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My Vision - The Context

The Context-1


This article was published on June 29, 2020 by Alan Chan, co-founder of Heptabase, while he was still in college. It was written two years before he started building the early-alpha Heptabase.


During my gap years, I spent a lot of time thinking: What do I want to do with my life? At the end of the two years, I compiled a list of three things, based on the time scale:

  1. Short-term: To accelerate the speed of the human’s intellectual and technological progress to the theoretical limit.
  2. Medium-term: To develop a humane way of integrating our mind and body with technology to help humanity reach a higher level of intelligence, capabilities, and life form.
  3. Long-term: To ensure that the order of the observable universe will not come to an end in the future because of Physics limitations and that the order will continue and evolve forever.

For me, at this moment, the first thing is the most important. It is the foundation needed to achieve the second and third things, and it’s also my vision for the world in the next 10 years. Having solved the “What” question, the next step is to figure out “How.” In other words, having a vision is not enough. I must have a clear goal for the world 10 years from now so that I know in which direction I can work on. This is exactly what I had been thinking about and researching in the past year.

Now a year has passed, and my goal has never been clearer. However, I found that although I could explain my goal in one sentence, in the absence of context, it was difficult for others to understand its value and importance immediately. This is mainly because my goal involves many dimensions, and to see the whole, you have to look at all dimensions at the same time. The linear structure of the language only allowed me to describe one dimension at a time, which had limited my ability to completely explain the goal.

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t spend time explaining what I’m doing. As Richard Hamming said in his You and Your Research talk:

It is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell it. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you’ve done, read it, and come back and say, “Yes, that was good.”

So I decided to start writing a new series. This series is my attempt to explain my goal in a more systematic way. It’s also a personal public statement. Although I’ve had this goal for a long time, the goal is harder than anything I’ve done in my life so far, and it wasn’t until the last few months that I felt confident enough to be able to challenge it. Because it’s very hard, in the next few years, I will face many moments that will make me want to give up. Hence I decided to publicly state what I want to accomplish in the next few years to avoid using excuses and giving up in the future.

In this series, I will focus on one dimension of my goal in each article. The dimension that this article addresses is the historical context behind my goal. I’ll start by briefly sharing the research I did for achieving my vision, then explain how the research process had made me interested in computer history, and finally discuss how I derived my goal based on my past research and my understanding of computer history. If you’re interested in this, I recommend you to read The Dream Machine by Mitchell Waldrop or The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.

The Road to the Vision

The Context-2 Photo Credit: Yu-Chien Chan

To translate the vision of “To accelerate the speed of the human’s intellectual and technological progress to the theoretical limit” into a concrete goal, I think the most important aspects to consider are “Optimizing the methods of human knowledge creation” and “Optimizing the tools of human knowledge creation”.

The first aspect is “Optimizing the methods of human knowledge creation,” which I think can be broken down into two main problems:

  1. What way of thinking creates better knowledge?
  2. How can we make as many people as possible think this way?

To answer the first question, here are some worthwhile starting points: philosophy of science, epistemology, psychology, the study of productivity, and so on. What philosophy of science and epistemology discussed is exactly the problem of “how do people create knowledge”, among which I found Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Popper’s Evolutionary Epistemology particularly inspiring. Psychology is important because, in order to find the best way to create knowledge, we must first understand how humans think and how memory works. The study on productivity, such as GTD and Zettelkasten Method, can help us see the possibility of improving the efficiency of human knowledge creation from a more practical perspective. These are some of my main research directions in the first half of 2019.

To answer the second question, I decided to study at Minerva Schools. Minerva’s education emphasizes “learning how to think” over “learning knowledge,” and what we did throughout the freshmen year was to learn the Habits of Mind and Foundational Concepts that are common across different disciplines. I believe once we figure out how to spread this kind of education around the world, it will contribute a lot to accelerating the speed of human knowledge creation. On the other hand, I am constantly researching how to use different existing platforms and media to spread ideas, such as Medium, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Gmail, Goodreads, Youtube, podcasts, and so on. This study of platforms and media is indispensable if I want to popularize important methods related to “creating knowledge” in the future.

Then there is the aspect of “Optimizing the tools of human knowledge creation,” which I think can also be broken down into two main problems:

  1. How can tools augment one’s intellectual activities?
  2. How can tools augment intellectual activities among multiple people?

For the first problem, I was most inspired by Notion, a digital workspace that allows you to organize, manipulate, and create all kinds of information very efficiently. Notion supports almost any data format you can think of; you can easily drag and drop these data blocks to set the views and create links between pages at any time to build your own knowledge network. Although Notion, as a team project management product, is not good at handling complex research knowledge work, the way it approaches data has shown me many new possibilities.

For the second problem, I was most inspired by Dynamicland, a research center in Oakland. People here believe that to create great ideas, we must first have a good “medium of thought”. For example, when two people are discussing, the medium is sound; when two people are drawing together, the medium is paper. The limitation of sound is its unidirectional linear structure, while the limitation of the paper is its static nature. According to Dynamicland’s researchers, the essence of a computer is not the keyboard, mouse, and screen, but computation and interaction. If we think of the computer as a “dynamic medium” and carefully redesign the way it communicates with people, we might be able to unlock the full potential of “computation” and “interaction”, and use this medium to create powerful ideas that can’t exist in sound or paper. So in Dynamicland, the computer is not a machine on the table, but a space full of projectors and cameras where you and your friends can manipulate objects to express, communicate, and even create new ideas.

To sum up, to achieve the vision of “To accelerate the speed of the human’s intellectual and technological progress to the theoretical limit,” I had spent the past year focusing on the philosophy of science, epistemology, psychology, productivity, education, media, design, and human-computer interaction to deepen my understanding of the methods and tools for creating knowledge. After some research, I realized that although I started with methods and tools as two different aspects, there was a co-evolution relationship between them. The progress of tools will lead to the paradigm shift of methods, which in turn will affect tool design and requirements. Minerva’s approach to education, for example, owes much to Forum, the software Minerva developed for teaching. Many of the productivity methods mentioned earlier also require good tools to implement, such as Notion and Roam. In other words, once you incorporate a certain method and philosophy of doing things into the design of the tools, when you popularize the tools, you also popularize the methods and philosophy. It’s very much like how language works. If our language doesn’t have words like “if,” “why,” and “value,” we’re losing a set of thinking tools for making assumptions, asking questions, and making decisions. Just imagine how much it could affect the way we think!

After understanding the co-evolution between methods and tools, I began to think more seriously about which aspect I could have more contribution. I found that if I decide to directly reform the education system, not only is the speed of iteration and scaling slow, but the time between making the reform and seeing the effect is also longer, and the problems I will face in the process will be more political. On the other hand, tools iterate and scale faster, the cost is lower, the effect can be seen immediately when people start using the tool, and the problems I will face are more about design and engineering, which are both things I’m good at. So by the end of 2019, I gradually switched my focus on the tools aspect. I wanted to know how organizations like Notion and Dynamicland created tools that augment human intellectual activity.

After gathering tons of information from the internet and actually talking to people who work in Notion and Dynamicland, I realized that the goals of these two organizations are to fulfill the vision of computer pioneers from the 1960s. For example, the biggest inspiration for Notion is Douglas Engelbart, who was the pioneer of modern computers, the internet, and human-computer interaction in the 1960s. He even wrote a paper called Augmenting human intellect: A conceptual framework, which topic is exactly about how to use tools to augment human intellectual activities. On the other hand, I also found that Alan Kay, the co-founder of the Communications Design Group (CDG), the predecessor of Dynamicland, was arguably the father of the personal computer. Without Alan Kay, who pioneered a number of breakthroughs in personal computing with his team, the modern world of technology would have gone straight back 30 years.

This understanding has led me to realize that organizations like Notion and Dynamicland didn’t invent amazing tools and research out of thin air. Their works are based on certain historical contexts, and they have inherited the ambition of the pioneers. So I started to devote a lot of time to the computer history with the hope of getting some inspiration to help me achieve my vision.

Computer History

History is never a single thread. It is made up of many different threads and branches. The computer history is the same: it is not only about computers, but also about the important developments of the twentieth century in many different fields, such as mathematics, philosophy, politics, psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, electrical engineering, and the technology industry. It was this interplay and stimulation between different fields that had created the technological world we know today. If we dig into computer history, we will find that many important people came from different fields. These people were exposed to each other’s ideas by chance, but then built their works on the ideas and foundations of those who came before them as if they were destined to do so.

For example, if mathematician Gödel had not come up with the famous Gödel Incomplete theorem, Alan Turing, the father of computers, would not have been motivated in the 1930s to design a machine that could simulate the thinking of a mathematician, much less invented the concept of a general-purpose computer. Had it not been for the huge numerical calculations required to build the atomic bomb in World War II, von Neumann would not have had an incentive to get involved in computing in the 1940s, much less invented the hardware architecture that underlies all modern computers. Without the contributions of Turing and von Neumann, computer science would have lacked a foundation, and many of the technologies we know would not have existed.

On the other hand, if Claude Shannon and Norbert Weiner had not pioneered Information Theory and Cybernetics Worldview in the 1940s, George Miller was unlikely to have made a Cognitive revolution that shifted the psychological paradigm away from the Behaviorism of the 1960s to the current Cognitive Science. Nor was it likely that J.C.R. Licklider, a psychologist who worked with Miller, came up with the idea of Man-Computer Symbiosis. Computers might still be cold military machines housed in large warehouses. And If Eisenhower, the President of the United States, had not established ARPA in the face of Soviet competition, and if the first director of ARPA had not hired Licklider as the director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), Licklider would not have been able to sponsor so many important research on computers and artificial intelligence across the country. Without Licklider’s sponsorship, Douglas Engelbart, the aforementioned pioneer of human-computer interaction, would not have been able to build the NLS system that shocked the world with The Mother of All Demos in 1968.

Similarly, if Engelbart had not publicly revealed the limitless potential of computers by the demo of the NLS system, people like Alan Kay might not have been so impressed and inspired to gather in Xerox PARC in the 1970s and make groundbreaking breakthroughs that went far beyond their era, such as personal computers, object-oriented programming, Graphical User Interface, Ethernet and other revolutionary technologies. Without the technological achievements of Xerox PARC, there’s no way that people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates could have introduced personal computers with Mac OS and Windows in the 1980s, and Apple and Microsoft probably would not become dominant tech companies in the modern era.

“Why hasn’t this company brought this to market?” Jobs famously shouted, waving his arms around while his engineers did their best to ignore him and focus on how the system worked. “What’s going on here? I don’t get it!” By the time the Apple team finally departed Xerox PARC, according to Jobs’s later account, he was a “raving maniac”: he had seen the future.

The Context-3

The Xerox Thieves: Steve Jobs & Bill Gates

They met in Jobs’s conference room, where Gates found himself surrounded by ten Apple employees who were eager to watch their boss assail him. Jobs didn’t disappoint his troops. “You’re ripping us off!” he shouted. “I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!” Hertzfeld recalled that Gates just sat there coolly, looking Steve in the eye, before hurling back, in his squeaky voice, what became a classic zinger. “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

As Xerox PARC dissolved, its members went their separate ways and made significant contributions to the technology community: Bob Metcalfe founded 3Com, John Warnock and Charles Geschke founded Adobe, Bob Belleville went to Apple to manage the Macintosh software team, and Charles Simonyi joined Microsoft and helped create Microsoft Word. Thanks to these ubiquitous efforts, coupled with the popularity of personal computers, the modern online world has been able to thrive, enabling the rise of new tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix.

How to make great Contributions

Looking back at the entire history of computers, we can see that history, at some level, is determined by a large number of contingencies. However, despite such randomness, many of the great events in history had occurred according to a common set of laws: no matter how great a person was, he/she must face the limitations of his/her time. Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t have invented a smartphone in his day because the technology wasn’t there yet; Galileo couldn’t have discovered general relativity in his day because the mathematics for it had not yet appeared. And those who did make great contributions were great not just because they were good at what they did, but because they knew where they were in history and how to put what they think is important in that position to move it forward. This allowed them to make great contributions in the right place at the right time.

It’s never easy to make a great contribution in the right place at the right time. There were more ideas in the world that, though great, were difficult to put into practice when they were first proposed and couldn’t contribute to the world immediately because of the limitations of their era. For example, in the field of artificial intelligence, the concept of Neural Networks was proposed by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts as early as the 1940s. However, it was not until the 2010s, when GPU hardware was mature and the rapid development of the Internet had accumulated tons of data, that neural networks could exert their influence. Another example is in the 1930s, when Vannevar Bush proposed Memex, an information system based on “association” and broke the linear structure of books, in his famous article As We May Think. But it was not until the 1980s when personal computers became ubiquitous and information transmission technology was in place, that the hyperlink-based World Wide Web was finally developed.

The above examples have shown a way in which we can make great contributions: Looking back at the important ideas in history, which ideas weren’t practical then, but are now becoming feasible? This is what Notion and Dynamicland are doing right now. This is one of the reasons why interdisciplinary knowledge is important: history is a multi-line interwoven. Just look at the people who had come up with great ideas in computer history. Von Neumann, Norbert Weiner, and Alan Turing were mathematicians, J.C.R. Licklider was a psychologist, Alan Kay was a biology major and Steve Jobs was a businessman. If one only knows how to write code and has no perspective from other fields, it is easy to fall into the bottleneck of mainstream thinking without seeing the overall context of history, let alone identifying the important ideas.

After acquiring such understanding, I realized: if I want to achieve my vision, not only do I need interdisciplinary knowledge, I also need to pay attention to the historical context, to figure out what position are we in the history and how can I put what I think is important in this position to move the history forward and build the future world that I envisioned.


After understanding the importance of history, I began to spend time researching some of the early works by computer pioneers such as J.C.R. Licklider, Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, Ted Nelson, as well as articles and videos by modern experts working in similar directions such as Bret Victor, Andy Matuschak, and Michael Nielsen. Among them, what influenced me the most was Augmenting human intellect: A conceptual framework by Engelbart in 1962, and many videos and articles on his official website.

Surprisingly, I found I’ve already thought about many of Engelbart’s ideas over the past three years or have been exposed to similar ideas in other books and courses. What Engelbart’s paper did, was that it put everything together in a systematic way, which to me was like putting glasses on a person with myopia, and suddenly the world became crystal clear. From this newly-gained perspective, what Notion and Dynamicland are doing now totally makes sense to me.

Certainly, Notion and Dynamicland are not the only tools that augment human intellectual activities. There are many other different tools such as Roam, Muse, Figma,,, etc. So for me, in addition to figuring out where I am in history and identifying the important ideas that are becoming feasible in modern times, it’s also important to look at the different people and projects scattered around the world. What have these people done with these ideas? What kind of success have they achieved? What kind of dilemma are they facing? All of this information is extremely valuable to me.

At this very moment, I have found the direction that I think is extremely important for the human world in the path of “augmenting human intellectual activities through tools.” I’m pretty sure this is something worth working on for a long time, not just because it’s an idea that was proposed by the pioneers and now becoming feasible, but what’s more important is if I don’t do it, someone will. But in this direction, everyone else is doing it wrong, and only I know how to do it right. I’ve been thinking about it for three years, and I’m convinced that the world needs me to do this.

My goal for the next ten years is to design and build a truly universal Open Hyperdocument System and build on that system the next generation of the Internet.