Concept Experience 2: Formulative vs. Formulated Thinking

Formulative Thinking Concept Experience: “Analyzing the obvious”

“It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.”  Alfred North Whitehead

DO NOT EVER STOP“It means ‘Ask the next question.’ It’s the symbol of everything humanity has ever created, and is the reason it has been created. This guy is sitting in a cave and he says, ‘Why can’t man fly?’ Well, that’s the question. The answer may not help him, but the question now has been asked. The next question is what? How? And so all through the ages, people have been trying to find out the answer to that question. We’ve found the answer, and we do fly. This is true of every accomplishment, whether it’s technology or literature, poetry, political systems or anything else. That’s it. Ask the next question. And the one after that.” – Theodore Sturgeon Copyright Theodore Sturgeon Literary Trust (fair use asserted for educational purposes)

Last week’s concept experience asked you to reflect on how the computer records, reveals, and makes shareable your own associative trails. Many of you found some surprises there, which is very interesting.

This week’s concept experience asks you to reflect on how you interact with the computer to create new associative trails deliberately but without a preconceived formula. In other words, how can you use the computer not like a map but like a compass? To answer this question, you’ll be in the intersection between what’s prescribed (like a recipe) and what’s utterly random (like a rock hitting your windshield as you’re driving).

This intersection is harder to find than you may think (a Marvel No-Prize for anyone detecting the reference there). Some of you noticed that as soon as you started the associative trails concept experience, you could no longer ignore that you were doing the associative trails concept experience, and this made your associative trails different from what they usually are. School does that to you, sometimes. But there’s an interesting trick you can learn to do in which you force yourself into what Zen masters call “beginner’s mind.” This concept experience may not get you all the way there, but it’s worth a try.

Here’s the experience:

1. Start with a blank piece of paper (real, or virtual). At the top, write “Analyzing the obvious.” On the next line, write the most obvious thing you can think of. Something like “water is wet” or “most plants are green.” (You can use either of those if you want, but there are many obvious things to analyze so you’ll probably want one of your own for extra fun.) If you get stuck, write down as many obvious things as you can think of. Do this quickly. You’ll find your flow soon. Then pick the one you like best.

2. Now notice the time you start your experience. You don’t need a URL yet, just the time. You’ll find the URL in your history, later.

3. Now pretend that your obvious statement is the research hypothesis for your inquiry project. If this doesn’t make you feel a little silly, then you haven’t chosen a truly obvious thing to analyze.

4. Now start your research on your computer. Your job is to analyze this obvious statement. Here’s where you’ll need to be creative. You’ll need not just to solve problems, but to find problems too. You’re not just looking for answers. You’re looking for better questions. Obvious things can’t be analyzed unless you come up with really good questions. You’re taking a leap of faith, trusting what Alfred North Whitehead observed and trusting that you can be persistent and creative enough to experience some of that for yourself. (Hint: “why” questions can work well, but they’re not the only way by any means.)

5. Work on this concept experience for at least 90 minutes. You can take breaks if you want, but the longer you can work uninterruptedly, the better the chance that you’ll get better.

6. After you’ve finished, look over your history and write an extended and extra-thoughtful, extra-creative blog post that reflects on how you interacted with the computer as you analyzed the obvious. Your history will help you. Don’t wait too long to do the blog post–do it while the experience is fresh in your mind.


Here’s the passage in which Licklider distinguishes formulative thinking (the concept we want you to experience here) from formulated (or preformulated) thinking (the kind where you have clear procedures already in place).

Present-day computers are designed primarily to solve preformulated problems or to process data according to predetermined procedures. The course of the computation may be conditional upon results obtained during the computation, but all the alternatives must be foreseen in advance. (If an unforeseen alternative arises, the whole process comes to a halt and awaits the necessary extension of the program.) The requirement for preformulation or predetermination is sometimes no great disadvantage. It is often said that programming for a computing machine forces one to think clearly, that it disciplines the thought process. If the user can think his problem through in advance, symbiotic association with a computing machine is not necessary.

However, many problems that can be thought through in advance are very difficult to think through in advance. They would be easier to solve, and they could be solved faster, through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure in which the computer cooperated, turning up flaws in the reasoning or revealing unexpected turns in the solution. Other problems simply cannot be formulated without computing-machine aid. Poincare anticipated the frustration of an important group of would-be computer users when he said, “The question is not, ‘What is the answer?’ The question is, ‘What is the question?'” One of the main aims of man-computer symbiosis is to bring the computing machine effectively into the formulative parts of technical problems.

HELPFUL EXTRA HINT from Dr. Feynman:

(optional–do you use hints in games? I do sometimes, and sometimes I don’t):

Watch this video interview with Nobel-prize-winning physicist Dr. Richard Feynman. He analyzes the obvious fact that two magnets repel each other when you bring their identical poles together.

Super-Special Morale Booster Pack:

(“Bear in mind … Whitehead’s observation that analyzing the obvious has produced some of [humanity’s] most dramatic intellectual accomplishments.) Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner