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    • Remember
    "The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think."

    Now that we understand the importance of intention and the conscious acceptance of (some) constraints as that which breeds personal freedom, we can present our thesis for the week:

    Taking back the web has to do with three fundamental pillars:


    Augmenting our ability to think for ourselves


    Reclaiming our time


    Extending our ability to cooperate

    To establish our first pillar, we'll mix a Vannevar Bush essay from 1945 and a 2019 essay from Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen:

    As We May Think


    Transformative Tools for Thought

    How does this fit into Kernel?

    We must be clear on what "taking back the web" means. The internet came with grand dreams, though we're mostly stuck with artificial social spaces, overwhelming algorithms, and extractive incentives which are mining our attention as a means of propping up a failing economy.

    These two essays draw out a common thread of thought stretched across 74 years in order to illustrate what sorts of freedom are actually on offer in this world wide web of ours. Since 1945, one critical feature has revolved around constructing new media for free and creative thought.

    At first, this may seem unrelated to blockchains, but tools for thought are public goods and suffer from the same problem of incentives as all other public goods. They are thus the perfect example of common patterns for humanity which require us to understand why programming regenerative incentives matters, and what economic code can really be used to achieve in the long-term.

    "The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected."


    We'll be taking great liberties by summarizing these seminal essays extensively, so we recommend you take the time to read them in full. There is no substitution for knowing your roots, or observing closely how the branches grow today.

    Vannevar Bush is writing as Director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development at the end of World War II. His aim was to interrogate what all the scientists would do once the war is over. In his essay, he urges scientists to take on the massive task of making our bewildering store of knowledge more accessible. This is about a new relationship between thinking humans and the sum of what we know. He begins with an idea we will return to with Juan Benet: cooperation.

    "The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership [...] They have been part of a great team. Now, as peace approaches, one asks where they will find objectives worthy of their best."

    Prompt: Vannevar Bush's essay begins as a plea for ___________ between scientists so as to make the shared record of human knowledge more __________.

    Reveal reminder

    cooperation, accessible.

    Didn't remember

    Free yourself to work together

    Pointing out that science has given us increased control over our environment, improved how we meet our basic needs, boosted health (mental and physical), extended lifespans, provided swift communications and allowed us to create a record of ideas that endures beyond any one individual life, Bush comes to the central problem we still face today:

    "There is a growing mountain of research [but we] cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, all the conclusions of others as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial [...]

    "The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record."

    This is Bush's central theme, and it is timeless. We discussed how the record we use for establishing our shared history and for recording our transactions became one and the same thing in 2009, but we have yet to attend to this central question: how can we best consult it?

    The technology of the 1940's was very different, and Bush spends much time discussing first the rise of complex machinery with interchangeable parts which could serve reliably, then the advances in photography and facsimile transmission, followed by the advances in voice recording. He uses these ideas to imagine a world where scientists walk around with a camera on their head, recording their observations (both verbal and visual) and storing these on microfilm, which is the core technology he uses to spool out the rest of his ideas.

    "A record, if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted."

    "[Using microfilm] the Encyclopædia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk [...] Compression is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it [...] Compression is important, however, when it comes to costs. The material for the microfilm Britannica would cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent."

    Prompt: Even in 1945, it was not enough to make our shared records accessible. We need to figure out how to best use them. To be truly useful, a record must possess what three features?

    Reveal reminder

    Continuous extension, efficient storage, collaborative means of consultation.

    Didn't remember

    Section 4 is about mechanization of the repetitive processes of thought which, to Bush, includes advanced analysis because actual creative thinking is concerned only with the initial selection of data and the process to be employed. The manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence can be relegated to machines. Our technology must allow users

    "to free their brains for something more than repetitive detailed transformations in accordance with established rules [...] A mathematician is not one who can readily manipulate figures [...] S/he is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, capable of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes employed."

    Section 5 begins with the manipulation of logical processes beyond arithmetic and then dives into the final and most critical affordance the human record might provide: effective consultation.

    Selecting the trail

    "We can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This [...] involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge. The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed [...] Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing.

    "[Instead of alphanumeric indices] the human mind [...] operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain."

    Bush introduces the concept of a device termed the "memex"—a supplement to memory which would combine microfilm, recording technologies, and associative selection. It wouldn’t be as fast or flexible as the brain, but it could at least improve the clarity and permanence of our recall.

    "This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing [...] Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space."

    Bush is really talking about building "user trails" through these associative indices. In much the same way that one book is the associative trail of a mind moving through and selecting certain information; Bush has designed a machine to build trails of trails. These trails could also be shared: my trail passed into your memex and vice versa - a far more efficient and less lossy means of collaboration than simply recommending a book or two.

    "Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified [...] There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record."

    Bush then spends some time speculating on technologies which directly manipulate the human nervous system. He ends with this:

    "[Science] may yet allow us truly to encompass the great record and to grow in wisdom. We may perish in conflict before we learn to wield that record for our true good. Yet, in the application of science to our needs and desires, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome."

    Prompt: The most critical aspect of useful shared records, and the one we are worst at is consultation. This requires that we improve what prime action when working with information?

    Reveal reminder


    Didn't remember

    The mnemonic medium

    Media for thought are all around us: Bush cites the abacus which, through the positional display of number relationships, led the Arabs to the concept of 0. Media for thought create powerful immersive contexts in which to explore new classes of ideas which were formerly inconceivable. Matuschak and Nielsen take this much, much further.

    💡 If our media help us remember what matters, we may find our minds are already free.

    "Alan Kay summed up the optimism of this dream when he wrote of the potential of the personal computer: 'the very use of it would actually change the thought patterns of an entire civilization' [...] for better and worse, computers have affected the thought patterns of our civilization over the past 60 years, and those changes seem like just the beginning."

    Prompt: Media for thought, like the abacus - or like money and writing - create powerful what?

    Reveal reminder

    Immersive contexts (which can change the thought patterns of civilizations).

    Didn't remember

    Leveraging the insights of cognitive science, we can create media that make it less effortful to remember what you've read. The medium builds in the key steps involved in memory. In our context, it might mean adopting highly specialized flash cards in an essay, and spaced repetition (SRM) reminders after reading. This method may sound trivial, but it takes advantage of a fundamental fact about human memory: as we are repeatedly tested on a question, our memory of the answer gets stronger, and we are likely to retain it for longer.

    Matuschak and Nielsen discuss many preliminary results and argue that though this may sound like "just" an essay with fancy flashcards, simple media can be profound in their unexpected implications. Just look at writing. Or money.

    Why all this focus on memory, though? Will building mnemonic media really free our thought?

    Remember, Bush showed how new media free our brains from rote tasks: mathematicians are not calculators, but people skilled at intuitively grasping higher order logic.

    "Memory systems can be extraordinarily helpful for mastering abstract, conceptual knowledge [...] because of the way the mnemonic medium embeds spaced repetition inside a narrative. That narrative embedding makes it possible for context and understanding to build up."

    The key is how you craft the cards. Critically, the questions should ensure that people don't just learn surface features, and they need to help users in innovative ways when they do forget. One suggested way to do this entails encoding memorable stories into the mnemonic medium such that the mnemonic media actually carries two texts: the original one and the reflected one built up by the knowledge embedded in the questions and the way they are being asked.

    Now, it would be a mistake to think that a good memory system simply boils down to spaced repetition. There are many other potentially rewarding approaches, for example the so-called ‘method of loci’, which helps people remember lists of objects by visualising themselves walking through familiar surroundings and placing the objects in prominent spots along the way.

    Furthermore, the broader notion of memory systems as tools for thought extend far beyond the development of specific techniques. Matuschak and Nielsen’s overarching idea is to make a scalable memory laboratory which can answer some very deep questions about human memory, how it might be improved and practised, and what impact it can have on our thought and learning.

    "We’ll see that memory systems are a small part of a much bigger picture [...] Seriously developing memory systems is likely to lead to one or more transformative tools for thought."

    Prompt: What are media with embedded flashcards and spaced repetition trying to make effortless for you?

    Reveal reminder

    Remembering what you've read.

    Didn't remember

    Network structures for knowledge

    Seeing this broader perspective allows us to ask much deeper questions, like:

    💡 What is the ideal network structure of knowledge?

    💡 What does memory have to do with understanding and creativity?

    Conceptual mastery and creativity is supported by a mastery of details. By alleviating the problem of memory, a mnemonic medium could make it easier for people to spend more time focusing on other things, making the awkward early stages of learning easier to get through. The link between memory and mastery goes even deeper though, right down to the idea of "chunking", as demonstrated with chess masters.

    "Players learn to recognize somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000 patterns of chess pieces. These much more elaborate 'chunks' are combinations of pieces that the players perceive as a unity, and are able to reason about at a higher level of abstraction than the individual pieces [...] Memory is, in fact, a central part of cognition."

    Of course, we still need to know what to memorise and consider what the impact of such media will really be on people's cognition and behaviour. Maybe exchangeable ‘user trails’, like Bush imagined in '45, could be useful? Perhaps encoding them as 12-word mnemonics inside a world computer might lead us somewhere interesting?

    Prompt: Creativity is largely enabled by what?

    Reveal reminder

    Mastery of detail.

    Didn't remember

    Designing insight

    To round off the first half of their essay, Matuschak and Nielsen venture into a discussion of what it would have taken to get from Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numerals from a design perspective.

    "The design and mathematical insights are inextricably entangled: the mathematical insights are, in some sense, design insights, and vice versa [... This is] a general truth: the most powerful tools for thought express deep insights into the underlying subject matter [... Mnemonic media] will express deep original insights into memory [...] A truly great memory system will be cognitive science of the highest order."

    This general truth reveals the deep difference between what Alan Kay called "pop" and "research" cultures. Pop culture is great at producing the kind of products we consume, but is insufficient for creating new tools for thought.

    "The warning is this: conventional tech industry product practice will not produce deep enough subject matter insights to create transformative tools for thought [...] The aspiration is [...] to create a culture that combines the best parts of modern product practice with the best parts of the modern research culture."

    "[W]e are not making the common argument that making new tools can lead to new subject matter insights for the toolmaker, and vice versa. [...] Rather: making new tools can lead to new subject matter insights for humanity as a whole (i.e., significant original research insights), and vice versa, and this would ideally be a rapidly-turning loop to develop the most transformative tools.

    "Doing this is a cultural struggle. It seems to be extraordinarily rare to find the insight-through-making loop working at full throttle [...] You have researchers, brilliant in their domain, who think of making as something essentially trivial, 'just a matter of implementation'. And you have makers who don’t understand research at all, who see it as merely a rather slow and dysfunctional (and unprofitable) making process."

    Extending our mnemonics

    The second half of the essay explores tools for thought more generally, starting with two videos well worth experiencing yourself.

    "Watching this video is a remarkable emotional experience. It’s obvious the person narrating the video loves mathematics, and you cannot help but empathize [...] It’s tempting to overlook or undervalue this kind of emotional connection to a subject. But it’s the foundation of all effective learning and of all effective action [...]

    "Is it possible to create a medium which has the emotional range possible in video – a range which can be used to convey awe and mystery and surprise and beauty? But which can also firmly ground that emotional connection in detailed understanding, the mastery of details [...][...] To create an integrated medium, with a unified and carefully crafted emotional and intellectual experience?"

    We must take emotion as seriously as movie, music, and video game designers do. All of these people have elaborate models for emotional response, which must be taken into account if we are to augment our freedom to think with digital tools.

    Matuschak and Nielsen argue that progress has certainly been made within the field of developing good tools for thought, but because it doesn’t take place in the context of an actual academic or professional discipline, progress is slow and ad hoc.

    Prompt: The foundation of all effective long-term learning is what?

    Reveal reminder

    Emotional connection to a subject.

    Didn't remember

    "What’s needed is the development of a powerful praxis, a set of core ideas which are explicit and powerful enough that new people can rapidly assimilate them, and begin to develop their own practice."

    The authors also note that tools for thought are public goods. Thus, they suffer from the same issues around funding as open source software does. The challenge is not only financial: it speaks to the heart of what we value as a culture, and so building the right kind of practices and processes is primarily a cultural endeavour, rather than one in which we spend endless hours writing grant applications. Why devote yourself to an open-ended endeavour like this which isn't as well-funded as many other sectors in tech? Well:

    "Consider our most fundamental tools for thought – language, writing, music, etc. Those are public goods [...] These tools are all about introducing introduce fundamental new mental representations and operations. Those aren’t owned by any company, they’re patterns owned by humanity."

    "The creation of language – the ur tool for thought – is perhaps the most important occurrence of humanity’s existence [...] Similarly, the invention of other tools for thought – writing, the printing press, and so on – are among our greatest ever breakthroughs."

    What might new tools for thought really look like?

    "If we could communicate the experience in an essay, then the tools would be failing at their job; they would not be transforming a person’s thinking, or even their consciousness."

    Our contention is that protocols for money are one such tool. However, to experience what such a medium might do for your thinking, there is no way around actually using it over an extended period of time while trying to be aware of the effects.

    Executable books

    Matuschak and Nielsen take their exploration of new media for thought one step further, by considering the way in which computer scientist Peter Norvig once presented an economic argument about what actually determines long-term wealth inequality. It turns out it's not the initial distribution of money, but rather the nature of transactions (i.e. are they only “win/loss transactions”, or is there more nuance to the kinds of transactional relationships people can form?). This result may be surprising or even hard to believe, but–and this is the point in our context–because it is arrived at computationally in an open-source Jupyter notebook, you can test it yourself, and are invited to find initial distributions which do effect long-term inequalities if you can. Matuschak and Nielsen call this "scaffolded exploration":

    "Scaffolded exploration: is a way to build up your own understanding, and perhaps even push the frontiers of knowledge [...] It’s tempting to regard [Jupyter notebooks] as merely a mashup of essay and code. But really they’re a new media form, with different possibilities from either essays or code, and with striking opportunities to go much further."

    "There’s a general principle here: good tools for thought arise mostly as a byproduct of doing original work on serious problems [...] Furthermore, the problems themselves are typically of intense personal interest to the problem-solvers. They’re not working on the problem for a paycheck; they’re working on it because they desperately want to know the answer."

    Prompt: Embedding narrative into new tools for thought encourages what process as a way to build up your own understanding?

    Reveal reminder

    Scaffolded exploration.

    Didn't remember

    For the developer of tools for thought, however, the ultimate aspiration is to expand the range of the medium and set a new standard, similar to what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for movies. Matuschak and Nielsen suggest that one fun project would be to develop an executable form of the most recent IPCC climate assessment report:

    "Instead of a report full of assertions and references, you’d have a live climate model [...] for people to explore. If it was good enough, people would teach classes from it; if it was really superb, not only would they teach classes from it, it could perhaps become the creative working environment for many climate scientists."

    One beautiful example of this is an executable book called The Structure and Interpretation of Classical Mechanics:

    "Many theorems of classical mechanics aren’t just expressed in static form, on the page, but live, as code which can be modified by the user. Theorems become APIs, which can literally be applied to other objects, and chained together. It uses a much more powerful underlying model than Jupyter, developing a new symbolic language as part of the book."

    Emotional ends

    Such executable books can combine engaging top-down presentations with the kind of detailed, technical minutiae required for the reader to build a true understanding from first principles.

    "You can imagine starting an executable book with, say, quantum teleportation, right on the first page. You’d provide an interface — perhaps a library is imported — that would let users teleport quantum systems immediately.”

    "You could begin an executable book with material the users already care about, can connect to easily, and find motivating. For instance, you could begin by exploring teleportation or the Big Bang. But such an opening won’t suffer the drawback of popular science, of being vague and imprecise. Rather, the interface would be completely well specified. And with some care, the interface could be scaled out, applied in ever-expanding contexts. The understanding would be transferable. Even a user who has understood only a tiny part of the material could begin tinkering, building up an understanding based on play and exploration."

    This is the first part of what it really means to "take back the web". It's about building public tools for thought which - like language - are really patterns owned by humanity as a whole, in which we can playfully explore with each other the very edges of our shared record of knowledge, adding new pieces as scaffolding for those who follow to continue the fun.

    Prompt: Stories encoded into new kinds of canonical media which simultaneously allow for greater emotional connection and technical specificity are public tools for thought that create understanding based on what two activities?

    Reveal reminder

    Play and exploration.

    Didn't remember

    "Kinship mind is a way of improving and preserving memory in relationships with others. If you learn something with or from another person, this knowledge now sits in the relationship between you." - Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk

    Memory only exists when distributed

    An interesting tangent for advanced readers

    This section is not directly related to the above and we recommend it only for people who are really passionate about this topic and the implications that wider senses of memory have for both individual and collective perception.

    Few people in our neighbourhood of the decentralized web have done more thinking about memory than Kei Kreutler. We'll end this piece with a presentation by her in which she shows how relationships are necessarily the ground of any practical, resilient, and memorable commons. The point that ties it all together is the focus on relationality: the sort of emotional affect that gets people to really care about what and how they learn is most readily found in one another. We can come up with any number of new media which advance our ability to remember what we learn along any number of dimensions. Our contention - which is also Kei's point - is that the most effective (and affective) will always be those that connect us to others immediately.

    Even this point about relationality is nuanced though, as Kei describes well when examining how public 'public' tools for thought need to be. Collected here are some of critical insights from her presentation for further reflection:

    Technology can be read as changes in the production of memory.

    The practice of software begins to resemble closely the practice of memoria and, specifically, the memory theatres of Camillo, which constitute memory as a public space; a kind of virtual architecture for an incomplete image of the world. Software begins to look like the closest medium to memory itself we have produced.

    Lore is what happens when feedback from the worlds around us become articulated in media that outlast and outgrow us, inhumanly. Lore is a very specific type of memory that articulates its aliveness in its structure.

    Abandon the model of memory as a discrete object in a database. Instead of having human and "inhuman" keepers of databases, we can have guides that orient and pass on how to navigate them: database doulas to some degree.

    Despite the need for many different kinds of relationships in any resilient practice of encoding memory, Kei reminds us of just how critical it is to consider the notion of 'public' when exploring tools for thought. Where is the line between privacy for the oppressed and accountability for the powerful? How can tools for thought help different communities remember and express what they wish to without exposing themselves to censorship or further exploitation?

    Zero knowledge memory may lead to the most resilient form of mnemonic institutions that blockchains can provide. I know that you know that I know without knowing what I know. It's a kind of handshake that preserves both human mystery and dignity at the same time. Reflecting on what these different types of memory-preserving practices are that we enact as communities, as DAOs, as individuals will likely benefit each of us in the long-term.

    "Your only joy, and your only rest, is to pass from one action performed in the service of the human community to another action performed in the service of the human community, together with the remembrance of God." - Marcus Aurelius


    For truly dramatic unfolding between mind and machine, "the idea that I am me — the person who doesn't know what I haven't learned — has to go away. It is this same idea that often gets in the way of learning anything new."

    Fantasies We Can Walk Through

    The Rebirth of Magic

    The Original

    The Original

    Please enjoy the original 1945 article, replete with old school adverts!

    The Summary


    If this was too much to read, here is the simple summary.

    🦄 Freedom
    The Present Time