Design aspects of software: maps as "thinking tools"

I don't talk about it as often as, say, small-plane aviation or, recently, Chinese education, or my doomed quest in Asia for good beer. But for many many years I have been fascinated by the relationship between "pure" acts of thinking - logic, memory, argument, expression, the process of making connections and finding distinctions; all of which rely fundamentally on words - and the various tools, cues, shortcuts, and stimuli other than words that can play an important part in what we think of as thought.
I'm not talking about entirely separate realms of expression - like music, which obviously conveys meaning beyond words, or the emotional or imaginative power of artwork, photography, illustrations, and other visual representations. Rather I mean systems specifically designed to help the plain old reasoning parts of the brain do their job better, by shoring up common weak spots or by giving more or better material for the "real" brain to work on. For an Atlantic article on this topic from 2007, go here. Things have changed since then, mainly for the better, in ways I'll go into in coming days.

Today's design theme: the potential of argument maps. These are something like sentence diagrams, without the drudge-work overtone. I was introduced to them through two programs from the Austhink company of Melbourne, Australia: bCisive, whose name is I think a pun on "decisive" and is a tool for decision-making, and Rationale, which is supposed to help students improve the logic of their presentations. Tim van Gelder, who teaches philosophy at the U of Melbourne and founded Austhink, weighed in here yesterday on the Chinese education, defending the proposition that critical thinking can be taught.

Here's one illustration of an argument map, a small portion of a complex map prepared by Austhink director Paul Monk (an author and former intelligence officer) to weigh arguments about who "really" killed JFK. Different kinds of maps, and reading about them, after the jump. (His argument map on the proposition "The war on Iraq was illegal" is here.)

Another kind of map, from the online site When you click on any part of it, subsidiary arguments pro and con pop up. This site is a very interesting crowd-sourced effort to refine the arguments on a variety of big global issues.


Are these "maps" just a gimmick? That was my initial reaction. But I've changed my mind as time has gone on and have begun to use them not so much to lay out things I write (for that I use normal outlining) but to think about big choices.

The best article I have read on the subject is "Enhancing our Grasp of Complex Arguments," by Monk and van Gelder, presented as a speech five years ago. They make a powerful point: if we recognize the need for graphic aids to help us keep track of mundane matters like street directions, might they not also be useful in keeping track of the much more consequential and complex arguments that go into major public and personal choices? This paper is very much worth considering by anyone interested in human intelligence, machine intelligence, public decision-making, and the potential and limits of public discourse. Seriously, I have thought about this paper often since reading it.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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