There is a quote from Steve Jobs that I return to, over and over:
I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.
And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.
This is the promise of computers, of technology, the promise that has captivated me since I started to get my shit together in grad school. Not this quote literally, since I didn’t discover it until just a couple of years ago. But the promise of the ultimate tool, the ultimate mental assistant. In my youth, I believed foolishly that I could (should be able to) remember all of my appointments, my school assignments, my obligations in my head. That writing anything down was a sign of weakness. That attitude worked in my undemanding rural Indiana public high school, where I could typically get my homework done the day it was assigned and thus have nothing to remember.
Of course, life later taught me that the I was full of shit. When my memory failed me, I started relying on paper. Elaborately constructed systems of index cards and lists in notebooks – in and of themselves a technology, a software of pulp. As a diehard Linux user in the years before Dropbox and smartphones, plain text files had their allure – but I couldn’t carry them with me.
Now I have Evernote, OmniFocus, plain text files that I can read and edit on my iPhone, ubiquituous email, calendars that sync and I can share with my spouse. Yet I feel mentally as feeble as before I had all of these tools. I may be better at doing what I say I will do and being where I say I will be, but despite a tremendous capacity to stay on top of the mundane, computers have not made me better or stronger mentally. I have a bicycle for the part of my mind that does my taxes, but not the part that used to write short stories.
The reality then, is that we’ve wasted the potential of computers. I love many individual software applications, but I hate the crutch it has become for business and culture. I hate calling a customer service phone line for help with my cable or my phone bill, only to be badgered by a voice menus. I hate that moment where I think finally, I am speaking to a human, only to discover that the human on the other end of the line has been robbed of all discretion and is free only to traverse a flow chart no more helpful than the automated menus.
The native pattern matching intelligence of a human brain put in front of a problem is a wonder, but we have enslaved ourselves to the meager capabilities of our state machines.
Enough. I continue to use an iPhone, because I have it already and it’s convenient to keep a personal encyclopedia 1 in my pocket. I am still more likely to use any given online service or time-saving utility software than most of my friends. But I won’t argue about iOS versus Android, Mac versus Linux versus Windows or any of that nonsense. I have my preferences and yes, they tilt towards Apple. Plenty of people feel compelled to paint that as a weakness to fashion, but that is their damage and not my concern. I am simply finding a place in this life were I can keep track of my commitments and forget for a moment how poorly these tools match up to what I once imagined.
- I really mean a personal encyclopedia: I am not obliquing referring to Wikipedia. I use Evernote to keep my spouse’s clothing sizes, the license plate and VIN for all of our vehicles, and other odd, trivial facts that could be tremendously useful to have on hand a few times a year. ↩