Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tools and Thoughts

I recently bought and read Bailey, James (1996) After Thought. The Computer Challenge to Human Intelligence New York: Basic Books. It makes some interesting claims. One of them has to do with the difference between Babylonian and Greek astronomy and mathematics. The claim is that the ancient Babylonians used Algebra to solve their problems, while the Greeks used Geometry. He then goes on to claim that this has to do with the fact that the Babylonians used clay for writing, whereas the Greeks had access to papyrus, using a quote from George Owen (a historian):
The clay tablet lends itself most readily to an abstracted shorthand notation, whereas, while well-drawn geometric figure may well have had their aesthetic appeal, they could not consistently be produced in clay. Algebraic problems were well suited to the writing media (p. 58).
This presupposes not only that the Babylonians never drew figures in sand, on walls, etc., but also presumes that the writing media strictly determine what you can think and that you can therefore reduce thought to the tools by means of which you express these thoughts.[1]

I doubt that it is that straightforward. Tools provide affordances, making certain things easier than others, but they do not rigidly determine what approach we must take. You can use a grapefruit knife as a screwdriver, after all.

Later in the book, Bailey quotes approvingly the philosopher of science N. Norwood:
Thinking new thoughts in a conceptual framework not to designed to express them requires unprecedented physical insights. In the history of physics few could sense the importance of things not yet expressible in current idioms, The task of the few has been to find means of saying what is for others unsayable (p. 107).
Indeed! And this goes against the strict determinism he seems to advocate before.

Furthermore, I don't think this is as rare as Hanson thinks. Isn't that what every person tries to do, who takes writing seriously, try to say what others could not say (whatever the reason for they inability may be). It's just that most of us don't succeed in going far beyond the current idiom of thought. The use of a certain kind of software application has something to do with this, but less than some people claim.

One other interesting quote for note-taking:
Before we can attempt to measure anything we must have a preliminary ideal of what we wish to measure. But it would be most unwise to give that ideal a rigid definition at the outset, because the experience gained during the process of measurement should be allowed to react upon and refine the ideal" (p. 155).
Just substitute "take notes" for "measure" and "taking notes" for "measurement."[2]

1. This does not mean that I want to deny that computers allow us solve mathematical problems we could not have solved without them, just as I do not want to deny that a steam engine allows us to do things we could not have done with our muscles alone. That is, the main thesis of his book is not invalidated by this claim (I think).

2. This is also quoted by Bailey (from Lewis Richardson). I found the quotes the most interesting parts of the book.


Gunther said...

I haven't read the book and don't think that the tools we use limit our thoughts to such an extent. However, I think that our tools do shape our thoughts as long as we aren't aware of it and limit ourself to only a few tools. For example, if one has to describe a complex problem with a spreadsheat application it is most likely that the problem gets chunked into small and possibly disconnected pieces that fit into the table structure and that superordinate aspects (which may describe the problem much better) are lost. Maybe a solution could be to change tools now and to use new and unfamiliar ones to evoke new thoughts. – Apropos: If I remember correctly Nietzsche was the first German writer who had a typewriter and made the observation that the tools work on our mind too ("Die Werkzeuge arbeiten mit an unseren Gedanken").

MK said...

See, for instance, Adorno and Nietzsche, or Nietzsche's Thoughtwriter or Derrida on the Word Processor.