Monday, July 07, 2008

Minds and Computers

I’ve long ago given up trying to figure out either my mind or the computer. People seem to be comparing them all the time, and I guess I have to agree. Both seem to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, both can deny you access to information you know you have and want and need at any time, and my wanting them to do anything else is like opening the door to a jetliner at 40,000 feet and stepping out without a parachute.

My computer, which I really do work to extremes, will frequently, suddenly, and for absolutely no reason I can see, decide to slow down. I will try to go from one place to another on the net (or even within the computer itself) and the screen I want to leave will just sit there, staring back at me, expressionless but obviously uncomprehending or uncaring—or, as I strongly suspect, a combination of both. Very infrequently, it will simply lock up tighter than a drum, making it impossible for me to do anything at all, other than manually turn the tower off and switch it back on again.

The other day, I clicked on a photo to move it from one part of the page to the other, dragged it halfway to where I wanted it, let my finger off the mouse for an instant, and it disappeared. Vanished, never to be seen again. It did not go back to where it was in the first place, it did not go into my overflowing “Wastebasket”, though that particular feature of my computer is so full of assorted junk I probably wouldn’t be able to find the photo even if it was there. And my mind works exactly the same way: I have an idea that I wish to make use of in another context, and somewhere in between, the idea vanishes, as does, usually, the thought I was trying to relate it to.

Though I must say, in defense of the computer, that were it as completely as unpredictable as my mind, it would be totally unuseable. You’re familiar with those annoying Pop-Up ads that just appear when you’re doing something and you have to take the time and effort to click on the little “x” in the pop-up window to get rid of them? Well, my mind is one continual pop-up window. I’m trying to think of how to describe, let’s say, a piece of furniture (don’t ask me why I might want to be describing a piece of furniture…just go with me here, okay?). The instant I start I think of a chair my mom hat that her cat totally destroyed by peeing in it. Or I am writing a note to a friend telling him/her about something that happened today while I was walking to the grocery store and here comes a pop-up alerting me to the fact that the parking garage behind the store used to be a tennis court when I first lived in Chicago. A fascinating bit of trivia, but having nothing whatever to do with the grocery store or my walking to it today.

That I am able to fan and swat my way through these swarms of mental pop-ups is, I’m sure, admirable, but it is also infinitely frustrating.

Obviously, the makers of computers had to have designed them using the brain as some sort of model, and increasingly obvious, too, is the fact that more and more people rely more heavily on the computer for things the brain should do for itself. I refer you once again to E.M. Forster’s classic 1909 short (12,000 word) story, “The Machine Stops”, which you can find on Google. (That was a classic example of one of my mental pop-ups, and only goes to prove I am not only not the first person in the world to relate computers and the mind, but I’m 99 years behind E.M. Forster.)

Better late than never, I guess.

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