Subconscious napkin sketch
What am I up to with Subconscious? So the other day I made this quick napkin sketch and I’m realizing it’s a pretty good "grand unified model” for how I’m thinking about designing a tool for thought:
This quick sketch is a mashup of several theories that have influenced my design process, including…
Diverge/converge, which lets us imagine creativity as a two-phase process. First, we we create choices through brainstorming, research, recombining, remixing, etc. Then we make choices by synthesizing, connecting, editing, removing, refining. (Explored in Getting lost in the land of ideas.)
Cybernetics, which asks us to see processes as feedback loops. Have you ever put a microphone too close to a speaker? Like that. Output becomes input to a recursive process unfolding across time. (Explored in Knowledge gardening is recursive, Unconscious R&D, Building a second subconscious, and The knowledge ecology.)
Pask’s Conversation Theory, which sees knowledge as conversational process. Knowledge exists subjectively in each of our minds, and we construct it through conversation with others. (Explored in Notes are conversations across time.)
Evolution as a process that happens in any system with mutation, heredity, selection. (Explored in Self-organizing ideas.)
So back to the napkin sketch… What if we reimagined diverge/converge as a single moment within a larger conversational feedback loop—one where the outputs of convergence become the inputs for new creative divergence?
This is the lens through which I’m designing Subconscious. It’s a tiny app with just a few features, carefully chosen to help you diverge, converge, and close meaningful cybernetic loops.
Many features in Subconscious map to either the diverge or converge phases of knowledge construction. Other features carefully close feedback loops so that the polished outputs from a converge step become inputs for a future diverge step. This feedback process turns your notes into a conversation across time that causes knowledge to self-organize from the bottom-up. That’s the goal, anyway.
So, how do Subconscious features fit into this model? Let’s look at a few…
(Converge) Search-or-create: one of the core game mechanics in Subconscious is inspired by Notational Velocity, a classic open source notes app. The key idea is to create notes through a search flow. This micro-interaction closes a convergence feedback loop. Every time you enter a new idea, you’re recursing over old ideas. Often you find yourself editing, or refactoring an old note, instead of creating a new one. (Status: alpha-1)
(Converge) Rename-or-merge: riffing on search-or-create, Subconscious also offers rename-or-merge. When you give a note the same name as another note, Subconscious will merge the two notes together—another convergent feedback loop. (Status: alpha-1).
(Diverge) Geists are little bots that live in your Subconscious, doing useful things. Some Geists will be focused on issuing oracular provocations. Others will take old notes and collide them in new ways, to provoke new ideas. (Status: prototype).
(Converge) Link suggestions: Subconscious also finds notes that seem to be related, and helps you link them together, both while you’re editing (status: alpha-1), and passively via Geists (status: prototype).
(Diverge) Follows: This one is further out, but from the beginning I’ve pictured Subconscious as a multiplayer experience. One of the most meaningful ways to diverge is to riff creatively with others. Chris has been investigating IPFS as one possible mechanism for enabling multiplayer. (Status: research).
Subconscious alpha-1 is getting closer. Just a few issues left in our milestone before we can start distributing test flight builds.
What to expect: as hinted above, alpha-1 will be focused on laying foundation—a simple little iOS app with search-or-create as its primary game loop. Don’t expect too much! In later alphas we’ll start to roll in Geists. I suspect that’s when things will start to get interesting.
If this sounds useful, and you’re willing to be patient as we build the plane in flight, sign up for Subconscious Alpha waitlist.