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“Bicycle of the Mind” (learningbyshipping.com)
142 points by jensgk 68 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments

>literally in 1980 you programmed a computer if you bought one

This is the biggest difference to now for me. Because computers were so new you would be getting your hands dirty with hardware and operating system level stuff.

Now, you hardly leave the browser and really could stay in the browser to do almost anything you want to.

Human brains have scarcely changed in the interim. We still struggle to store more than a few bits of information in short-term memory and being able to multiply two two-digit numbers without having to resort to pen and paper is still tough for many.

The "bicycle" has evolved into smartphones, and is a better bicycle than ever. Instead of trying to memorize a seven or ten digit number, I always have a device handy to save a phone number (or better yet, IG username). Instead of trying to run numbers in my head and getting confused, there are apps like Soulver[] that no only help with doing the math, but help ascribe meaning to the numbers.

The Internet fundamentally changes computing, changing the metaphor as well. The bicycle (smartphone) lets us onto bike paths (the Internet), to visit stores (web pages). I can reach out to a dozen people and organize lunch from my phone, before I even get out of bed and go for a real morning bike ride.

[0] https://www.acqualia.com/soulver/iphone/

The computer may still be the bicycle of the mind, the question would be which large commercial entity is peddling it.

The graph showing calories per gram per kilometer is very interesting. I wonder though, for bicycling, how the energy cost of paving the surface we bicycle on is factored in, if at all? On 'natural' ground, depending on the terrain of course, bicycling can be substantially harder than walking, well-nigh impossible over rocky ground.

And by analogy, what kind of negative impact does the computer bring to the process of mind. If I have to think hard about something, I typically close my eyes, not reach for my laptop. Although the fact that so much knowledge is now at my fingers tips probably trumps anything. Henry Ford wasn't nearly as smart as Leonardo da Vinci, but his access to knowledge enabled him to create vehicles Leonardo could only imagine.

Amplifying your mind by programming the tools you need is more like bicycling without a trail over rocky ground, walking it up steep slopes and carrying it over fallen trees, than it is like bicycling on a road.

Programming is helpful for finding cases you didn't think of and remembering the details you aren't working on right now (like writing) - but only for programming.

Writing is the bicycle of the mind.

> Writing is the bicycle of the mind

Are you thinking about Ted Chiang's "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling"?


No, but thanks for the link - I don't think I've read that one (though I can never tell from Ted's titles). Text: https://web.archive.org/web/20140222103103/http://subterrane...

Maybe I should have said "Language is the bicycle of the mind", but we didn't invent that.

Most of the time we are programmed by the device itself. That is to say, we should program a PC instead of having it dictate our day and tell us what to do. An email inbox for example is nothing more than a todo list created by someone else and apparently we have to check each item off and reach the mythical 'inbox zero'.

Then we have the browser where news comes at us randomly and we have 100 tabs open but no idea how or where those tabs come from - they are an example of how unorganized our thoughts are when we use the web. There's no curation, no attempt to organize information, because apparently its done already for us in the form of Google and other crawlers.

The VR computing revolution presents the opportunity for us to get back to the "bicycle of the mind" frame of mind: where computing gives us tools to augment human intellect. For example, there are a set of office applications out there that (i) can make an office worker 10x more productive at his/her job than otherwise and (ii) are only possible to build in VR/AR. The goal for us/people in this ecosystem should be to find them and build them.


Do you know of any good "office" applications in the VR space?

That's very optimistic, but it's hard for me to see at this stage in the game, how AR/VR can make someone 10x more productive, especially when it just appears to be a VR window manager.

AR has its place, but a paperless office doesn't seem like the right fit. The factory floor does though! https://www.howtogeek.com/400963/google-glass-isnt-dead-and-...

I think we can return to the glory days of computing with one small tweak: insist that OS vendors include a lean and clean compiler in the default install.

An OS that ships without tools to make apps for it is not an Operating System but rather an Appliance System.

And, for those who will reply "but my disk space and all the bloat of a compiler onboard methodology" - well that'd be a next step: destroy the bloat.

What counts as the glory days of computation? On HN it’s probably having a great deal of control and ownership over our systems. I’m not sure that’s what most people would consider glory though.

I work with digitalisation in the public sector of Denmark, one of the most digitised countries in the world. We have thousands of employees and citizens who interact with our systems on a daily basis and when we benchmark them on what they want public sector software to be like they unanimously tell us they want it to be more like the iOS experience.

They simply don’t want technology to get in the way, and they don’t care that the price for this is ownership and freedom. For them the glory days won’t begin until they can get completely away from the operation systems and applications of “old”.

Glorious: Ease of use.

Imagine we had a compiler-on-board philosophy as well as a peer-to-peer-is-the-new-network purpose, and we built a new OS?

I personally think such a thing would be golden.

For the % of people who care about “bloat” and think the solution is hand rolling all their own tools? This train is only going in one direction and that station was passed 35 years ago

The world's iterated since those glory, early/pre-Internet days. These days, many (most?) computer users stay inside one application practically the entire time - a web-browser. A web browser that can access the Internet is enough to make "apps" that are online and accessible to the whole world, with the help of sites like Glitch.com.

For purists, even just a web browser and a basic text editor is enough to write programs that can be run locally, and without Internet access. (Additional tooling/libraries still helps immensely though.)

Having (access to) a compiler is not the missing linchpin it once was.

I really liked Sugar OS[0], and its on-device access to the code running the OS on the device, and how hackable that made the resulting device.

[0] http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Sugar

Not compiling but Windows ships with VBScript, JS, and Powershell, all with the ability to interface with the OS. I used VBScript for the first time a while ago to make a step in a batch process and it was pretty convenient.

Also every release of the .NET framework to my knowledge ships with the "csc.exe" and "vbc.exe" compilers. So C# and Visual Basic.NET are available out of the box with modern versions of Windows as well. No IDE support, but you could whip up quick hello worlds with notepad without breaking a sweat.

And MacOS comes with Perl, Python, and Ruby in /usr/bin. Plus several UNIX shells with scripting ability.

Didn't a lot of computers back then just come with a BASIC shell, not any compilers?

Right. But we are talking about how modern computers come with development systems too. While I'm sure the percentage of hobbyist programmers on modern machines is far smaller than in the 8-bit era, it's not like modern machines don't come with at least some development tools too.

Yeah, that was my point. Saying it has to be a compiler is arbitrary.

It should be a compiler because that's the best way to write efficient, non-bloat software with your computer.

All the other methods encourage bloat.

It takes 1 minute of googling and 15 minutes of waiting to install a lean and clean compiler on any of the 3 major OSes.

If this is enough to deter the glory days of computing, then just imagine having to deal with your first syntax error.

It should be onboard so there is zero effort in making apps for your own computer.

So much commentary on this quote and no one mentions a possible link to LSD as inspiration? It's taboo to say it because the subject matter is illegal. But this is honestly one of the most psychedelic-sounding Steve Jobs quotes I can think of.

The page is down, and I don’t know if this is related but there was a great clip of Steve Jobs describing computing as being a bicycle for the mind, in terms of how it comparably amplifies our capabilites. One of my all time favourite quote from the guy and an ever enduring thought for me whenever I need to be reminded about why I do the stuff I do.

The metaphor is brilliant, it's simple, relatable and embodies an insight about the nature of personal computers.

About "man-machine partnership" and how computers amplify the human mind, the concept goes back to Douglas Englebart's work at Stanford Research Institute, namely the paper "Augmenting the Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework" (1962).


The influence is so direct and clear that I wish the Medium article had at least mentioned his name.

Cf. "The Mother of All Demos"


Arguably, we are using the dregs of the possibilities.

i like that idea, but it seems we rarely live up to the ideal

I can do my banking in my PJs; order groceries on my way to work; check my home CCTV when in the office; turn on the heating on my way home.

getting distracted by my bank balance while I’m trying to go to sleep makes me feel dumber, not smarter

you'll be distracted by that regardless

One of the most important things for tinkerability of an OS is the shell. IMO bash has dropped the ball in the last 20 years. It's a poor programming language experience. I think we should replace bash with node.js Javascript shell, that will bring back LISP style computers back in vogue.

Oh. This is a thing I've never felt. If python had better facilities for running other commands, that'd be an option for me. But I think bash has a very interesting set of conveniences and trade-offs.

If built from first principles today I'm sure it would looke differentbut for me Node.js wouldnot be it. Scripting it is fine, as a shell to live in, I would find it very messy.

I've been doing more things with bash recently, it has generally been a good experience.

Please God no. There are so many useful and usable scripting languages, why infect our shells with JavaScript too?

You can get out of the box graphical output capabilities with javascript. So you can start outputting things in HTML if necessary.



I love the whole “bicycle of the mind metaphor”, but think about what it means in the context of omnipresent smartphones: using a bike burns a lot less calories than walking , so what does it do to our minds if for so many mental-related things, instead of applying our mind to them the hard way, we use our pocket computers?

What would it do to my body and my weight if for every meter I used to walk, I would instead take the bike?

This was a really great article. I particularly liked the "cultural" reference at the end of this:

> 19/ “Computers are such a part of life that many people believe computers don’t invade their privacy…life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is inevitably linked to a computer.”

> How’s that for east coast optimism?

I wonder what Steve might say about smart phones today.

They were intended to be bicycles of the mind, but perhaps they've become a 'gerbil wheel of the mind' for most consumers instead?

They never thought to test a condor riding a bicycle. Sounds like flawed experimental design

Even more so with the pocket smartphone.


At least twitter provides an outlet for short, insightful and measured comments like yours.

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