On tools for thought: knowledge management vs creativity

Nicholas Chen friday, august 27, 2021
tools for thoughtexegesisessay
Here's a mystery that's been on my mind for a while now: I never take notes in class, I never use exegesis to take notes, so how is it that I ended up making something that most people would classify as a "note taking app"?
That leads to a broader question: why is it that most tools for thought are also seen as "note taking apps?" The introduction of roam research has inspired a number of other products with the same core backlinking functionality - all of which bill themselves as both tools for thought and note taking apps. This implies that tools for thought and notetaking apps are synonymous, but nobody really thinks this; a decent amount of creators in the tools for thought space object to their creations being called "note taking apps", and even the ones who self-describe their projects as note taking apps insist that they're more than just that. This makes sense - the term "tools for thought" evokes something incredibly broad and ambitious, while note taking is a mundane (and arduous) activity. Indeed, it'd be a crying shame if tools for thought were limited to just note taking tools.
Of course, this is a bit of a strawman. Nobody who works seriously in tools for thought really believes that tools for thought are limited to just note taking apps. Still, to the general public, and to casual followers, this seems to be the actual perception. It also seems fair to say that this perception is not entirely misguided - while not all tools for thought are note-taking apps, a disproportionate amount of them are.
Why are so many tools for thought note taking apps? How could the space move beyond note taking apps?

Tools for rational thought

People take notes to remember. The goal is to write down information, delivered in some lossy format like a lecture, video, or a book, and crystallize the main points in writing so you can access them later. The goal is a rational one, focused on knowledge.
roam is a tool for rational thought. More broadly, any tool that subscribes to something like a Zettelkasten or Evergreen notes philosophy is a tool for rational thought. The selling point of a tool for rational thought is to manage knowledge - no wonder, since another commonly used name for these tools is PKM (Personal Knowledge Management).

Tools for creative thought

I originally thought of exegesis as a tool for rational thought as well - I wanted to use it to organize my notes, and hoped it would make me better at retaining information at school. After more than a year of using it, it turns out I almost never use it for either of those things.
What do I use exegesis for? I use it like a journal. I write down thoughts about my life, ideas that I have, things that I'd like to do, reflections on my day, etc. etc. None of these things could be called knowledge, none of them could be called rational.
My favorite use of exegesis is to write down ideas that I have. I write about exegesis in exegesis, and a lot of features that I've added to exegesis started as sudden thoughts that were captured in exegesis. In my experience, ideas are like seeds, and writing them down helps them grow. I might think nothing of a simple idea I capture one day, but a week later it might have renewed significance, and it could even spark new ideas.
Having talked to some users, it seems they use it the same way. Some have used exegesis to write short stories, other use it to write rap verses, but at the end of the day the focus is more on creativity rather than knowledge.
In other words, I don't use exegesis as a PKM at all, because very little of what I write in exegesis could be considered "knowledge." I don't use it as a memory aide either, because when I'm learning something I almost never take notes. Instead, it's a way for me to form connections between ideas and reflections that I have. It's a tool for creative thought.

Creative tools vs rational tools

My theory is that the current wave rational tools for thought (PKMs, note-taking apps, roam, etc.) will be disrupted by AI-powered tools and search engines. Note taking has always felt futile to me, because the information age has made remembering/memorizing information useless - why memorize when you can look it up? 1
Learning Javascript, I never took notes, because all the reference docs were online anyways. Besides, the difficult part of programming isn't remembering APIs, it's the process of taking an idea and building it out, and there's no way to get better at that except by building. There's a reason most university CS courses don't test memorization heavily and instead focus on having students build projects. I suspect this is true for a lot of subjects.
The future of rational tools for thought and PKMs probably look a lot less like roam, and more like projects that use AI to automatically link subjects for you. 2
On the other hand, creative tools for thought are by definition focused on something you could never find on Google - your ideas and experiences. If you want to link your life experiences to your ideas and other content, you're going to have to write it down. For this reason, I think the future of backlink focused writing apps should be focused on creative output, not Personal Knowledge Management. It's the direction I'll be taking exegesis in the future.

Postscript

A couple of ideas I think are very related but couldn't figure out how to weave in: Nietzsche's distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the distinction made in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair between Romantic Quality and Classical Quality.

Footnotes

1. The current wave of backlink-focused apps have a compelling response to this objection, which is that they're not focused on just copying information, they're focused on capturing the connections between ideas. Fair enough. But why require the end user to manually copy information down? It seems that this could be done more effectively through an annotation layer.
2. My critique here is nothing original - it echoes a lot of what Andy Matuschak and Linus Lee have touched upon in their essays. Here's a brief excerpt from Linus' blog post that expresses the point more eloquently:
"One of my perennial complaints about the current crop of “tools for thought” has been that most of them aren’t really about thinking per se, just about improving memory. We can take down information into apps like Roam Research or Notion and recall them easily later, but it’s an overstatement to call them tools for thought. Recollection is such a small, basic part of thinking! There is so much more to thinking than simply remembering something accurately. I think we can acknowledge the benefits these apps bring while also admitting that better tools for thought should help us do more with ideas than just remember and recall." quotes Linus Lee tools for thought
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edited 2 months ago
For the past couple of months, I've been working on a companion app to exegesis called synesthesia, focused more on visual/audio mediums. My goal is to work towards making tools for thought that are more oriented towards creativity instead of knowledge work (see On tools for thought: knowledge management vs creativity for more).
edited 5 months ago
In On tools for thought: knowledge management vs creativity, I argue that the main value add of tools for thought is that they enable personal-reflection and creativity, not that they help us manage knowledge. However, I think to actually capture this potential, tools for thought have to be social. This will be a big focus for exegesis moving forwards. devlog