[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Tool for Thought

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The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Essay: Tool for Thought
January 30, 2005


    One often hears from younger writers that they can't imagine how
    anyone managed to compose an article, much less an entire book, with a
    typewriter. Kerouac banging away at his Underwood portable? Hemingway
    perched over his Remington? They might as well be monastic scribes or
    cave painters.

    But if the modern word processor has become a near-universal tool for
    today's writers, its impact has been less revolutionary than you might
    think. Word processors let us create sentences without the unwieldy
    cross-outs and erasures of paper, and despite the occasional
    catastrophic failure, our hard drives are better suited for storing
    and retrieving documents than file cabinets. But writers don't
    normally rely on the computer for the more subtle arts of inspiration
    and association. We use the computer to process words, but the ideas
    that animate those words originate somewhere else, away from the
    screen. The word processor has changed the way we write, but it hasn't
    yet changed the way we think.

    Changing the way we think, of course, was the cardinal objective of
    many early computer visionaries: Vannevar Bush's seminal 1945 essay
    that envisioned the modern, hypertext-driven information machine was
    called ''As We May Think''; Howard Rheingold's wonderful account of
    computing's pioneers was called ''Tools for Thought.'' Most of these
    gurus would be disappointed to find that, decades later, the most
    sophisticated form of artificial intelligence in our writing tools
    lies in our grammar checkers.

    But 2005 may be the year when tools for thought become a reality for
    people who manipulate words for a living, thanks to the release of
    nearly a dozen new programs all aiming to do for your personal
    information what Google has done for the Internet. These programs all
    work in slightly different ways, but they share two remarkable
    properties: the ability to interpret the meaning of text documents;
    and the ability to filter through thousands of documents in the time
    it takes to have a sip of coffee. Put those two elements together and
    you have a tool that will have as significant an impact on the way
    writers work as the original word processors did.

    For the past three years, I've been using tools comparable to the new
    ones hitting the market, so I have extensive firsthand experience with
    the way the software changes the creative process. (I have used a
    custom-designed application, created by the programmer Maciej
    Ceglowski at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal
    Education, and now use an off-the-shelf program called DEVONthink.)
    The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings
    and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read
    over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas,
    and the ideas that have influenced me.

    Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more
    than help me find my notes faster. Yes, when I'm trying to track down
    an article I wrote many years ago, it's now much easier to retrieve.
    But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I've
    forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn't know I was looking

    What does this mean in practice? Consider how I used the tool in
    writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in
    brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human
    brain's remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I'd
    then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other,
    similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be
    returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial
    expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still
    others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the
    chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new
    association in my head -- I'd forgotten about the chimpanzee
    connection -- and I'd select that quote, and ask the software to find
    a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had
    taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the
    machine had assembled for me.

    Compare that to the traditional way of exploring your files, where the
    computer is like a dutiful, but dumb, butler: ''Find me that document
    about the chimpanzees!'' That's searching. The other feels different,
    so different that we don't quite have a verb for it: it's riffing, or
    brainstorming, or exploring. There are false starts and red herrings,
    to be sure, but there are just as many happy accidents and unexpected
    discoveries. Indeed, the fuzziness of the results is part of what
    makes the software so powerful.

    These tools are smart enough to get around the classic search engine
    failing of excessive specificity: searching for ''dog'' and missing
    all the articles that have only ''canine'' in them. Modern indexing
    software learns associations between individual words, by tracking the
    frequency with which words appear near each other. This can create
    almost lyrical connections between ideas. I'm now working on a project
    that involves the history of the London sewers. The other day I ran a
    search that included the word ''sewage'' several times. Because the
    software knows the word ''waste'' is often used alongside ''sewage''
    it directed me to a quote that explained the way bones evolved in
    vertebrate bodies: by repurposing the calcium waste products created
    by the metabolism of cells.

    That might seem like an errant result, but it sent me off on a long
    and fruitful tangent into the way complex systems -- whether cities or
    bodies -- find productive uses for the waste they create. It's still
    early, but I may well get an entire chapter out of that little spark
    of an idea.

    Now, strictly speaking, who is responsible for that initial idea? Was
    it me or the software? It sounds like a facetious question, but I mean
    it seriously. Obviously, the computer wasn't conscious of the idea
    taking shape, and I supplied the conceptual glue that linked the
    London sewers to cell metabolism. But I'm not at all confident I would
    have made the initial connection without the help of the software. The
    idea was a true collaboration, two very different kinds of
    intelligence playing off each other, one carbon-based, the other

    IF these tools do get adopted, will they affect the kinds of books and
    essays people write? I suspect they might, because they are not as
    helpful to narratives or linear arguments; they're associative tools
    ultimately. They don't do cause-and-effect as well as they do ''x
    reminds me of y.'' So they're ideally suited for books organized
    around ideas rather than single narrative threads: more ''Lives of a
    Cell'' and ''The Tipping Point'' than ''Seabiscuit.''

    No doubt some will say that these tools remind them of the way they
    use Google already, and the comparison is apt. (One of the new
    applications that came out last year was Google Desktop -- using the
    search engine's tools to filter through your personal files.) But
    there's a fundamental difference between searching a universe of
    documents created by strangers and searching your own personal
    library. When you're freewheeling through ideas that you yourself have
    collated -- particularly when you'd long ago forgotten about them --
    there's something about the experience that seems uncannily like
    freewheeling through the corridors of your own memory. It feels like

    Steven Johnson is the author, most recently, of ''Mind Wide Open.''
    His new book, ''Everything Bad Is Good for You,'' will be published in

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