Monday, August 10, 2009

Philosophy of mind and innovation

In this post I'm going to talk about a possible measure of success for creating new innovations in software. To start off, I'll put some links to put this more into context: Here's a semi-graphical timeline of the development of the GUI. Here's one of my posts made in 2007, where I'm talking about how working with computers becomes more of a conversation than it has been before. Mainframes and the likes just accepted batch jobs and you'd type the command, hit enter and that's it. In web 2.0, the computer is more or less looking over your shoulder what you type, point at and do on the screen and then if it thinks it can help you out with something, it'll pop up some helpful hint or thing next to your focal point. It is related to what we know about and how we think about our bodies and minds.

And all of this started with philosophy, thus it started with the Greek: Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. The first thoughts there however were meta-physical. What is the world made of? What does it mean to be alive? In this context, the most important thought is the separation of body and soul. The years after that, most thinking is based on the philosophy of the greeks. The middle ages turned this around a bit with the introduction of religious thought into philosophy itself. Many people tried to explain things through the use of religious ideas. And then came the others to found modern philosophy, amongst them René Descartes.

Descartes is one of the founders of modern philosophy. In his discourse about the philosophy of mind, he introduced the concept of dualism. He also considered ideas about the working of the human body. The interesting thing here... the explanation used mostly analogies and was inspired by the progress of machinery, tools and things in real life that existed at the time. In that time, the functioning of nerves and blood vessels wasn't entirely clear. For 1,500 years, people thought that "animal spirits" governed the human body. However, during the time of Descartes, certain developments were underway, like the start of hydraulics. Basic, mechanic machines could be built. Descartes knew about those and imagined the body as a kind of automaton as well. To the best of his knowledge, he tried to explain how the body worked, and used the concepts that he had available to him. After Descartes, the thinking about psychology, the mind, the brain and how it all worked together really set off. In a sense, you could also say that the way how we started thinking about things just notched downwards one level.

At this time, the thoughts about the mind didn't really go further then: "there are mechanics at work that bring sensation to a central point somewhere in the brain". This central point was imagined to be a mystic piece of the puzzle [the soul?], where thoughts occur and what can be said to be the 'I, self', when you think. So, in that time, since people observing the machines in those days clearly understood that such a machine was not alive, they didn't (perhaps not all) imagine that the machine could actually produce human thought. But, some people that did not understand its function did say that the machine can be made to do anything we ask it to do.

The function and design of the machines were still used as analogies to explain how other processes could work in the human body. Physics and mechanics research has thus certainly helped the developments in medical science to better understand the function of the heart as a pump and the fluid dynamics of blood in the vessel.

This is just a tiny grasp from everything that's happened in thinking about the mind, surely, but there's not a lot of space left on this post to continue :). It's best to read it from this excellent source I found here: Courtesty Dr. C. George Boeree.

So, philosophy started with the Greek, seeding a new science called psychology along the way and in the 20th century already at the start, we started building computers.

Why is all this "philosophy stuff" relevant?

Well, if you look at the developments in philosophical thinking and the developments in machinery, they seem to go pretty well in step. This is not because they are directly tied together, but because other developments in neuroscience, psychology, electron microscopes and imaging techniques need to be developed in order to .... start asking the right questions. And philosophy, psychology, design, artificial intelligence and sciences are the most important scientific research sources for finding those questions and hopefully the answers.

Analogous to the comparison of the mind to the technology of every age, we also see that we (re)construct our ancient tools into newer technology available. But hold on there... Shouldn't this be new tools in new technology?

Consider the desktop for example. The GUI timeline at the top is a resemblance of how we introduced the computer to the general public. The GUI works great, I don't say it should never have been developed, but there are very old concepts still present in there. Take the desktop and its applications for example:
  • The trash bin is literally there and even called the same.
  • MS Powerpoint is basically a digital slideshow projector with edit functions.
  • MS Word is clearly inspired by writing on paper, thus the typewriter.
  • The "file manager" looks like a filing cabinet in the older GUI's, but this is slowly being replaced by "explorers". The explorer still has a hierarchical view of files however.
I think one of the reasons why this was done is to make it easier for users to familiarize themselves with the environment in which they were 'operating things'. But now that everyone is accustomed to the use of a computer, more or less, there doesn't seem to be a reason to maintain this ancient set of tools in this new environment.

So, one of the problems in software innovation is related to imagination, it's certainly not about technology. A good example for starting to get rid of powerpoint is prezi. Prezi is reminiscent of the concept of mindmapping, but that is great. What is the most important difference between prezi and powerpoint?

Powerpoint is a digitalization of the slideshow projector. Mindmapping is an attempt to convey thought and their relations between them. The first is putting an old thing into a new jacket with more features. The other is understanding the mind, understanding cognition, knowing your mind and how it works, how we consume information better, what allows us to make proper distinctions, what allows us to make better judgements, communication and what allows us to easily derive the correct context and then developing a method to enable that process.

So, to finish off my post in 2007: "Conversation with the machine" with the question:
"How can/will/should user-machine conversations evolve from this point onwards?"
I think innovation should focus on following and enabling the natural flow of cognitive processes, not on the reconstruction of ancient tools of communication and processing, like mail becoming e-mail. Before you feel the urge to send out a mail to someone, there is a reason, a motivation. What if we start from there instead and just consider the computer the ultimate tool in visualization and computation? Oh yeah, and it has connectivity as well.

( footnote: There are certainly other tools like keynote+iMovie and Adobe flash that can be used to produce a prezi-like presentation. Prezi is just mentioned, because I think it is a good example of how to think "out of the box" ).

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