I was reading “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman” when I came across an interesting passage.
The way Feynman described computers, the words he used - wonderful, awe, delight - I wouldn’t describe computers that way today. Useful, convenient, a boredom solver, addictive, sure. But wonderful? Awe-inspiring? Something that makes me happy? Not necessarily.
Computers were supposed to be bicycles for the mind. But it seems like almost everyone has some sort of unhealthy relationship with their personal computing devices. When did the computer revolution get off track? And what can we do to fix it?
I find it extremely patronizing that the very devices that allow us to be extremely distracted are the same ones that provide an array of tools to counter that distraction. It’s like putting people in a room full of junk food and then giving them a calorie tracker to stay healthy. It’s a band-aid solution to the problem they created themselves.
A device like a typewriter doesn’t even have the option to distract you, so you never have to worry about changing the device to be ‘healthier’. It’s designed to write. And so you just write. The device doesn’t give you a ton of low hanging fruit to get more distracted than you’d anyway be.
The first step is to admit that it isn’t our fault we’re so distracted on personal computing devices all the time. It’s the devices themselves that are badly designed. And a narrative of offering people ‘screen time trackers’ and an array of slapped on fixes won’t solve the root problem.
Multipurpose devices were always the dream of the computing revolution, but they come with a design flaw - in a tool that can do anything, people will choose the easiest thing.
Computers can run any program. A lot of these will increase human productivity - tools like excel, iMovie, GarageBand, word processing. But a lot of them will serve as entertainment - Instagram, TikTok, Youtube. Arguably, we’ve seen an increasing transition from computers as productivity tools to computers as entertainment tools.
Anecdotally, if I consider what children use computers for now, it’s almost exclusively content consumption and socializing. And yes, we can’t expect every child to constantly be creating novel things, but I think the fact that they increasingly aren’t is a direct consequence of how personal computers are designed.
In a device that can run all programs, the programs which give immediate rewards are as easy to access as the ones which require work. In other words, the ‘reward landscape’ is extremely skewed towards entertaining websites/apps. So we’re naturally drawn to the lowest common denominator - the easiest option - which would be scrolling TikTok or Twitter or watching dumb videos.
We might actually have to reduce what computers can do to let people use them to their full potential.
When I get distracted writing on my computer, I sometimes have this extreme urge to buy a typewriter and just write everything there. But that’s the exact wrong response. Word processing can 10x the writing productivity you get on a typewriter. I’m not distracted because of word processing, I’m distracted because of all the other things I can do instead of it.
So we need more computers designed to specifically enhance certain tasks. Some companies are already doing this - Kindle for books, or 8sleep for sleep fitness - but we can do so much more.
Consider the Nintendo Switch. The Switch almost begs you to be social. It comes with two detachable controllers by default. You can connect it to the TV and switch it out for your friend's device in seconds. Many of the most popular games have an emphasis on multiplayer mode.
See, imagine what someone looks like when playing with their phone. They’re probably hunched over, closed off, staring down with a blank face. Now think of someone playing on a Switch. You might be picturing someone with friends, looking upright at the screen, collaboratively playing, looking alive and happy. That’s the power of good design.
We need more devices like the Switch. Designed to specifically enhance something, whether it’s writing, gaming, socializing, or being entertained. Computers are bicycles for the mind, not dopamine machines, and we should start acting as such.