Cognition Enhancing Technologies

7 minute read

Against all expectation, I got a job. Sort of. I’m working with a non-profit org, We Think Code, that teaches software development skills (not just programming!) to people new-to-programming who likely might not otherwise have access to such opportunity. My role is in curriculum development, where I work (async, remote) as a small part of a stellar team, helping to write lessons that “Help students become the developers we want to see & work with in the world.

This is by way of introducing why I’ve been thinking so much lately of my old friend/enemy/favourite problem: How might we design (and build, and evolve) software better. A subset, really, of the broader problem of designing complex systems, itself a subset of the question, “How can we become better at thinking?

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve made a point of talking to many people in design spheres other than software – physical architecture, mechanical design, industrial design, interior design, aircraft design,… – in an attempt to distil out the common elements. An attempt to answer the questions, “What is ‘design’, how do we tend to go about doing it? What goes on in a human mind when they come up with a more successful design for a better widget?” So far I’ve been quite unsuccessful, but I live in hope. Perhaps it’s that the subject is just too big to tackle in a single, unified way…

The question of how we might do better at designing and building software systems is quite bound up (in my mind, anyway) with the questions of how we might get better at teaching programming and software design/construction. Because let’s face it: most software is dismally shite.

All of which is my roundabout way of trying to explain why I got thinking about the Key Cognition-Enhancing Technologies we (humans) have invented/developed/evolved to date.

What do I mean by Cognition-Enhancing Technologies? I mean technologies (in the broadest sense) that, once invented/discovered allow us to think in qualitatively different ways than we could before the invention. They allow us to think new things, and to think in new ways – ways that were previously literally unthinkable.

It’s also worth mentioning that, while technologies that enhance the cognitive capabilities of an individual are certainly interesting and useful and well worth talking about, it seems to me that the technologies that enable us to collaborate, cooperate and work better in groups have higher leverage and so must be regarded as more important. Or, at least, more powerful. More key. After all, so much of what we build and create is done in groups.

Mike’s List of Key Cognition-Enhancing Technologies

So here’s my list. Ping me if you think I have missed some. The list is not intended to reflect any timeline-of-discovery, nor any relative importance.

  1. Pictorial representation/visual art.
  2. Music.
  3. Speech/language.
  4. Writing/reading – freezes speech into a form that survives transport through space and time. We can influence people/hack minds who will not be born until long after we ourselves are dead and/or who live in places we’ll never reach.
  5. Alphabet. An invention so profound we only ever needed to invent it once. Ever.
  6. The printing press – allowed us to reach many, many more people with our writing, allowed us to hack many more minds than we could hope to influence previously. The first broadcasting technology.
  7. Mathematical notations. We might consider this an outgrowth of writing/reading, but I think that, where writing/reading encodes speech, mathematical notations encode something more abstract – numbers, shape, motion, cause-and-effect, relationship. Perhaps the first concretisation of pure thought. “Mathematical notations” probably should explicitly include “descriptions of algorithms”, including things like cooking recipes, knitting patterns, instructions for brewing beer. Music notations.
  8. Graphical summarisation/representation: that picture of Napoleon’s disastrous Moscow Winter Campaign, graphs in general, maps. A marriage of [1] and [7].
  9. Standardised Units of Measure. Hard to overstate the importance of this one, though it’s a bit more subtle in its effect than most of the other CETs mentioned here.
  10. Telecommunication technologies – starting with heliographs and signal flags, fires on a hilltop, but really taking off with the invention of the telegraph. There’s a natural continuity back to letter-writing and postal communication (so it’s an evolution of [4]) because those are the steps that have evolved into sharing-ideas-quickly-over-long-distances – an enhancement of the printing press.
  11. Computers. Previous to this algorithmic notations could/were only executed/executable by humans. Now we can farm some of that execution out (the simpler bits, anyway) to a piece of machinery and are no longer reliant on hands and brains to execute those algorithms.
  12. Computer networks. The marriage of [10] and [11] allow us to extend algorithmic execution in space and time, and for those executions to collaborate among themselves, without our own in-the-moment interaction, to leverage the results of other executions.

(All of this is probably more usefully represented as a graph showing the natural evolutions of one cognitive technology to another, the fusion effects of earlier technologies resulting in a quantum leap in capability. Also missing in the above is much mention of how these are also/part-of/have their counterparts in Memory Technologies – they allow us to externalise memory, and this impact should not be slighted.)

The real point is that these are technologies that actively hack our primate brains, allowing us to not merely think “more”, but to think “better” and most importantly to think in ways that were simply impossible prior to the evolution at each step.

Notice, too, how these CETs compound, one upon another. The first few took thousands of years to become ubiquitous, the last a mere handful of decades. Each technology that allows us to think “better” means that we’re that much more likely to come up with new cognition-enhancing technologies that enable us to think ever more betterer yet, and the effect ratchets. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, this makes me – a Singularity Atheist – worry that Kurzweil may have sussed something that I dis.

Somewhere in there I probably ought to put “Understanding how the mind functions” as a key CET. It’s still developing, but we seem to be making some progress in that area. It’s not so much the physical mechanisms, but the cognitive mechanisms I refer to here. (And perhaps psychedelics play a part in this in the near future and might allow us to break free from linear/logical/fragmentary/analytic modes of understanding/perceiving the universe.)

I might easily have put wikis in the list of CETs somewhere (about 11.3, I suppose) but, while I think they certainly qualify as a CET, I don’t really regard them as a key CET. Wikis are more like writing/reading technology, with the advantage that writings may be arranged in a graph rather than only linearly. Zettelkästen were an early, lower-tech way to do much the same thing. I might have to change my mind on the how wikis play in this space.

I believe I am beginning to glimpse what it was that Goldberg, Engelbart and Kay were trying to do (and Vannevar Bush) in trying to build “live” or “active” documents (though “document” conveys a very poor image, indeed) and asking questions around how we might better represent algorithms — how might we programme computers better and understand computer programmes better?

How might we build models of complex systems faster and allow non-specialists to tweak their parameters, twiddle the knobs, to enable better comprehension of and insight into fast-moving complex problems. Pandemics, disinformation campaigns, war. Right now the tools those people have are woefully antiquated, dismally inadequate, and it’s hurting us all.

Reach out if you think that, together, there’s anything useful we might do about this.

This is an early version, a rough draft. Better to solicit feedback early than late. It’s likely I’ll I have come back to edit and refine some of these thoughts. I’ll probably do more of that. One of the advantages of this “computerised, networked writing CET” is that we can do this without having to print and distribute an entire Second Edition. A useful addition to this CET would be some way to enable readers to look back through time to see the evolution of the writing/thinking as those edits come along.

Update 2022-03-06: Added Alphabet as a CET separate from Writing. It’s a key step in modularising the way we do a thing, and such modularisations (“chunking”) seem to be close to the heart of how we make things easier to think about, how we add leverage in our thinking toolset.

Update 2022-11-27: Added Music as CET, along with relevant references. Also some minor language tidy.