Bicycle For The Mind

 

Every once in a while I re-watch this old video of Steve Jobs giving a talk in 1980. It's sort of rare footage (though now public, thanks to the Computer History Museum). But 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 fairly well, but I wonder if we're lacking 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 it's child-friendly ease of use. And that, in a manner of speaking, is what worries me. Computers are really easy to "use." I put "use" in quotes because I'm not sure that half of what our computers do these days is work. 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."

Also notice: Steve Jobs smiles, cracks jokes, and talks casually. He even discusses fledgling Apple, using phrases like "philosophical foundation" — when's the last time you heard anyone talk to the public about a company's philosophy in a genuine manner? Much less, a company talk about itself in a casual, sans PR, un-rehearsed way? Rarely, if at all. Heck, I wonder if even modern day Apple still 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 company opens their mouth in a genuine manner, they're labeled as "going off-script" or "brash" and "unpredictable." So most keep their mouth shut — choosing "boring" and "rehearsed" over headlines written to drive click-through, comments, and worry clueless shareholders.  It's sad because the internet (and the news flowing through it) was also supposed to be a tool to make us more efficient. A bicycle for many minds. Instead, it's intentionally obtuse, with sensational repeat stories, split page galleries, garbage comment systems and decentralized feeds. In a sense, we've removed too much of a barrier there as well. 

"A Difference In Emphasis"

You may have noticed that I ended the past three paragraphs in a grim light. I've painted a picture that computers and the internet are perpetual consumption machines, glorified telephones only good for driving garbage around the internet.  I expect some have closed the article in disgust, assuming I'm some neck-beardy linux gent who thinks we should all be coding in vim (no offense, linux shamans). That's entirely wrong, and a grim light was certainly not my intention. Though admittedly it can be seen that way.

As a designer, I am enamored every day at the agency I have to create because of a computer. I have infinite sketchbooks. My Wacom tablet is every paintbrush at once. My 3D modeling software can generate real product or a damn realistic render of one. I can create things with astounding efficiency. In that sense, computers have worked. I can see relevant news (if I know where to look) and have enriching 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. It's relatively easy now to email/facebook/skype/comment on news junk. So here is where we need what Jobs called in the video, "a difference in emphasis."  

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 just be variants on audio, video, text, and photos. New flavors of the month, rearranged furniture. Vine is just video twitter, Path is just tightly knit facebook, etc. Even hardware changes like Google Glass are at their core, just repositioning of the data. The data is still the same. The bandwidth for communication is wide enough that it all moves through the pipe easily and instantly. Almost certainly (as I expressed above) to a fault. It is up to the user to control the flow, and we are still learning how to be moderate with that. Like a kid, we are relatively young in computing and are eating all the junk food we can. Time and growth will help solve this problem.

The real growth of the future is in 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 computers. Part of that barrier will always be communication, or rather, the draw of easy consumption and communication as a distraction to the user. That should always be there, albeit in moderation. We need to communicate and share, it's intrinsic to learning. Those tools and their uses, to connect mentor with pupil, are being perfected every day. But the tools for creation and learning are still far from finished.

Instant, real-world feedback and precision still seem so far outside our grasp. I am lucky that in my profession, a Wacom Cintiq (+software) is generously close to the ideal sketching surface (albeit it is expensive and huge). But for some professions, coding specifically, the ideal has never existed professionally. We learn best through experimentation or play, and with artistic mediums that's easy. Paint mixes and spreads, sound waves recorded, words fill the page instantly. But code has to be compiled, poked, and re-compiled. The learning process isn't play, it's like play by mail. Many times you don't know why the code broke, you just know that the code broke. Whole websites are devoted to forums where devs show their code and hope someone smarter says, "Oh I had this before, here's your problem." That is insane, and it's understandable that we have now initiatives like code.org — because coding languages (and computing tasks) are still a dark art to most computer users. That should change if the tools change. With more accesible tools, understanding and skill should elevate all discussions about the topic, much like is happening with design now.

But as I said, the work is not done. We still need easier to use computers, but with a different point of emphasis, we need easier ways to create and learn through software. We have our comfortable automobiles, we consume in digital luxury. But we still need to create well, to get from the mental "A to B" and stay sharp while doing so, we need true bicycles for the mind. 

Posted on March 17, 2013 and filed under Design Essays.