Law Of The Instrument


It’s tempting to solve the problem you already know how to solve, as opposed to the problem that matters. This is true even if you are aware of it.

This March, I introduced Unfolds in a blog post. Seen as an experiment, Unfolds was a failure. It’s on the order of 500 lines of Clojure/Clojurescript code, and despite being my main hacking project for about a month, it failed to test an actual hypothesis.

What I set out to do with Unfolds was to get to the gist of an idea in a few hundred words. This is mostly a problem of writing these gists clearly and concisely. Without that you have nothing. I was well aware of this, but yet I approached the problem by spending my time writing a tool for creating and browsing these gists. What went wrong? We can get a clue by listening to the words of Abraham Kaplan:

I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

My hammer was programming, and I was pounding away at a tool that served a subordinate purpose to gists that don’t even exist yet.

The real problem here is so difficult, and I hadn’t sufficiently deconstructured and simplified it, that I ended up trying to solve a different problem. It doesn’t matter if what you are building is clever if it doesn’t solve a real problem. An hypothesis that can reasonably be falsified would function as a compass, and keep the pursuit honest.

Would making a tool necessarily be a bad idea? No, but that would be a different direction and a different hypothesis. If you are building a house with just a hammer, you’ll have a bad time cleaning windows.

What would a real hypothesis look like?

The idea behind Unfolds is still potent, and there are many questions and hypotheses hiding in it. Here are a few sketches of assertions that can be tested.

  1. You can communicate the gist of an idea in less than 200 words. By gist we mean that reading these words will be enough for most research purposes.

  2. The first 200 words of a Wikipedia article do not satisfy the metric in 1.

  3. This author can explain ten concepts in under 200 words. This is only true for concepts that are familiar to him.

  4. Images and illustrations are vital in a few select domains, but not needed in the majority of explanations. Specifically, there’s a trade-off in time investment, and it’s usually not worth it.

  5. There exist heuristics which make a short explanation particularly good or particularly bad. These can be discovered. It’s possible to build tools that encourage good explanations.

I’m sure there are many more, but these are things on the top of my head that’d be interesting to investigate. Some assertions are easier to test than others, and I’ll probably revisit the matter soon.