A Mind for the Bicycle

Man rides a bike in New York while listening to an iPhone

If you are at all interested in the history of technology, it’s worth checking out Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. It offers a candid look into the origins of Apple and the tumultuous time around Jobs’ departure. It also gives Jobs an opportunity to offer predictions for the industry and wax philosophical a bit. He mentions a new technique called ‘object-oriented programming’ that he’s developing at NEXT, which is almost humorous given the current ubiquity of OOP. He also talks about the creation of the PC and it’s place within human history, using an example from an article he once read in Scientific American:

“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.”

‘A bicycle for our minds’ might sound a little corny, but it raises some interesting questions. I had never really thought about the PC in terms of human evolution. It is, in many ways, a direct descendant of stone tools and fire. Stone turning into integrated circuits and fire turning into electricity. Those stone tools and fire separated us from other species. There are other toolmakers in the animal kingdom, but it can be argued that humans are unique in that we have been significantly shaped or transformed by technology, as highlighted in this article. Fire in particular allowed for cooked food and warmth, which helped us keep our brains growing while also shedding excess hair. In short, they made modern humans.

So what does this mean for modern technology like the PC? Jobs ‘bicycle for the mind’ analogy evokes a version of transhumanism where we our bodies and abilities our amplified by modern technology, in the vein of human enhancement. This is indeed true–one recent development that comes to mind is Google Glass, which acts a perfect example. As we move through our daily life, our vision will be ‘enhanced’ by data. We’ll now know how to best pick up on that guy or girl based on the social networking interests that appear next to him or her.

However, we also have to shift our perspective a bit and recognize the other side. Modern technology is shaping us, as well. In fact, it’s hard to really distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘it.’ It has evolved right along side us, from stone tools to fire to the wheel and onward to the PC and iPhone. Jobs bicycle for the mind puts the human behind the handlebars. But we have to ask ourselves if we are really in control, and if we still hold dominion over technology. A good portion of the population sits behind computers for 8+ hours a day advancing technology, whether directly as coders and engineers or indirectly through countless other fields and industries. So as we lose our physical fitness slumped over our desks and our brains shrink, we have to wonder if we’re actually a stepping stone for technology’s evolution. Or maybe it’s one and the same. Where do you draw the line between humans and the technology they create? Only time will tell.

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