Thinking long thoughts of thinking short

4 min read

For those not in the know, I have a cat – a somewhat fancy grey beast that’s not really meant to be outdoors unattended, however, she’s taken to being walked on a lead – so my days are often punctuated with a cat walk in the garden.

Now Lulu, that being her name, is a cat (I may have already mentioned) and therefore, is somewhat prone to standing still and staring for long periods of time. These moments, however, are excellent for pondering the intricacies of the world. In many ways, my cat is my mindful muse.

For a moment I shift into the cat’s temporal frame of reference, not thinking about the past or future. I am still. Mentally and physically, able to attend to the present, to the thoughts in my mind.

This is of course when I’ve forgotten to take my phone out with me, otherwise, it’s a quick check of Twitter and headlong tumble into the vertiginous world of the machine.

Anyway, I digress. Today, in one of these phoneless moments of pause, I began to think about thinking. How I think, how my thinking works, what thinking is and how different modes of attention often produce radically different modes of thinking. Thinking with and without the cat for example.

To start with I thought about the recursive nature of the questions. Thinking about thinking and how infinitely recursive that could be. Thinking about thinking about thinking… ad infinitum.

Now, this type of infinite recursion of thought always has a texture in my mind. It has a sensation, a feeling if you will. It is not abstract but somehow embodied. I can feel the thoughts in my mind. Like chewing on a toffee, it has a sensory pleasure with the added frisson that at any moment a filling could be tugged loose.

These thoughts, in turn, led me to think further about what other types of thinking I do, and after a turning this over in my mind for a time, I considered the notion of short and longhand thinking.

By this, I mean how I think about things. Sometimes thoughts are, to use Heideggerian terminology, ready-to-hand and at other times they are present-at-hand.

What this means is that sometimes my thinking can take a shortcut (ready-at-hand), I don’t need to explore the deeper ramifications, the thought is ready to be used, almost fully formed.

At other times my thoughts are longhand (present-at-hand). They are unready, I have to go through a long a laborious process of going back down to the firm conceptual ground and then working my way up and through the morass to clear air. Sometimes this takes minutes, sometimes years. But once I’ve cut my way through the thickets the thought is transformed, it is ready-at-hand, a new symbol for my shorthand vocabulary.

But where am I going with this, other than a simple exercise in writing and thinking?

It occurred to me that I have a propensity to longhand thinking, which can be frustrating. Frustrating, because of my need to find some solid conceptual footing before I can work my way up. This is particularly noticeable when I come across a new idea. I rarely accept the idea as is, I must carefully reach back down to solid theoretical footing and build the mental scaffolding up until I reach the original idea. Only for that labour to be erased as it transitions to shorthand again (it’s utterly maddening).

However, I’ve worked with other people who are simply able to skip along with their thinking, like a stone across a pond. Hopping from one thing to another, accumulating the same knowledge without ever needing to sink into the pool.

Happily, this can also happen with me, sometimes I too can skip over the water to new knowledge, but this is sadly rare for me and depends on many factors, most of which I can’t always identify. Although I’m almost certain walking and sunlight help.

The fact that my modes of thinking are not fixed leads us to some questions: how often do we take account of how we or others think about things (particularly in technology.) and how often are we mindful to the fact that sometimes our thoughts will need to be longhand and at others short?

It is these thinking factors that can deeply influence how we make things and how our teams and organisations work, but rarely do we attend to them.

Do we ever cultivate system/worlds where we can slip in and out of different modes of thinking depending on who we are or the objects and practices that bring that system/world into being?

Instead, we often look to make the system/world uniform. To assume that variability is a bug and not a feature. We fail to recognise the temporality and textures of our thoughts, or in short, that sometimes we are the human and at other times we are the cat.


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