out text and pictures and messages? Why haven’t we done that yet?”

The only way to interact with a computer is with a keyboard, and keyboards restrict us to manipulating symbols such as letters and numbers. Bret Victor, whose doing the best work on the relationship between tools and thought, said

“This is the cage that we have trapped ourselves in. This is the way that we have constrained our range of experience, which we have created a tiny subset of our intellectual abilities and have forbidden ourselves to use our full intellect.”

A quick aside: I wonder how much Descartes’ theory of mind-body dualism from the 1600s has influenced the current shape of computing. Basically… Descartes said the mind and body were distinct and separate. He equated intelligence with the mind, not the body. In that way, by activating the mind but suppressing the body, books and computers are a reflection of mind-body dualism. 

And yet, many creatives have transcended the intellectual constraints of mind-body dualism. For example, Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman famously used physical movements to aid abstract thoughts. As James Gleick wrote

“[Physicists] found they needed imagery…a style of thinking based on a kind of seeing and feeling. That was what physical intuition meant. Feynman said to Dyson, and Dyson agreed, that Einstein’s great work had sprung from physical intuition and that when Einstein stopped creating it was because ‘he stopped thinking in concrete physical images and became a manipulator of equations.’ Intuition was not just visual but also auditory and kinesthetic. Those who watched Feynman in moments of intense concentration came away with a strong, even disturbing sense of the physicality of the process, as though his brain did not stop with the grey matter, but extended through every muscle in his body.”

Here’s the good news: Recent technological breakthroughs have unlocked new ways of spreading knowledge and processing information. With enough productive effort, we can build computers that draw on our full range of physical and intellectual capabilities.

Right now, we’re inventing the Dynamic Medium — the next medium of thought after the printing press. Computers can make us active. Shifts in technology can re-integrate the mind and body. Armed with dynamic methods of computing, we can create new forms of knowledge work which activate both body and mind. 

I dream of a future where computers encourage mobility, integrate the mind with the body, promote physical health, and accelerate intellectual progress.