A few things I would like from a tool for thought:
Broad creative range-of-motion
Broad creative range-of-motion. You want a medium with enough variety to enable open-ended expression of thought. Text is a good place to start, sketching is probably next. In the digital medium, I equate this goal with open-ended extensibility, formats that can evolve.
Composability. SaaS traps your thoughts in a box. This is a side-effect of the web’s feudal structure, which is rooted in client-server network topology, reified by the same-origin security model, reinforced by the way the web fuses data and UI together, and reflected in the rent-oriented business models that support the web.
But thoughts are more interesting when promiscuous. How might we free our thoughts from the confines of SaaS boxes? Can a tool for thought support composability with other tools?
When a tool supports composition with other tools, it supports open-ended evolution. At that point, all of the other ways in which it might be terrible become incidental, because an evolutionary system will always be more expressive than one that isn’t.
Ownership. My thoughts are mine. I don't want my second brain to live on someone else's computer. I would like a tool for thought that affords me the freedom to create permissionlessly, on my own terms, and not on the terms of some EULA.
Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.
George Orwell, “1984”
This seems like a minimum bar. Your brain is your own. Maybe let’s do at least as well as 1984.
Here is The Complaint Tablet to Ea-nasir, 1750BC.
Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message…
What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.
“Complaint tablet to Ea-nasir”, translated by A. Leo Oppenheim, 1967, in “Letters From Mesopotamia”
Perhaps a museum housing your life in 15-minute increments, or a tool preserving your complaint for 3770 years is aiming a bit too high? Yet, if you’re building a second brain, these scraps are your livelihood, maybe even your lifework.
How long does a typical SaaS company last? What happens when it sunsets? Good luck with all those .json files.
We should be building tools that last decades, not years. A tool-for-thought should be able to see through at least one lifework.
Papers are far more durable than programs (think Mozart)
Simon Peyton Jones, “How to write a great research paper”
Another way to look at this: can we do better than an index card?
An index card offers:
Broad creative range-of-motion: write, type, sketch…
Composability: stack them, tuck them into books, put them up on a corkboard, use them in games…
Ownership: you can do whatever you like with an index card.
Durability: choose acid-free paper.
…for a fractions of a penny.
It would be nice to build The Internet of Ideas on a foundation that is at least as good as an index card.
Broad creative range-of-motion, composability, ownership, durability. I find it difficult to gesture toward these design goals without a software example to point toward. SaaS and Aggregators dominate our computing experience to a degree that it becomes difficult to visualize other relationships to software. Yet an example has been staring me in the face for the last 14 years: Camera Roll.
I want to consider the Camera Roll as a tool for thought…
Broad creative range of motion. Capture IRL. Screenshot anything. Pixels can be used to represent anything.
Composability: move image files in and out of the app freely. OCR to copy text out freely. Files are broadly supported by other tools. Annotate an image with preview, edit in in Photoshop, drag-and-drop into a web-app…
Ownership. You own the data. You can do anything you like with it. Modify, remix, copy, share without having to ask permission.
Durability. .jpgs and .pngs are going to be around for a long time. They’re part of our technological infrastructure. You have the files. This alone affords decades of durability.
Camera roll is a high water mark for everyday indispensability, data ownership, freedom to create, interoperability, long-term durability. It’s also self-organizing, algorithmically generating albums that reflect your experiences back to you in a new light. Self-organization is a major theme for Subconscious.
I don’t think it is an accident that much of the generative creativity on mobile happens through the camera. Camera roll is the most open-ended part of the mobile ecosystem. Bottom-up permissionless creation in an expressive medium.