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Humane Representation of Thought



Bret Victor suggests how each of the human activities in which thought is externalized (conversing, presenting, reading, writing, etc) can be redesigned for a dynamic medium.


Bret Victor has designed experimental UI concepts at Apple, interactive data graphics for Al Gore, and musical instruments at Alesis. He’s responsible for “Inventing on Principle”, “Learnable Programming, ”Media for Thinking the Unthinkable“, ”Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction“, ”Magic Ink", and everything else at

About the conference

SPLASH — the ACM SIGPLAN conference on Systems, Programming, Languages and Applications: Software for Humanity — embraces all aspects of programming, languages, and software construction and delivery. It incorporates OOPSLA, Onward!, the Dynamic Languages Symposium, and a host of workshops, panels, tutorials, demonstrations and invited talks.

Recorded at:

Jun 14, 2015

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Community comments

  • Turning the cage into wings

    by Jeff Hain,

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    "anything other that typing in letters is incredibly cumbersome"
    "this is the cage that we've trapped ourselves in" (22m)

    Caged, indeed. When moving from closed eyes to pen and paper, or from pen and paper to a computer, you gain some storage, but every time I feel like I'm attaching a prison ball to my mind.

    What lacks most for me is an easy way to manipulate and link together, in various ways, hundreds of thousands of ideas, like turning the linearity of a book of aphorisms or quotes into a graph, and using it to generate new ideas by categorizing them and mixing them up.

    Working on it... :)

  • Great history; second half: some great insights; i didn't like the ending

    by Scott Smader,

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    Mr. Victor's recap of the history of the representation of thought and his framing of the question of modes of thought are fascinating. Unfortunately, the last 25 minutes end with vague "research questions" that in my opinion seem to be "capabilities in search of needs", and finally, an unlikely suggestion.

    The second half does have the insights that Programming today conflates Engineering and Authoring and that an author should directly manipulate the recipient's end-result experience, freed from the details of the process as much as possible.

    Mr. Victor further points out that dynamic models - which are not virtual reality; these things change shape, size, etc. - can revitalize chemical and biological physical models because they enable the dynamic, computer-generated models that up till now, only flat, rectangular experiences have been able to give us.

    Where I think he goes wrong

    Mr. Victor rails against the "very peculiar concept of artificial exercise" to overcome modern knowledge work's debilitating physical effects. He argues that soon-to-emerge dynamic materials and environments can restore knowledge workers bodily health. Presumably the dynamic environments would be constructed to simultaneously create physical representations of the material under discussion while optimizing the required human interaction to provide a balanced workout.

    Leaving aside the challenge of optimizing for orthogonal goals, his idea unfortunately requires that complex thinking can occur while physical exertion is at a fairly high level. This seems unlikely to me.

    (Disclaimer: I maintain my physical being though yoga practice in which the awareness is exclusively occupied, one hopes, so not simultaneously available for other cognitive work. I also like symbols and use them easily, usually while I'm inactive. Thus, my comments may reflect some bias from my habitual behavior. Or you instead might label my habitual behavior as experience or even anecdotal evidence.)

    Really, somebody is going to have to do a physical workout to get the information they want to retrieve? How do you pay them for that effort? Why do you pay them for that effort when their useful output is presumably the "knowledge" work, not the obstacles that bring them fitness? Why do you impede and delay them from accomplishing what you're after?

    Knowledge work such as authoring almost always requires a great deal of immobilized, yet focused, concentration. The "walking around, peripheral vision, sense-of-scale" dynamic models he envisions sound useful for generating understanding and insight, but cumbersome to manipulate for the routine tasks which form the bulk of all knowledge work. (Cf., Edison's remark on perspiration and inspiration)

    Consider music as a counter-argument: some is made with the musicians flailing and jumping, but for the intricate stuff, musicians tend to self-immobilize. (Aside: in music, especially improvisational music such as jazz, authoring and engineering are usually largely separate.)

    Consider money, a representation he didn't mention: Although gold and silver were revolutionary improvements over barter, today we seldom use gold nuggets or coins, and even paper symbols are decreasing because they're not as convenient to carry or transact over distance with strangers as credit and debit cards.

    Also, the very large number of connections from cerebellum to pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and the cerebellar fMRI activity during (immobilized) cognitive tasks both suggest why limiting movement during focused concentration might be necessary for high-order thought, regardless whether that cerebellar fMRI activity is just the cerebellum (C.) looking out for what to do next, or making the eyes wiggle like they do for every mental activity, or carrying out some PFC-initiated computation or retrieval. Whatever the C. is doing during fMRI-monitored cognitive tasks, the PFC - the latest overlay of neural tissue that moderates behavioral impulses from the earlier evolved layers - seems to want it to be as quiet as possible.

    [Here's a nice little recent survey article about the cerebellum: ]

    Mr. Victor's suggestion appears counter-evolutionary, and thus it must be wrong.

    Besides, a practical, "humane" technology already exists for bodily repair:

    Yogis (at least some of them) endure immobility for hours each day, practicing exactly this type of focused concentration; it's the sixth "limb" of yoga. To keep their bodies healthy, they also practice daily asanas and pranayama - the third and fourth limbs. Not all live long lives, but many live much longer than average.

    Thus, the solution to modern knowledge work's requisite immobility is the same immobility solution from thousands of years ago: yoga.

    (Make sure you find a teacher who knows what they're doing, though.)


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