Your Brain Still Sucks At Using Computers

Devices are amazing at doing many things at once. Humans? Not so much. So how do we deal?

Your Brain Still Sucks At Using Computers

Sometimes we just get in the flow of things: Franz Kafka, then a young lawyer, wrote the Judgment in a single eight-hour binge; Jack Kerouac composed On The Road over a three-week episode; and Steve Wozniak programmed the game Breakout over a four-day fugue–and managed to get mononucleosis in the process.


These are triumphs, notes Tim Wu at the New Yorker, but the more pressing question is this: Would their feats be harder today, or easier?

Probably the former, Wu contends, since our tools for writing and programming–like the device you’re reading this on–have gotten way faster, but also more unwieldy, more prone to distraction. As Wu sketches:

Kafka might start writing his book and then, like most lawyers, realize he’d better check email; so much for “Das Urteil.” Kerouac might get caught in his Twitter feed, or start blogging about his road trip. Wozniak might have corrected an erroneous Wikipedia entry in the midst of working on Breakout, and wrecked the collaboration that later became Apple.

So in this non-Luddite way, Kafka, Kerouac, and Wozniak had an advantage over us: They’re machines could only monotask, while ours are built to multitask. (Some would say monotasking is the new multitasking.)

This arose back in the 1960s, Wu notes. Back then, they called it “time-sharing”–what we’d call “multitasking”–and it was a way for multiple geeks to work on the same room-size computer.

Then came personal computers that were still at one task at a time, like the Apple II. Then window-style systems, and the multitasking they imply, started to arise. And as prophesied by , our machines started getting faster and more multi-adaptable.


But this isn’t entirely good, Wu says:

We don’t really want our computers to accomplish more–it’s us, the humans, who need to get things done. This subtle point is all-important and shows a need to return to the basics of what computers are for.

It’s a question, he contends, of who’s in charge (human or machine) and whether or not our operating system (the human mind) can harmonize with the virtual environments we find ourselves in.

Your brain sucks (at some things).

Brains are great; however, they don’t excel at some things. As we’ve noted before, there’s a whole neurophysiological mechanism underlying the way your mind wanders, which, unsurprisingly, can be managed by eating and sleeping right.

To sustain your attention on a single task–which, you may recall, is the Latinate combination of con- or together and centrum or center–takes training your mind, otherwise known as meditation. Why? Your brain is super susceptible to any demands on your attention, especially if you’re fatigued from working all day.

As well, Wu notes, the brain isn’t very good at paying active attention to more than one thing at once, what you’d call conscious multitasking. Which is why no one on the Fast Company staff can eat a sandwich at their desk without getting it all over themselves.


Extracting the distractions

From Wu’s argument–which is a mightily convincining one–computers (and the Internets especially) are the perfect quick-fix catnip for our kitten-like minds.

So how do we make computers serve our productivity more than theirs (or whoever gets money when you’re losing your day to your Facebook feed)?

Hard to say. Maybe, Wu imagines, our computers could be like bicycles and have gears you can shift through: chore mode, work mode, play mode, social mode–which productivity apps can help with. Or designers could be more aware of how readily distracted our brains are–and design to enhance concentration rather than fetch clicks. But designers or not, we need to become literate in our brains’ unexamined tendencies–and learn how to work with them.

Hat tip: New Yorker

[Image: Flickr user James]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.