Tony Ennis

Create Your Own Concepts

APRIL 27, 2021

Have you ever watched a five year old read a book?

You can see their little brain entering overdrive as they strain to recognise and recall each letter, piecing them together into words, and slowly forming sentences. With practice and repetition this becomes second nature, transferring from the brain's explicit system to its implicit one. Indeed, you just processed this entire paragraph without breaking a sweat.

You didn't even notice that, not only was your brain relying on the concepts of the alphabet and letters, but that each word was a symbol, pointing to even more concepts – the brain, overdrive, strain, practice, repetition. You just combined and parsed hundreds of concepts, in seconds, without noticing. Imagine if each of those words were a symbol in an equation. You just understood that entire equation with no effort at all. It's no wonder our brains use so much energy.

You can't reason with concepts you don't possess

To expand a bit on the maths analogy, if we consider that a mathematician's ability to solve equations is dependent on the mathematical concepts they possess, and how intuitively they grasp those concepts, we could reasonably say our ability to understand the world around us is dependent on our own conceptual vocabulary.

My favourite example of this was trying to explain to my co-founder, who did not come from a technical background, why it was important to allow our software engineers uninterrupted periods within which they could work. I remembered Paul Graham's Makers Schedule, Manager's Schedule and sent it to him. It was an elegant articulation of the problem that drew on other concepts and metaphors that he already understood. From that point on, he just got it, and if anyone else in the company needed to understand, he also had a concept he could recall and point them to. He was a reasonable person, he was just missing a key piece of conceptual vocabulary.

Concepts need to be named

Did you know that the color blue doesn't appear in any ancient history texts until after the Egyptians began producing blue dye? Or that Namibian tribes that don't have a word for blue find it very difficult to differentiate it from dark green?

So it appears that not having a name for something makes it more difficult to observe and reason about.

Another reason we should name concepts is so that we can easily talk about them with others. Imagine trying to teach someone about "the force that attracts a body toward another physical body having mass" without the word "gravity". With such a verbose, difficult-to-repeat description, it's unlikely the idea would have escaped academic circles and spread to the general population, and gravity is an important concept!

Everything that could be usefully labelled has not yet been labelled.

There are millions of patterns, sensations and movements out there that have not yet been named. Think about how early human societies developed used mathematical concepts namelessly as a means through which they could solve real agricultural problems like distributing resources fairly, counting livestock, measuring plots of land. There is evidence that the Pythagorean Theorem, one of the most fundamental maths concepts, was being applied thousands of years before Pythagoras was born. However, by defining and proving core concepts, Pythagoreans (and others) turned maths into a theoretical discipline that can help us understand our natural universe. Mathematical concepts have underpinned scientific discovery and innovation ever since, providing a platform for identifying and naming countless more concepts.   

Now consider the age we’re living in, with technology changing our behaviour in ways that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago. One day we may be looked back on as the ancient civilizations of the digital world, using nameless concepts to solve online problems. Many of these concepts will be labelled; some may redefine how we view the world.  

There is no concept gatekeeper

Here’s the other key point, and one that I really wish someone had told me sooner. For a large portion of my life, while attempting to parse the world around me, if I couldn't find an existing term for something, I would often conclude "Nope, silly me, it doesn't exist or there'd already be a term for it". But every term that exists was coined and spread by a single human, just like you.

Before the internet, concepts tended to come from "official" sources like government, universities or public figures. On the internet, anyone can create and distribute a brand new concept that reaches millions of people, for free.

Here are some of my favourite concepts:

So go ahead, start naming your concepts today. You hereby have the permission of this internet stranger.

If you're interested in finding, collecting and sharing more concepts, you might be interested in what we're building here at Atlas.

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