Appointments With Ideas

Should you approach ideas with an I-it or I-thou mindset?

Are ideas like objects, or are they like people?

The world getting eaten by software means more and more people work with abstract ideas rather than concrete objects or people. Instead of making an object, you make a design that’s printed by a 3d printer. Instead of talking to a customer, you design an AI chat agent that will chat with the customer (and soon, with the customer’s own AI agent program perhaps).

An interesting challenge in working with ideas is that they don’t behave like either objects or people, but like a mix of the two. So sometimes you have to relate to them like people, other times like objects, and you never quite know in what state you’ll encounter them. If you maintained a log of working with a typical idea over a period of time, it might look like this.

In terms of Martin Buber’s terminology, ideas muddy the I-it vs I-thou distinction.

Like objects, they can be worked on, built up, broken down, repaired, refurbished, augmented, enhanced. But like people, they seem to have a personality; a social nature that interacts with other ideas, exhibits moods, and presents emotional affects. They can be made friends with, partied with, nurtured, starved, supported, or fought.

It’s particularly interesting to consider what happens to ideas when you’re not working on them.

Sometimes ideas behave like objects in your absence.

Objects are either stable and relatively unchanging when not being worked on, or have relatively predictable consumption, decay, and wear behaviors. Your hammer can stay the same in the toolbox for years. But the battery gets used up and needs recharging. And the vegetables rot because you didn’t use them up in time. And the car tires wear out and need replacing.

Sometimes ideas improve with aging, like wine, other times, they don’t.

Working with things is all about short-burst sessions of using, using up, building, growing, creating, maintaining, and repairing, punctuated by long periods of relatively predictable changes when you’re not working on them.

Sometimes though, ideas behave like people when you are not working on them. They evolve and morph in mysterious ways, make friends with other ideas and people, take on new meanings as the context around them changes. Sometimes they age into obsolescence or irrelevancy. Other times, they suddenly acquire a poignant currency. Some days they seem to love you, other days they seem to hate you. Sometimes working on an idea after a long time can feel like reconnecting with an old friend. Other times, it can feel like you’re getting to know a stranger you haven’t met before.

Some tangible and almost intangible things too have this character. Code can break as invisible background support libraries break. You probably have a box of useless cables for obsolete digital devices lying around somewhere.

Paul Graham’s famous maker time vs. manager time distinction breaks down when dealing with idea-stuff. Some days, working with an idea feels like making, other days, it feels like managing.

If your code broke and you have to go read some threads on StackOverflow to troubleshoot, and chat with your buddies on Slack to help figure it out, are you in manager mode or maker mode?

If you are thinking about an idea for an essay and shift from your mind-map and draft to twitter to ask some questions, throw out some prompts, and generally play around with the idea, are you making the idea as an object, or managing it like a person, by taking it out to party and relax for a bit?

Increasingly, I find that I prefer to embrace this intrinsic ambiguity in the nature of ideas, rather than forcing them into object mode (always “making” them) or person-mode (always trying to have a “conversation” with them).

I think of my mode of working with ideas over time as keeping appointments with them, the way I do with people. Some appointments, the idea behaves like a person — angelic, demonic, sleeping, dead, or just on mute. The appointment turns into a manager-time meeting of 1 hour.

Other appointments it presents as an object and passively invites me to work on it with tools, to build, repair, maintain or enhance it. The appointment turns into a maker-time working session of 4 hours.

A decade ago, working with ideas felt a lot more like hunting. You spot signs of an elusive interesting idea, you track and chase it down, kill it, and mount it like a trophy on your wall.

These days, increasingly, I think of working with ideas as a matter of making friends with a weird, wild, object-person hybrid over a long period of time, letting it live, breathe, and evolve along with me. Sometimes it acts wild, other times it acts domesticated. Sometimes it acts sessile or object-like, other times it runs and dodges.

This rather animistic mode of relating to ideas was, I suspect, hard or impossible in general before software and the internet, so the “trophy hunting” mode of relating to ideas was much more common.

Now, we can do better.