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June 26, 2021

Why is our thinking on computers so restrained?

The computers we use are so capable, it’s almost hard to even fathom what we can do with them.

We largely have not explored completely new models for computer thinking native to the digital realm. We only use concepts native to the physical world, simulated digitally.

Let’s start with one example of what we have today: files and folders.

My primary notes app is home to a large variety of things:

  • Thinking (which I do by writing as I think)
  • Writing (drafts of things I’m preparing to publish)
  • Learning (notes on books I’m reading or topics I’m studying)

Plus a few other things.

I do each of these things among a few different sets of topics — music, software, and so forth.

And each of these things I like to categorize as:

  • Up Next (where I put all of the articles, podcasts, concepts, and so forth I stumble across and would like to dive into soon)
  • Now (the things I’m working on at the moment)
  • Past (essentially an archive of these things)

Any one note might be in three areas here: an idea might be in Thinking, Now, and Software. Or a book I want to read next might be saved in Learning, Up Next, and Music.

But my primary notes app follows the standard files-in-folders method of organization, so I have to choose one hierarchical organization. Only one of these methods of organizing my notes can be the first-order organization. If I want to organize further, my second-order organization folders would need to be replicated within each of the first-order folders. For example:

  1. Thinking
    1. Up Next
    2. Now
    3. Past
  2. Writing
    1. Up Next
    2. Now
    3. Past
  3. Learning
    1. Up Next
    2. Now
    3. Past

This also means I always have to think of my notes in this way; whenever I want to dive in, I must think in this specific arrangement every time: Type first, status second.

Sometimes I want to look at all of my books: I’d like to see what I’m reading now, what’s up next, and what I’ve read recently. Sometimes I want to look at everything that’s up next: books, podcast episodes, saved articles; everything.

Sometimes I want to look at specifically what software books I have listed as up next. Or I want to see all the books on music I’ve finished recently. Or just the saved articles, on any topic, I’ve listed under up next. Or what thinking I’m in the middle of fleshing out right now, in any topic. Then maybe I’d like to focus in on one topic.

Each of these represents a different perspective into my things I have in different situations. With a files-in-folders hierarchy, the experience is quite frustrating, as I have to bend my use of the software to suit its model — which is a model of the physical world, simulated digitally! There’s lots of clicking and cobbling together a general idea of what I’d like to see at any moment.

The computer is capable of so much more. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to see and interact with my things in ways that suit each of my uses throughout a week.

Yet, in many apps, not even tags and labels solve this problem without constant searching.

It might be difficult to fully consider the ways you would be able to reflect your own true thinking or uses in a well-suited software concept because we are so used to the metaphors our software has been based on for the last 50 years. But I implore you to try! Consider what ways your uses or thought processes could be more naturally reflected within your digital tools. (And if you want to share your thinking, my inbox is always open!)

To sum up: Today, our computers still only augment our thinking by mirroring how we operate things in the physical world. It affords us no new models of thinking that we didn’t have before, just tweaked and scaled in different ways.

In the physical world, a file goes in a folder. If it has something to do with a file that belongs in another folder, we just kind of need to remember that association. This is how our digital tooling works too, even though digital things have no constraint requiring such a compromise.

Over the years, we have introduced new models for thinking, but we largely have not explored completely new models for computer thinking: ways of thinking about things and organizing them native to the digital realm. We mostly use methods native to the physical world, simulated digitally.

Why is this? Is it so hard to think about things beyond physical realms that our brains can’t keep up? (I hope that’s not it.) Have we simply not stumbled into the right ideas yet? Or are we iterating our way towards those concepts, just slowly? Really, there’s no way to know looking ahead.

What kind of thinking is native to the digital realm? What hints do we have today to show us the directions that ought to be explored further?

As always, thanks for coming along on this thought experiment. And if anything stokes your own thinking on this, let me know!

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