(2021-11-27) Lee Towards A Research Community For Better Thinking Tools

Towards a research community for better thinking tools (tools for thought). ..one area has stood out consistently as both personally exciting and more widely important: imagining and building better ways computers can help people do their best creative, thoughtful work

This year, two things have happened in my life to help me realize this is a field in need of more independent, dedicated, inventive research efforts.

First, there is an increasing availability of capital flowing into companies building on new ideas in this space

Second, I’ve personally invested more seriously in designing and building more ambitious projects

As I reflect on these realizations, I’ve been wanting to invest more time and effort specifically into building these kinds of tools, and conducting more exploratory, open-ended research that can fuel new creative ideas about how to build better thinking tools.

This also spurred some interesting conversations I’ve had with other folks in the field about what an ideal research community could look like. What kinds of people and companies would push the ecosystem in the right ways?

What follows is a loosely structured collection of different building blocks from which I think we can build a good research community to push this space forward.

Community and identity

Great communities are made of the stories we tell about ourselves – why we do what we do, how we’ve done it, and from where those traditions came.

So far, the way we label our work (“tools for thought”, “knowledge graph”) and the way the world perceives this field have been defined mostly by the loudest and biggest companies to fill the room.

Different corners of the community behind these tools also agglomerate around different focuses

One name and identity cannot contain them all – I think a research community should recognize that, and gather around a more independent identity that can represent the way we want the community to treat its members, its history, its traditions, and its future.

There is already a loose emerging community around thinking- and creative-software research. The challenge is to bootstrap a more structured community from these seeds.

I want a research community that feels decentralized, but runs in roughly the same direction, branching and merging where the ideas take us.

Communicating research

Written communications

reports on findings after specific projects, and periodical updates on progress. I think the best example of the former is Ink and Switch’s reports. My favorite examples of the latter are Andy Matuschak’s Patreon posts and Alexander Obenauer’s lab notes.

There is value in giving names to new ideas and describing them in detail for others to cite and build upon.

By contrast, periodical updates can fill the time gaps in between long research cycles and form a kind of asynchronous “group chat” for the community

I think periodical updates from researchers and builders in this space can become a place to share those more fuzzy ideas. These communications might also be an effective “heartbeat” for the community, to keep a sense of loosely coordinated momentum

I also want to note a third kind of communication – pieces like Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction and Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment Human Intelligence – that push the field forward on what effective research communication can look like.

Open-source, working prototypes

A community culture of open-source-by-default could also enable more ratcheting progress. (bootstrapping)

Outward-looking problem discovery

One of my greatest concerns about this field today is that almost all of the problem discovery happens by a kind of self-interested navel-gazing process, where product builders take the quote “build things you would want to use” a little too literally

Good industrial research can only happen in problem rich environments, where research questions are anchored to problems found in real workflows used by domain experts

This is a process that requires active effort – radiologists and human rights lawyers and artists and journalists are not going to seek out risky, new ideas in their knowledge workflows as a part of their daily work

I think active outward-looking problem discovery, where we dedicate research time to consult with other domain experts to seek out new questions to pursue, is critical to an impactful research community.

Proven models for sustainability

Some people have found success with a crowd-funded Patreon-kind of funding model. Even though ostensibly making is showbusiness now, I don’t think this is the proven revenue stream we want everyone to pursue

I think we need a mix of “concept car” projects (a phrase I lovingly borrow from Jess Martin) and “production-grade” tools (a phrase I’m adopting from Ink & Switch).

These two kinds of work likely need different models for financial sustainability.

Research fueling products, products motivating research

The industrial research lab Ink & Switch offers an interesting precedent for a research group bringing products and production-grade tools to market, like Muse.app and Automerge. Though the lab itself is a nonprofit focused on exploratory research, some of their work leads to production-ready products that the lab can spin out into profit-generating companies. Unrealistic success rate and timeline

If research fuels creation of new products, I think building products can in turn fuel further research by being active areas of problem discovery. Much of the difficulty of building new products isn’t in coming up with the initial idea or insight, but in the thousand different engineering and design refinements that need to be made before a prototype can be turned into something the average customer will be able to use to solve their problems.

The downside of taking this approach is that there’s a constant need for start-up capital in the beginning, when researchers and labs won’t have products to sell. Grants and corporate research programs may fill that role.

I think smaller projects that are faster to build are better for research in this space. Building many smaller projects rather than large ambitious ones have helped me because I avoid getting too attached to one particular idea or product

My gut feeling is that three-month “cycles” focused on specific research questions strike an ideal balance

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