Bicycle For The Mind

If you humor me, I'm going to talk around Steve Jobs and some of his ideas. He admittedly had his flaws and was not the lynchpin deity for Apple that the press presented him as — Apple has continued to succeed long after him — but I do think there are still ideas of his that may have been lost to time and progress and are worth revisiting with a critical eye.

At some point every year I re-watch this grainy old video of Steve Jobs (above) giving a talk in 1980. It's sort of rare footage (though now public, thanks to the Computer History Museum) with a young, bearded, floppy hair Jobs — post-hippie, pre-executive. Some Apple fans know it as the "Bicycle For The Mind" speech; in which Jobs relates the efficiency of a human on a bike to the efficiency of creative output on a computer. Hence, the computer is a bicycle for the mind.

It's a good reminder of what computers (and ultimately any tools) are for — to boost your efficiency at a task. But I think there's an oft-overlooked nuance to this notion — because a bicycle really does two things: it gets the user from point A to B faster -and- it keeps you healthy/sharp in the process. Many applications and tools today handle the "A to B" part reasonably well, but it feels like we increasingly lack in the "healthy/sharp" department.

Further, in the talk, Jobs mentions "removing the barrier" between needing to know how to program and using the computer. He even goes so far to predict that as extra "power" comes along, beyond what's needed to do the computing, it will be used to "smooth the one-on-one interaction between the computer and the user." That's immensely prescient now that we see the iPad and Pencil and it's child-friendly ease of use, and powerful programming advancements like Swift UI. What Jobs may not have foreseen was that the barrier to utilizing computing for communication and purchasing fell even further — there's even AI's to help predict what you'll do now. And that, in a manner of speaking, is what worries me. Computers are easy to "use." I put "use" in quotes because well over half of what our "computers" do these days is not the creation of something. It's communication, consumption, information. Not entirely the creative bicycles envisioned in the past. Think of that consumption more like an "automobile for the mind."

Note that Jobs smiles, cracks jokes, and talks casually here. He even discusses fledgling Apple, using phrases like "philosophical foundation" — when's the last time you heard anyone speak to the public about a company's philosophy in a genuine manner? Much less, to hear a company talk about itself in a casual, sans PR, un-rehearsed way? Rarely, if at all. Heck, it's somewhat hard to feel like even modern day Apple talks this way. In a sense, this is our fault and the fault of "easy" computers. We've created a press and a public connection so tight, that if any CEO spoke like this in a human manner, it's usually labeled as "going off script" and "unpredictable." Most choose finessed marketing written to drive positive (or at least neutral) comments, and not worry shareholders. It's a bit sad because computers and the internet are supposed to be tools to make us better humans. Many bicycles for many minds. Instead, things have become both loud and obtuse, with hypernormalised content, abusive comment systems, and increasingly walled gardens. In a sense, we've removed the barrier to use, and then let someone else create barriers to sort our attention for their needs.

"A Difference In Emphasis"

Like my previous posts on the site, I may have taken a bit darker tone and painted a picture that computers and the internet are perpetual consumption machines, glorified telephones only used for driving us and our thought-garbage around the web. While my cynical self certainly agrees with that notion most of the time, I would like to turn to something a bit more hopeful. It is not entirely lost, and we don't need to become Luddites just yet.

I am honestly delighted every day at the amount of agency I have to create because of a computer. The Apple Pencil is every pencil, marker, and paintbrush at once, and the iPad is an infinite sketchbook. Being able to 3D model in Solidworks means I can generate drawings to produce a real product and also generate a damn realistic render of it. I can create things with astounding efficiency compared to even ten years ago, much less twenty. In that sense, computers have worked. I can see relevant news (if I know where to look) and have enriching live-video communication instantly (if I know who to talk with). That's why it's hard to reconcile the ideas of "failed computing" in my head: the pros are fantastic, and the cons are soul-crushing. I wouldn't necessarily say "everyone should know how to code" or even "computers should be harder to use" because, at a fundamental level, it's great that anyone can use a computer to communicate. But it's also insidiously easy now to post and proliferate the junk of our world: hate speech, advertisements, misinformation, etc. So here is where we need what Jobs called in the video, "a difference in emphasis." Today's lingo would probably call this mindfulness or intentionality. It's also worth mentioning that the recent popular push for mindfulness and self-care in the form of meditation is almost certainly a reactionary effect of the exact hypernormalisation and overwhelm that this new “attention capitalism” has created, but that is a post for another time.

In terms of positive growth, I believe communicative computing is relatively finished. Not in the "last one left, turn the lights out" sense, but in the sense that the future of communication will still just be variants on audio, video, text, and photos. New flavors of the month, rearranged furniture — likely getting louder and more attention seeking. Snapchat and Instagram Stories are effectively Video Twitter. Facebook itself has gone through such dramatic changes that it is a platform, amalgamating all communication methods into essentially one stream of consciousnesses — be it personal, news, or commerce. Even hardware changes like Oculus VR Chat are at their core, just repositioning of the data — literally virtualized presence. The information is still the same.

The Yondr system — a solution being sold for a problem also being sold — in lieu of self control.

The Yondr system — a solution being sold for a problem also being sold — in lieu of self control.

The bandwidth for communication is wide enough that it all moves through the pipe easily and instantly, almost to our detriment. It is up to the user to control the flow, and we are still learning how to be moderate with that. Like a child, we are relatively young in computing and are eating all the junk food we can, and it takes a lot to resist and eat vegetables. Time, awareness, and growth will help solve this problem — i.e., intentionality. We're already implementing self-control features like “screen time” to help keep ourselves (grown adults!) honest about our usage, or at the very least, aware and guilty about it. As someone recently said on Twitter, "our phones are the marshmallow test we fail hundreds of times a day." We're at the point that a company called Yondr is selling magnetic lock bags for concert events and schools to entirely prevent phone use and "keep people in the moment." Does that sound like the effect of a product that is a bicycle for the mind? Not really. It seems like we're just locking the liquor cabinet.

II believe the real growth of the future is in controlled, creative computing. There are still so many problems and barriers, barriers barely imagined by Jobs himself, that keep everyone from being able to create using technology. Part of that barrier will always be communication, or rather, the draw of easy consumption and communication as a distraction to the user. That will always be there, albeit in moderation. I imagine even Michaelangelo got interrupted while painting the Sistine Chapel — people will still need to talk. We need to communicate and share, it's intrinsic to learning. Those tools and their uses, to connect peers or mentor with pupil, are being perfected every day. But the tools for creation and education are still far from finished.

Instant, real-world feedback and precision in all mediums still seem so far outside our grasp. I am lucky that for sketching, an iPad Pro is delightfully close to the ideal digital sketchbook (once you slap a toothy, textured screen protector on it — come on Apple, please make a matte version). But for some professions, like 3D Modeling or coding, the creative ideal has never existed professionally. We learn best through experimentation or play, and with artistic mediums that's easy. Paint mixes and spreads. Instruments sound and are recorded. Words fill the page instantly from your pen or keyboard. It is the feedback, the consequence-free experimentation with the medium that allows us to play, and ultimately learn a medium. It is the flow, the undivided attention we can give a medium and "lose ourselves" within that allows us to pursue expertise and mastery of it.

But 3D Modeling is a long way from sculpting. And code has to be compiled, poked, and re-compiled. The learning process isn't exactly play, it's more like play by mail. Sometimes you don't know why the code broke, you just know that the code broke. Sometimes your 3D model breaks when the wrong feature is added — and the only real answer is that the math didn't add up to allow you to make that Fillet or Trim. Whole websites are devoted to forums where people show their work and hope someone smarter says, "Oh, I had this before, here's your problem." That is crazy making for a new learner. It's understandable that we have now interstitial solutions like Oculus Medium, Swift UI, or Shortcuts — where users can design nearly-exclusively with visual tools and the hard code is generated for them behind the scenes — because the hard code (and even just simple automation) are still a dark art to most computer users despite being the next step in efficiency. New creative tools need to change towards more consequence-free feedback and control of attention to ensure flow state. With more responsive tools -and- more awareness of our attention, a change in how we use computing can occur across the board, much like is happening with mindfulness movements today. Users will ask, "Why do I need to process email faster? What if I got less email and didn’t violate people’s privacy in the process?" or users will say, "What if my communication experience was as peaceful and fulfilling as my creative experience?" It's no coincidence that the iPad painting and VR modeling are being touted as better creative tools that traditional computers — the iPad and VR force the user to really only work with one dedicated tool at a time (better feedback) and both limit external notifications (better flow) — keys to creative growth.

But as I said, the work is not done. We still need more natural ways to use computers, but with a different point of emphasis, different intentionality. We need more accessible ways to create and learn with our creative tools in an environment where we aren't interrupted from all sides. We have our comfortable automobiles — we consume and communicate in digital luxury — and it has mentally flabby amidst a cesspool of junk. But we still need to create well, to get from the mental "A to B" and become better humans while doing so, we still need true bicycles for the mind.