My 26 Favorite Essays of 2019
As part of my year-end review, I always review my favorite reading of the year. These usually tend to be “long-form” online essays diving deep into interesting ideas.
Revisiting my notes on these articles serves three functions:
- Helps me absorb their ideas more deeply
- Serves as a reminder to think about how I can use their ideas as building blocks in upcoming projects
- Reveals clues about where the next year’s learning may take me
This year I’ve decided to write a review of each of the most important essays I discovered in 2019. Each one includes a short summary of what it’s about, the main idea I took away from it for my own work and life, and a link to my full notes if any.
They are presented in no particular order.
1. The Curse of Xanadu (Gary Wolf)
This long article is a complete history of the longest-running software development project of all time: the quest to create a “universal, democratic hypertext library” that would allow humans to evolve into the next stage of evolution. It was called Xanadu, and it was conceived in the 1960s by computing visionary Ted Nelson. It was both an inspiration for generations of computer scientists, programmers, and designers, and a spectacular failure at delivering working software. It is a fascinating tale at the intersection of human ego and hubris, and the ever-expanding capabilities of computer software.
The idea I took away: there are predictable, repeating failures common to projects that seek to create the “ultimate” knowledge management system. Xanadu is the most famous of them, but its lessons are present in many other similar projects. I like to learn from the successes of others, but find that learning from their mistakes is even more helpful. Also, it is possible to succeed at popularizing an idea, without actually delivering on its promise.
2. Fast earners: South Korea’s millionaire, celebrity schoolteachers (Anna Fifield)
For some time I have been predicting the rise of “superstar” online teachers who command the same following, prestige, and earnings as film and music celebrities. Someone on Twitter sent me this article, describing such a trend already happening in South Korea. These instructors are like rock stars, complete with paid endorsements, multiple product lines, and multimedia content with sky-high production values. As is often the case, the future is already here, in Asia.
The idea I took away: online education increasingly looks like other media industries such as gaming, music, and film – a tiny percentage of producers dominate the rankings, and command vast followings. They are best understood as cross-platform multimedia brands based on their unique personalities and styles. The old institutions of education no longer have a stranglehold on access to students, and the very best teachers can now make a lot more money and have a much bigger impact teaching thousands of people across the globe. I’ll continue to be an evangelist for the growth of this trend.
3. Intro: Finding Our Place (Packy McCormick)
This series opened my eyes to a trend I hadn’t seen coming: the rise of IRL (in real life) membership-based communities. It makes a lot of sense and it’s something I’ve felt myself: we are spending so much time online that it has created an epidemic of isolation and loneliness. People long to connect with others in the flesh, to be seen and to communicate in intimate ways that are still only possible in person. Some of these groups are based on identity, some on interest, and some are general groups for professionals.
The idea I took away: the explosion of the Internet over the past couple decades has created a vacuum of connection. People want and need to look each other in the eye, to share their experience and hear that of others. The pendulum of community is starting to swing the other way, and a new generation of membership groups are arising to meet that need. In May we are facilitating our first week-long, in-person immersion to explore the philosophical implications of building a Second Brain. I’m thinking more and more about the role of in-person experiences in growing our business and community.
4. Workshops as Portals (Tom Critchlow)
This detailed, excellent post sums up an idea I’ve had brewing for a long time: workshops can be used in a far more strategic and powerful way than most people realize. More specifically, they can be used as “portals” into a client’s business, allowing you to gain clarity about how you can best work together as a bridge to long-term retained work. This might seem like an extremely niche idea, until you realize how many problems it solves for independent contractors of all kinds (who will soon make up a majority of the workforce). It allows clients to get comfortable “sparring” with you, make them feel that you’ll listen closely, understand their real underlying problems, determine whether they have the budget to solve them, demonstrate that you have something to offer, understand the team dynamics, understand the full context for the work you’ll be doing, and identify any hidden blind spots they might have.
The idea I took away: designing and running workshops is a “meta-skill” that is valuable far beyond professional facilitators and trainers. It is a multi-purpose format that is useful to kick off any kind of collaboration or engagement between people who haven’t worked together before. It can also be used for testing new ideas and validating new products. This makes it a candidate for a course, and I have it on my radar to develop such a course in the future.
5. First Men and Original Sins (Adam Roberts)
This was an unexpected hit for me. It tells the story of the relationship between religious faith and the U.S. space program. After Apollo astronaut Bill Anders read from the Biblical book of Genesis while en route to the moon in 1968, religion and free speech became the single most controversial issue faced by NASA. They received more than 8 million letters and petitions advocating for freedom of religious expression in space. The author makes an interesting point that to the extent the space program failed to keep the interest of the American public, it is because it didn’t tap into the imagination, courage, and adventure of space exploration. That imagination was instead captured by science-fiction and fantasy stories like Star Wars, which in the decades since we’ve spent more money on than the actual exploration of space.
The idea I took away: grand endeavors (like space exploration, and also building a “second brain”) are not just a matter of raising funds and solving practical problems. There is an element of mystery, narrative, and heroic archetypes that must be expressed if large numbers of people are going to pay attention. What we are doing with such endeavors is building an alternative world, and it has to be a world people want to live in.
6. Belonging is a superpower – Patterns for decentralised organising (Oliver Sylvester-Bradley)
This article summarizes a handful of useful principles for thinking about “decentralized organizing” – how do we enable groups of people distributed across the world to create a community, without us being responsible for organizing it? It draws from a workshop on this topic by the founders of Loomio, who are doing a “grand tour” of local meetups where they teach and speak on what they’ve learned in their company. Patterns such as “Intentionally produce counter-culture,” “Systematically distribute care labour,” “Make decisions asynchronously,” and “Keep talking about power” are just specific and counter-intuitive enough to be useful guidelines. Others such as “Make explicit norms and boundaries,” “Agree how you use tech,” “Using rhythm to cut information overload,” and “Generate new patterns together” are best practices codified.
The idea I took away: I can already see that community has been a big trend for me in 2019. Especially community enabled by, enhanced by, or responding to the growth of the Internet. I suppose I spend so much of my time online – not only working but creating, researching, writing, communicating, and playing – that I have a personal interest in this. The patterns identified in this article are ones I’ve observed myself, and it helped me begin to think about how we manage the Forte Labs community in a more systematic, but still decentralized way.
7. The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (Charles Eisenstein)
This profound essay was the missing piece for my thoughts on what I call “Servant Hedonism.” Eisenstein speaks so powerfully about a definition of pleasure as fulfilling our needs, the importance of pleasure in creating a future we actually want to live in, and how the current paradigm teaches us to deny the greater pleasures of connection and intimacy in favor of shallower, safer ones. I haven’t encountered such clear and compelling writing on pleasure as a redeeming and purifying force before.
The idea I took away: that the denial and postponement of pleasure, which I’ve trained myself so deeply in, has become an addiction. That taking my business and my work to the next level cannot be done through even more sacrifice and pain. It can only be done by making the work itself joyful. This is a surprisingly hard addiction to break, because it requires self-love and self-respect, which are hard to come by for someone so used to punishing themselves as a form of motivation. This is a deep lesson I think I will be integrating slowly for years to come.
8. Mindstorms: what did Papert argue and what does it mean for learning and education? (Amy J. Ko)
I had heard a lot about the educational theorist, educator, and computer scientist Seymour Papert, known for pioneering artificial intelligence and for his “constructivist” theory of education. But I could never find the time to read about his ideas in their original form. Through reading this article, I came to the conclusion that I too am a constructionist. Like Papert, I don’t believe that knowledge is a passive, fungible medium like soybeans or oil, that merely needs to be “transferred” from one person’s head to another. Instead, learning is an iterative, cumulative process of “constructing” knowledge out of bits of experience, theory, and experimentation. We cannot passively “absorb” a piece of abstract knowledge such as E=mc^2. We have to build up that knowledge through practical experience.
The idea I took away: that my role as a teacher is not to “impart the right knowledge” to my students. It is to create environments and experiments where they can construct that knowledge for themselves. This means I have to sometimes resist the desire to simply “create content” that answers their questions directly, which is so easy to do online, in favor of creating experiences. My responsibility shifts more toward accountability, coaching, feedback, facilitation, and encouragement than providing answers. I codified these principles for our own online courses in The Forte Academy 8 Pillars of Education.
9. The Tyranny of Ideas (Nadia Eghbal)
This essay explores the relationship between people and the ideas they carry and promote. Nadia offers a different framing of people themselves as “agents of change,” instead suggesting that they can be seen as “…intermediaries, voice boxes for some persistent idea-virus that’s seized upon them and is speaking through their corporeal form.” This resonates a lot with how I’m beginning to see the Second Brain idea. It’s no longer something I strictly control, that only comes from me. There are enough people in enough places talking about it that it has a life of its own.
The idea I took away: that it’s okay to have an identity and interests outside my big idea, and it isn’t even really “my” idea anyway. I can enjoy this ride and do my very best work without feeling that the responsibility for its success lies completely on my shoulders. In fact, the idea is using me, not the other way around. This gives me a measure of relief and peace of mind.
10. We Don’t Sell Saddles Here (Stewart Butterfield)
This is a classic from 2014, but I only discovered it this year. It is a call to arms from the founder of the Slack messaging app to his team, which had only been working on the product for 7 months and was two weeks away from its preview release. Butterfield articulates a lot of things that were important for me to hear for my own business. For example, that “our job is to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of Slack into their terms,” which reminded me that there is a translation process needed between stated wants and deeper needs. I was reminded that we are selling the result of the thing, not the thing itself, which is after all just a product. Butterfield reminded me of just how big of an ask it is for customers to change their behavior and make time in their day for the product I’m selling. And I was reminded that the ultimate promise of what I am offering is who my customers will become as a result of using it.
The idea I took away: immersed in the logistics of daily work, it’s very easy to lose sight of the ultimate customer benefits. It’s easy to forget how big of a leap is required from the old way of doing things to the new way. It it easy for the transformation that customers are seeking to become a slogan or mission statement. But these things are possible, and they do matter, and it’s important that I continue to appreciate them.
11. Against Waldenponding: II (Venkatesh Rao)
This is an issue of the Breaking Smart newsletter by Venkatesh Rao, in which he explores the idea that “software is eating the world” and its implications for technology, business, society, and politics. The idea of “Waldenponding” was an important one for me to integrate into my work. Rao introduced it in an earlier issue, as “a broad tendency to retreat from, and artificially limit, digital life.” In this followup, he expands on the idea, criticizing the “primitivist, fetishistic fear of screens as demonic objects” and “a way of relating to digital devices that seems shaped by a fearmongering vision of them as soul-sucking pumps, and their designers as Dark Lords who are far too powerful for you, mere mortal, to actively resist.” Waldenponders, as they are known, paint everything digital as inherently bad, and other things such as manual labor, in-person conversations, and long walks in the woods as inherently good. Rao argues that treating the digital world as profane is just another way of having your attention hacked, since there is as much humanity and “soul” online as anywhere in the physical world. As long as you know where to look and how to keep it in balance.
The idea I took away: the anti-technology trends that are so popular right now (Minimalism, Essentialism, Deep Work) are not just common sense solutions to the challenges many people are facing in their use of technology. They have a potentially damaging side effect: keeping people from appreciating and benefitting from the incredible opportunities the Internet offers, which are still in their infancy. It is a strain of Luddite thinking that misses much of the good being created by technology. In my work with Building a Second Brain, I have a responsibility to advocate for those benefits and make them more accessible to more people. Having a Second Brain is a key tool in successfully navigating the torrent of information we now all have access to.
12. What is Amazon? (Zack Kanter)
This essay went viral this year, in its brilliant attempt to dive deep into how Amazon works at a fundamental level. It is a great example of an insight-oriented piece of writing uniquely enabled by the Internet, with its infinite space to tell such a story. But Amazon isn’t that relevant to my work or business. What I noticed was that the core framing of this piece is around bottlenecks, and how Bezos systematically located, expanded, and removed one bottleneck after another to sustain the company’s growth. For example:
“And so, circa 2002, we start to see the emergence of a pattern: 1) Amazon had encountered a bottleneck to growth, 2) it had determined that some internal process or resource was the bottleneck, 3) it had realized that it could not possibly develop and deploy enough resources internally to remove that bottleneck, so 4) it instead removed the bottleneck by building an interface to allow the broader market to solve it en masse. This exact pattern was repeated with vendor selection (Amazon Marketplace), technology infrastructure (Amazon Web Services, or AWS), and merchandising (Amazon’s Catalog API).”
The idea I took away: I continue to be amazed how useful it is to understand bottlenecks in analyzing companies of any shape or size. I’m beginning to think my next book, after Building a Second Brain, should be a book explaining the Theory of Constraints to a new generation. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of effort to be able to understand it, largely because much of the source texts are outdated, or applied only to certain industries like manufacturing. But the model of constraints is such a broadly useful framework, it could be worth spending a couple years reinterpreting for modern times.
13. Info Tech of Ancient Democracy (Julian Dibbell)
This excellent essay explores how early democracies such as in Ancient Greece used technology to manage the complexities of voting, tallying, decreeing, and delivering key information where it was needed. Democracy is inherently an information-intensive process, with power and authority flowing in multiple directions instead of only top-down from a single ruler. They had to invent such tools as the “kleroterion,” or allotment machine, tokens used for authentication, juror tickets used for assigning jurors to specific courts, tagging ropes dipped in red paint for identifying truant jurors, the klepsydra water clock for timing speeches, and many others.
The idea I took away: I had never considered that political structures, such as democracy, were directly dependent on specific technological inventions. Or that a society’s ability to store, transmit, and authenticate information directly determined the complexity it could achieve in its governance. Fast forward to today, and technology is most often framed as a threat to democracy. This has made me think a lot about how the widespread use of extended thinking devices, which I call Second Brains, could shape the political evolution of nation states. Maybe having a Second Brain will be a requirement for holding political office, or for becoming a judge, or for voting on complex technical matters?
14. The White Darkness (David Grann)
Not only is this an enthralling story told with excellent writing, about the Antarctic explorer Henry Worsley, who attempted to become the first man to cross the continent on foot. It is also quite an impressive example of interactive media. When viewed on the original webpage at The New Yorker, it uses multiple overlays, dynamically changing color schemes, and maps that shape-shift as you scroll to convey the feeling and experience of traversing the most brutal environment on Earth. Despite decades of predictions about the rise of multimedia reading, it’s still rare to see this kind of thing. It takes a combination of skills in writing, graphic design, web design, and storytelling that are rarely found in combination, except in teams at major newspapers. And they usually aren’t interested in multimedia experiments.
The idea I took away: the experience of reading this article reminded me of just how much potential is still untapped when it comes to media on the Internet. There is still precious little of it available online, especially by amateurs, which is where I suspect the real innovation lies. I wonder if the capabilities of a Second Brain could help this trend along, since we tend to naturally store very diverse kinds of media in one place in our digital notes. I’ll be on the lookout for more examples and opportunities to experiment.
15. The Algorithmic Bonus Mindset (Venkatesh Rao)
Another email from the Breaking Smart newsletter, this one introduces the idea of an “Algorithmic Bonus.” A bonus is “an unexpected extra reward that you did not factor into initial risk/reward calculations; a sign of serendipity in a process.” Knowledge work, Rao argues, is particularly rich in bonuses that naturally emerge from working with software: “…an insight or discovery generally allows you to gain a bonus by rethinking the scope of what you’re doing.” In other words, knowledge work is so inherently ambiguous that you can and should change the goal you are working toward based on what you’ve learned along the way. This is a way of realizing the value of the play and exploration inherent to knowledge work.
The idea I took away: the Algorithmic Bonus refers to a phenomenon that is at the root of working with technology, but that most people don’t fully understand, even when they are creating that technology. There is a fundamental serendipity to creating code or content and distributing it online, that attracts opportunities and benefits that weren’t part of the original goal. This calls into question the usual attitude toward goals, as something you “set” and make progress on relentlessly, regardless of what happens. The Internet rewards people who are more open to tangential, peripherally interesting things. I see having a Second Brain as a way of expanding one’s peripheral vision so you can see and act on more of these kinds of “bonus” opportunities.
16. What MDMA Therapy Did For Me (Tucker Max)
This account of the author’s experience with MDMA Therapy came out of the blue, but ended up being one of my first encounters with trauma and ways of treating it. It’s a remarkable story of how a simple substance known as MDMA (or ecstasy) can have profound healing effects. Max describes the protocol he followed and the realizations he had from it. I see it as part of a broad relaxation of taboos toward trauma, psychedelics, and therapy over decades.
The idea I took away: I continue to be pleased and surprised by how much interest there is in trauma and its treatment. From all over the political spectrum, from traditional therapy to alternative treatments, and from parts of society that would never otherwise meet. There is an awakening that I’ve been exploring both through my own personal experiences, and from reading books like How to Change Your Mind and The Body Keeps the Score. I think MDMA therapy holds a lot of promise as one of the safest, most accessible forms of trauma treatment. I’ll keep an eye on how it continues to evolve.
17. Farnam Street’s 2018 Annual Letter to Readers (Shane Parrish)
This letter, sent by Farnam Street founder Shane Parrish to his email list at the end of last year, was a big inspiration for me. I hadn’t seen the leader of an online business so openly and honestly share how the business was doing and what they planned for the future. He talks about each aspect of the business, how it’s doing, the challenges it’s facing, and where they are seeking to improve. It follows much the same format as a letter to investors, except in this case it is written for people investing mostly their time.
The idea I took away: I can see in this letter that the readers and customers of Farnam Street are being included as stakeholders in the success of the community and business. I’m inspired to move in that direction, opening up the business and decentralizing the community so that I am not the bottleneck to its growth. I increasingly believe that the bottleneck to the spread of my message is the speed with which I can give away power, authority, and control.
18. Scaling Knowledge at Airbnb (Chetan Sharma and Jan Overgoor, Airbnb Engineering & Data Science)
The Airbnb blog is one of the best sources I’ve found for clear, practical thinking on knowledge management in organizations. They definitely take a computer science and design lens to it, but even not understanding all of it I always find their takes refreshing because of this focus on specifics. In this post, the authors create a solution for a shared knowledge repository that can be accessed across teams, called the Knowledge Repo. It combines a processaround contributing and reviewing work, with a tool to present and distribute it. It borrows from academic peer review, while making it faster and more flexible. I also liked how they explicitly identified the five principles that this repository should follow: Reproducibility, Quality, Consumability, Discoverability, and Learning.
The idea I took away: so much of the writing on “group knowledge management” I come across is incredibly vague and abstract. Without practical examples and implementation experience, there is no test of whether the ideas presented actually work in the real world. This post encouraged me to use tangible pieces of work, such as codebases and design assets, as the best representations of “knowledge.” As I begin to look for ways that a Second Brain can be used collectively, within and across teams, I think it will really help to keep things concrete.
19. The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book (Steven Johnson)
This thoughtful essay examines two competing models for content on the web: the glass box, a static and isolated monument suitable only for observation, and the commonplace book, a tradition going back centuries in which intellectuals copied passages into a curated notebook for their reference and review. He compares the features and implications of each metaphor, and comes down strongly on the side of the commonplace as a better model.
The idea I took away: I liked the framing of the “textual productivity” of an information ecosystem, similar to the productivity of a biological ecosystem. Key to this kind of productivity is that words are fungible – free to flow, move, evolve, and get recontextualized depending on the needs of a given person at a given time. A healthy ecosystem requires an overlapping of multiple kinds of activity in the same space, so that serendipity (and thus creativity) can emerge. This is something I’ve noticed myself many times, but was never able to articulate so precisely.
20. The Intelligent Use of Space (David Kirsh)
Once again, I had heard a lot about this paper but only recently found the time to read it in full. It describes how physical space is “intelligent,” and can be used as a resource to perform valuable functions. Specifically, space can offer: spatial arrangements that simplify choice; spatial arrangements that simplify perception; and spatial dynamics that simplify internal computation. All three of these can be used by people to design and manage workspaces in ways that increase their effectiveness and reduce time, attention, and energy wasted.
The idea I took away: these ideas are essential to understanding the nature of organizing, whether we are talking about belongings in our house or files on our computer. Organizing is only superficially an aesthetic phenomenon, of putting things in neat containers. It also deeply influences our perception, our thinking, and our behavior. I found powerful parallels in the intelligent use of physical space, applied to digital space, which has many of the same properties despite being immaterial. I haven’t integrated it into my teaching yet but I believe that this deeper understanding of space is going to have a big impact on the design of information systems. We now spend as much time living and working in virtual spaces as physical ones, and our mental models have yet to catch up.
21. The Ecstasy of Influence | Harper’s Magazine (Jonathan Lethem)
This essay is about how borrowing and appropriation are essential to the creative process: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.” The author cites numerous examples, historical precedents, and echoes of this idea throughout history. I especially love his example of Don Swanson’s work at the University of Chicago on “undiscovered public knowledge” – the phenomenon of significant scientific discoveries made by simply reading existing literature and making connections across disciplines. I think this is going to be a bigger and bigger issue, as the amount of published research grows but our ability to understand and make sense of it does not. I also got a big kick out of the “key” at the end, which reveals the numerous sources that the author cobbled together and adapted to write this very essay!
The idea I took away: nothing is truly original, and this fact should be embraced and declared instead of sheepishly admitted. I believe that the myth of originality, in fact, is one of the biggest barriers to people’s creative self-expression. If you think that every idea you produce has to be completely novel, totally unprecedented, that is a perfect recipe for never creating anything at all. I’ve become more forceful and proud of the true plagiaristic nature of creativity since reading this article.
22. The Hall of Mirrors (Matthew Sweet)
This short post gave me a stunning realization: that my entire approach to note-taking is based on finding ideas and framings that contradict the ones I currently hold. If a statement is congruent with what I already believe, or can be reasonably extrapolated, I usually won’t capture it in my notes at all. I took this approach organically over time, as I realized that having a bunch of self-confirming quotes and facts resulted in terribly boring writing. But it also makes a lot of sense in hindsight: we already have such a strong tendency to confirm our existing biases, we don’t need yet another mechanism for doing so. A Second Brain should, in fact, actively counteract those biases, presenting us with contradictions and counterpoints that lead us to improve our thinking.
This quote sums this idea up well:
“The Purpose of the Commons (and of my Library):
To be a repository that contains, not just glimpses of the truth, but fragments of the false, the possible, the impossible, the mystic, the concrete, the ludicrous, the believable, the unbelievable, the unspeakable, the beautiful, the ugly, and the uncategorisable. It should not be a source of confirmation and certainty, but a generator of disquiet, doubt, confusion and uncertainty.”
The idea I took away: it’s important for me to teach this method of taking notes, as I’ve since realized that most people don’t do it naturally. Most of them read texts about topics they already know a lot about, with viewpoints they already mostly agree with, and save the excerpts that are most aligned with their existing opinions. Baking in this self-contradictory approach to note-taking into my teaching opens up the possibility that a Second Brain could become a tool for systematically refining our understanding of truth, not just collecting opinions.
23. The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral (Mike Caulfield)
I’m noticing another trend in my reading this year: the impact of information literacy (and what I’m starting to think of as information fluency, a step beyond literacy) on the health of society, civic discourse, and democracy. Probably no surprise there in light of recent events. This brilliant essay argues that the current model for the web – the sweet, salty fat of “the web as conversation” – is an impoverished and obsolete model for learning and research. Like a quickly flowing stream, it prioritizes the merely novel and sensationalistic at the expense of the substantive. That’s nothing new, but Caulfield also offers an alternative model: the web as a garden. A garden is “more timeless, integrative, iterative, something less personal and less self-assertive, something more solitary yet more connected.” This is a powerful alternative metaphor for how I see a Second Brain. It is something that can be cultivated, grown, but that also has its own intelligence and evolutionary history. A garden is a place where things happen, not just a tool for solving some narrow problem.
The idea I took away: this essay offers many, many valuable insights, but I’ll focus on the broader point: that good metaphors are incredibly powerful thinking tools. The image of a garden opens up many subtle implications and parallels that just wouldn’t be as accessible without that metaphoric bridge. I’ve concluded that I need to use multiple, overlapping metaphors to describe what we are building in a Second Brain, depending on the needs of my audience. Each one will shine light on a different aspect.
24. Only Openings (Frank Chimero)
This short essay, adapted from a presentation at the School of Visual Art’s Thesis Festival, provides a reframing of design that I think is really helpful. This entire era of design has been dominated by Apple’s world-changing success, and it can be difficult to see an alternative to the vision of seamless, clean shapes with user-friendliness as the ultimate value. Chimero argues that he doesn’t want simple things, he wants things that give him clarity, which is subtly different. He wants to see the seams, to see how things are made, so that he feels like the designer trusts him with that knowledge.
The idea I took away: there is an open-mindedness, a comfort with uncertainty, in this view of design that I think is needed in the online maker community. As web designers, writers, video makers, and online course instructors we are constantly exposed to the very best, most polished examples of our craft. Unlike with physical objects, even the most finely crafted digital artifacts can be endlessly duplicated and distributed around the world. This gives us all an unrealistic standard that we think we have to meet to get started. I notice it in my students, believing they have to match the celebrities they see in their Instagram feeds in quality with their very first creation. The next era of design, I predict, will be all about “seeing the seams.”
25. Your brain does not process information and it is not a computer (Robert Epstein)
I really enjoyed this article because it strikes to the heart of how we tend to think about the human brain, whether we realize it or not: as a particularly sophisticated computer. We use metaphors and analogies drawn from computing in describing every aspect of the brain: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, buffers. Epstein argues that none of these things actually exist in the human brain, and never will: “We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device.” This is basically a new way of framing the “embodied cognition” hypothesis that has gained so much ground in recent years – that our experience is inextricably bound up in our bodies, not in some computer-like information storage device.
The idea I took away: although I think Epstein largely misses the point – that computers are a metaphor for human cognition, not a literal explanation – it was very interesting to use his arguments to think about what this metaphor might cause us to miss. What gets lost in the comparison of brains to computers? What do we systematically overlook? I don’t have firm answers, but some of the observations in this article point toward what the next generation of cognitive science might look like. Since each generation tends to be a reaction against the excesses of the previous generation. In the meantime, I think deconstructing the mind-computer metaphor reminds us that we still barely understand how the brain works.
26. Why Is the Human Brain So Efficient? (Liqun Luo)
An interesting counterpoint to the previous pick, this article examines how and why the human brain is so remarkably efficient at processing information. At a neurochemical level, the brain can only perform about a thousand basic operations per second, based on the average speed of synapse firing. That is about 10 million times slower in raw speed than a modern computer. But then why are we able to, say, respond to a tennis ball flying at us over the net far better than any computer? The short answer is: through massively parallel processing. Each neuron can send inputs and outputs to 1,000 other neurons, creating multiple potential pathways for information processing. A computer transistor, on the other hand, only has three such connections.
The idea I took away: there are a lot of similarities in how computers and brains function, even if they are not exactly equivalent. Computing continues to be the most fertile ground for understanding how the brain stores and makes sense of data, and it’s worth continuing to map their similarities. At the same time, better understanding the brain has powerful implications for computing: for example, massive parallelism with multiple cores, and deep learning for recognizing objects visually.
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