don't be a machine

April 15th, 2007

Do you know what computers are really good at? You know, but I'm going to tell you anyway so what when you see it you'll be like "yay, I knew all along". They are really good at this:

  1. read number a from memory
  2. add to number x
  3. read number b from memory
  4. add to number x
  5. ....

Computers are so immensely good at this that there is no reason why you should try to compete. A computer can perform the operation of adding two numbers a million times and not make one mistake, can you? No, so stop trying.

See, computers are stupid. Everyone says that, I know, but it's true. Computers can do smart things, but only if you manage to tell them exactly what to do in a very specific way. Imagine that you want to make someone win the Nobel Prize for advances in astrophysics and to do that you have to give him instructions like "open the door", "walk through the door" etc. Yes, that's how dumb computers are.

But you aren't. If you compare the most sophisticated things that computers do compared to what goes on in your brain, it's a blowout. The computer uses a primitive algorithm to compare two words and count how many letters are missing from one compared to the other, while you can do this instantly just by looking at them. Yes, the computer is faster, but only because it does these really primitive things really fast. While your thinking is at an immeasurably more advanced level, even if you're not that fast.

So when you degrade yourself to doing the kind of work that is meant for a computer to do, you are losing your whole advantage. Not only that, the mind is just not precise enough to repeat the same thing over and over without making mistakes, it's not a machine, so don't use it as one.

Don't hand edit your document to replace all occurrences of Bonn by Berlin, use the Search/Replace tool. Don't manually count up the cells in a spreadsheet, use a formula. Don't open a file and manually read off 1's and 0's into a new file, use the copy function. Don't repeat the same simple action over and over if you can help it!

So you say "yeah, but I can't get a computer to paint my house". Unfortunately, that is a necessary evil. But try to save your sanity, play music (or listen to an audiobook), or get someone to paint with you so you can talk.

Our minds and bodies are not optimized for machine operation. Oddly enough, there are people who try to imitate machines and do so quite successfully. (One could ask oneself why they bother.) There are people out there who have trained themselves to remember thousands of decimals of pi.

Working out at the gym also approximates this kind of behavior. This is actually an interesting example, because most of what goes on at a gym is constant repetition of incredible simple muscle motion. Your muscles are actually capable of far more complicated things, in orchestra. For instance, the first time you turn on the light in your room, you have to look for the switch, if it's dark you fumble for it. But the 5th time you do this, you know where the switch is, so your motion is far more efficient. It's not just that, it's also not focused. You know this motion so well that you can synchronize it with walking, with thinking about something else. Now, if you're lifting weights you are focusing all your attention on flicking that switch. On. Off. On. Off.

Running and swimming are examples of this as well. Although both far more complex than lifting weights, because they require more muscles to participate, they are inherently completely obvious. There is only one ideal in running, and swimming, and once you learn to do that "correctly", you're no longer learning anything new, you're just pushing down that button, waiting for the spring to recoil, and pushing it down again. This is why it's more satisfying to play sports that, even if they are entirely repetitive, are hard to master, so the learning process constitutes that variety we're looking for. (Admittedly, swimming is of this category, if you aim to learn all the various styles, rather than just peddle water and stick with that.) Don't get me wrong, if you lift weights in some kind of way that allows for variety and improvisation, then you are being less of a machine than someone playing football, whose idea of the sport is limited to 6 fixed scenarios and never tries anything new. It's more about how, than what.

But don't act like a machine. Try to bring some variety and improvization into everything you do, where possible.

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2 Responses to "don't be a machine"

  1. erik says:

    Besides being dull, I once read an article that repeated actions that don't challenge our learning capabilities can erode the brain and increase the odds of Alzheimers. Someone should do a public service announcement on that.

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