Building a Second Subconscious

I'm building a new tool for thought. I have a general sense of the direction I’m traveling, but I will be as surprised as you are at what I discover along the way. I'm posting these little emails like trail markers every week or so. I'll share updates, patterns I encounter, snippets of books and papers.

The gist is that I’m building a creative oracle that helps provoke ideas. It also captures those ideas, and remixes and resurfaces them, provoking more ideas... in a feedback loop that powers a flywheel of divergent creative thinking.

Tools like Anki close feedback loops to help you memorize facts. I’m more interested in closing feedback loops to generate creative divergence. More tarot than flash cards. Tarot for thought.

It’s going to look a bit different, a bit weird, in comparison to other tools out there. More about that in a future update.

In Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich describes a kind of tool that is shared in common, and which expands personal creative freedom and communal interdependence. He calls these convivial tools. Bicycles, libraries, and sewing machines can all be convivial tools.

This is a nice lens. What if this new tool-for-thought were a convivial tool? What might that look like?

Here is my bicycle.
Here is my bicycle for the mind.

Building convivial tools means breaking with much of the standard SaaS/Aggregator playbook, where a company owns and controls the software and the data. I don't want to store my brain on someone else's computer. What if we instead had a small tool that was personal, multiplayer, distributed, evolvable?

  • Personal: Your data is yours. You can move it in, move it out, take it with you. The tool is also yours. You can use it as you like, and combine it with other tools.

  • Multiplayer: Personal doesn’t have to mean solitary. One of the most interesting ways of thinking is thinking together. “Knowledge production is a group activity, not an individual one.” (Engelbart).

  • Distributed: It’s a bummer that SaaS companies own most of our infrastructure for thought. I think it would be valuable if some of our infrastructure for thought was not-owned, or rather, owned by you, owned by everyone, interdependently, through some mix of federation, or p2p, maybe.

  • Evolvable: Everyone thinks differently. I would like a tool with building blocks you can remix and evolve for new ways of thinking, new use-cases. An open-ended tool you can repurpose to your creative needs.

It's easy to forget, but the web began as a tool for thought, and it had many of these same properties — personal, multiplayer, distributed, evolvable. It lost most of the personal and distributed aspects as it grew into an app platform. Perhaps we might carve out a bit of space for those again? At a minimum, we should be able to build a small, convivial tool for thinking.

If you want to make a living flower, you don't build it, you grow it from the seed.
—Christopher Alexander