Tools extend human capabilities. From levers to steam engines, tools have augmented human muscle power. Parallel to this, other tools, such as writing and mathematics, extended our brain power beyond the individual. For almost a century now, computers have exponentially extended the reach of our thoughts.
Our brains are messy, particularly mine. Computers extend logic, but they have trouble mapping randomness. Translating the chaos of our minds into a logical framework has bedeviled human communication, collaboration, and group cognition well into the computer age. We continue to struggle to connect the chaos of our brains logically to the chaos going on in other peoples’ heads.
This is not something new. Writers live in this chasm. One of my favorite writing quotes is from Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, “Give a man a book, you entertain him for a night. Teach a man to write, you give him crippling self-doubt for life.”
A writer never knows how his or her thoughts are going to be interpreted. Will they be obvious, impenetrable, or laughable to the reader? Translating thoughts into linear text is a painful process (and one that I’m going through right now).
Even reading can be a fraught exercise. I have read the same text as someone else and come away with entirely different thoughts and interpretations of its meaning, what’s important, and even things that the author himself is describing but doesn’t fully understand. If I read an account of Ukrainian soldiers advancing through Russian defenses, I may extract a tale of improvisation and adaptation to circumstances. Others would certainly focus on the human suffering in the story. If I share the story, which story am I sharing?
We live in our own heads. It is incredibly difficult to understand how someone else will interpret or understand our words and actions. Creating tools to overcome this gap is a complex exercise under the best of circumstances.
Great writing comes close to achieving it, but few of us can make words line up that effectively. As Charles Bukowski puts it, “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” (Notes of a Dirty Old Man, p. 207) “Art” is ordering communication.
Digital technology excels at ordering. Can it we apply it to ordering our chaotic thoughts more easily than the pain of pen and paper, or do the barriers lie somewhere else? This question has bedeviled much of my life and career. I have always been naïve enough to believe that technological solutions can expand the circle of “artists,” as Bukowski describes it.
I am constantly seeking ways to enable the artist in others. Often, I have used this as a prompt to construct an array of tools that stretch from physical to digital environments. These tools share one core purpose: they attempt to smooth the chaos of our thoughts so that we can share them with other chaotic brains.
Physical environments, like the many learning spaces I’ve designed over the years, can provide technologies to facilitate a wide range of connections. We can apply similar approaches to virtual spaces like the concept mapping spaces I’ve developed for my classes or the virtual networks of conversation I maintain with colleagues.
Both examples create maps of interaction for those who use them to augment their own minds. Effective learning and innovation spaces create networks that facilitate the sharing of ideas, both online and in-person. They help those who use them navigate complex narrative pathways collectively.
Complex thought mapping can also take us to the meta level. For instance, with the latest tool in my arsenal, the Tool Augmentation Tool, I am building a system to map the thought processes that I use when making decisions about technologies or systems that support those technologies. The goal is to provide a map for ordering thoughts while still giving space for others to inject their creativity into the process.
This is a complex map. I have constructed a set of tutorial pages designed to provide help for those who want to use it as a self-service tool. However, it may require an expert hand to steer through it. This is because, even after more than a year of attempting to simplify tool analysis, I recognize that there is no substitute for experience, mistakes, and iteration. This defines the limits of my narrative map.
Mapping our thoughts on the various tools is an arduous exercise. Just like with reading and writing, once you give the tool to someone else, they create their own narratives. These may or may not align with the narrative you have intended for the tool.
This is particularly true if systemic forces have trained your audience to think in ways that are misaligned with the intent of your narrative. For example, in my classes, I want my students to play and fail. This is central to any learning process. However, they have been trained by the system that failure is bad. They expect tangible rewards for just about any activity. I call this transactional teaching. It subverts many of the narratives my tools are trying to establish.
With the Toolset Project and the Tool Augmentation Tool, the challenge is that most of us have learned over the last 30 years to accept technological tools and innovations first, and then to adapt our practice around them. When we were told to go online, we were given systems to graft our in-person practices on to. This approach didn’t work very well. The resulting experiences have been disappointing.
This systemic reality has conditioned most of the audience for the Tool Augmentation Tool to accept tools as they are and to extol the virtues of this tool over another. We can use the TAT in this manner, but where its actual power lies is when we use it backwards and map tasks first before developing appropriate tools.
With the TAT, I have at least opened the door to this kind of exploration, but I suspect that it will be employed to evaluate tools before it will be employed to augment tasks. We often take tasks for granted and rarely break them down like Diana Laurillard does for teaching. As we peel that onion, we see how complex the activities are that we are trying to model when we map interactions with each other and those we seek to teach.
Balancing complexity with clarity is another acute challenge. This is a problem with game design. Simple and fun are often at odds with accuracy and richness.
Games are tools. Tools are games. As we construct games, we hope participants will chart a path through their mechanisms to achieve certain outcomes.
Games can teach lessons. Likewise, complex tools are maps of potential tasks. Like a game, they must balance order and chaos. We like to think ideas are not random. However, some of the best outcomes incorporate unexpected ideas from outside the usual procedural flow.
Our tools must support that without becoming too chaotic themselves. The conceptual tools we construct must also consider a certain aspect of randomness in order to stimulate innovation (or learning).
Creating an oscillation between lateral/chaotic thinking and an ordered process is central to any successful brain simulation. This is how our brains work. Thoughts float in and out randomly and then, occasionally, they coalesce into a moment of clarity. Communicating these ideas so others can understand is often critical to this process.
Building tools that synthesize order and chaos is in itself a process of ordering chaos. We now have the technological tools to do this at scale. The hard part isn’t the technology. The hard part is our brains. Shall we play a game?