Back in November of 2020, I wrote the first issue of Bytesized on human-computer interfaces. That issue was informed a great deal by two things I had been exploring deeply at that time.
The first was an excellent book called The Dream Machine, which explored the history of computing and the early work to make computing accessible to the world at large.
The second was a category of tools that I’ve seen referred to as tools for thoughts – transformative writing and creative work environments inspired by some of the earliest prototypes of computer software, and topics that people like Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson, and Bret Victor have been exploring over the last fifty years.
In this issue of Bytesized, I’ll break down the (surprisingly) burgeoning field of tools for thought, why it matters, and how it’s different than the status quo of tools and software that we’re using right now.
Unlike many of the other issues this month, on things like Vim, Emacs, and VS Code, this category is a little bit looser, as a lot of the software is pretty new – that’s funny, considering that many of the ideas and principles are grounded in the very beginnings of computing and imagining how we best do our creative work on computers.
Tools for thought you should know
Roam is the best productivity tool you probably haven’t heard of. Roam is like Notion and Evernote with a remarkably powerful association engine underneath: known canonically as backlinking, it allows every single atom of content you’ve written in your Roam workspace to be indexed and referenced throughout your creative work.
The simple way to think of it is like an interactive personal wiki – what if you could build a Wikipedia for your brain that was responsive to the things you’re writing and thinking about?
The more complex way to think about Roam is as a fluid space for ideas, as explained by Anne-Laure Le Cunff:
Most mind mapping tools only allow you to connect high level concepts together. Mind mapping is a great thinking tool, but Roam takes it a step further. In Roam, each note becomes a node, and there’s no central concept you have to start with. The map is fluid, with no hierarchy, no stacking, no linearity. It’s a giant knowledge web representing your notes and the connections between them. Instead of a limited mind map, you can craft an infinite mental atlas. As Khe Hy explained in his Roam tutorial, “You basically have the potential to crawl an entire digital workspace at the most atomic level—the idea.”
Notion is responsible in many ways for the resurgence in tools for thought. As an evolution of Evernote and even a simple website tool, Notion has captured a great deal of the market in the tools for thoughts space with the thesis that your documents, your spreadsheets, and everything else can live inside a single workspace.
As we’ll look at later in the newsletter, Notion has a killer growth loop in that people love to show off their Notion tooling, and we’re even seeing a move towards paid products and packaged workflows from experts in the Notion space.
Athens is, put simply, an open-source Roam. This is important because for all of Roam’s virtues, it remains a fairly-closed product – your content lives in Roam, your workflow lives in Roam, and, as startups sometimes do, Roam might disappear!
Athens has a super active community – I’ve hung out in their Discord for a long time and was pleasantly surprised to find a bunch of folks interested in the tools for thought space as a whole.
At time of writing, the software isn’t quite ready for primetime, but if you find Roam works for you and want something open-source, it might be worth it to become a supporter of Athens and get access to the early builds of their software.
are.na is a radically different way to approach the ideas behind tools for thought. In practice, it’s like Tumblr meets Pinterest, but with an extremely creative and interesting community curating collective knowledge in a variety of disciplines.
Check out are.na’s Examples page to get a sense of the vibe on the site: it’s easily a place to lose an hour to just clicking around and exploring, and could even be a fun place to start cataloguing your favorite coding or design examples, or whatever else you’re into.
- Craft – Mac/iOS-focused take on Notion-style documents. Thanks to Colby Fayock for the share!
- Foam – VS Code-based Roam alternative with a super active community and GitHub repository.
- Dendron – another VS Code-based personal knowledge management tool. Ian Jones is actively updating an Egghead.io course on how to use Dendron that I’ve been enjoying.
Understanding tools for thought
Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen’s 2019 essay on tools for thought is an extremely compelling and approachable look at how tools for thoughts can enable deeper learning and creative work, derived from their experience developing Quantum Country, a set of interactive essays introducing readers to quantum computing.
Here’s Andy and Michael on the vision for tools for thought:
We believe now is a good time to work hard on [tools for thought] again. In this essay we sketch out a set of ideas we believe can be used to help develop transformative new tools for thought. In the first part of the essay we describe an experimental prototype system that we’ve built, a kind of mnemonic medium intended to augment human memory. This is a snapshot of an ongoing project, detailing both encouraging progress as well as many challenges and opportunities. In the second part of the essay, we broaden the focus. We sketch several other prototype systems. And we address the question: why is it that the technology industry has made comparatively little effort developing this vision of transformative tools for thought?
This article from Vannevar Bush, an American engineer, explores the idea of the memex, a device “in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility”.
More remarkable is the date that Bush published his piece in The Atlantic: July of 1945. This forward-thinking article posits that as many people begin to move into what we now call knowledge work, that the organization and hierarchy of information, now theoretically limitless in size and scope, will begin to be a hindrance to doing our best creative work.
This piece was a huge inspiration to the work that many early computer scientists did in building personal computers, and while the memex as an idea has been subsumed into computing at large, it’s worth rereading: many of the ideas still haven’t been truly implemented even with modern software.
The previously mentioned Athens Research, which works entirely in public via their open-source repo, published a Vision document in which they talk about Athens, the burgeoning space of tools for thought, and why things like Athens and knowledge management tools in general should be built in public, via open-source.
What it looks like in practice
Fifteen hundred words later, and you might be asking: who’s actually using this? For all the high-minded talk about how tools for thought can have an impact on our creative work, there needs to be some actual examples of people using it in practice. Here’s examples of compelling writers, developers, and products in the tools for thought space.
Nat Eliason writes about how he uses Roam, how it’s changed his creative process. Digging deeper into his YouTube channel, you can see examples of how he writes and organizes his time entirely in Roam.
Marie Poulin’s Notion dashboard is an operating system (more on that in a second) for her entire life, and in this interview with the Keep Productive YouTube channel, she shows how she uses it to organize her life and her business.
I mentioned the growth of Notion products earlier in this newsletter – Newsletter Operating System is a great example of this. Newsletter OS is a set of workflows, templates, and tools for writing and growing your newsletter, powered entirely by Notion. It’s an interesting look at how we might use tools like Notion to provide singularly designed spaces for doing creative, focused work.