Monday, May 27, 2013

Steve Jobs: "Computers Are Like a Bicycle for Our Minds"

The Library of Congress was a partner to some television programs under the title "Memory & Imagination: Pathways to the Library of Congress" more than 20 years ago - they don't seem to be available on the LoC web site. Bits and pieces are available on YouTube, not surprisingly.

It turns out that the statement by Steve Jobs that, "computers are like a bicycle for our minds" came from one of those programs. But what was the context of this statement? What did he mean by that, really?

Jobs making his full statement on this subject

The snippet above from the original broadcast program fills out his statement with what he said, which is worth listening to (or reading, below). The video above includes some of the original program's credit sequence, so the first 20+ seconds include rather "heavy" (in the literal sense) music to suggest "culture and/or learning" (I guess) as the camera scans the Great Hall of the Library of Congress (that screams "culture and/or learning").
I think that one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that, uh, we're tool builders. I read a, uh, study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, uh, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list - it was not... not, uh, too proud a showing for the crown of creation. (Laughs) So, uh, 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.
Perhaps showing I'm not very clever, the statement that a computer is "a bicycle for our minds" now makes more sense - in other words, it's a tool that we are smart enough to build that leverages what we are given (by God, or however humans came to be) and makes us more efficient - we can go faster, or (with the computer) be "smarter" (in some sense).

I am reminded of a previous blog post where I searched out a famous quote by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about the psychological benefits of cycling - it was originally in Scientific American which Jobs mentions as his source of information for the efficiency of cycling as a form of locomotion. And I had not thought of Scientific American as a cycling publication! (The article Jobs mentioned may be the same one discussed in this blog entry about Ivan Illich and cycling.)

I like how Jobs tells this anecdote - he clearly is enjoying it. The creation of the bicycle saved mankind from being inferior to the condor, putting us on top in the locomotion department in nature. To me a question I have is what exactly we needed the computer for as far as putting us ahead of the other species with which we share the planet? Weren't we already ahead in this department, supposedly? But then we can be further ahead. Apparently.

Somewhat amusingly (for me), the filler footage (at around 1:23) used after Jobs declares that computers are a remarkable tool is of a Library of Congress staff person using one of the relatively few not very good PCs that the Library had in 1990. And I don't mean, "not very good" compared to PCs now, but compared to what was available then. Of course, some tools give you more leverage and others give you less - so I guess this would have been one of those "less leverage" tools.

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