Someone once told me that when programmers and developers look at a smartphone, they see a portal into a whole other world. When I look at my iPhone, I feel like a dog watching a movie: what I see is flat and flickering and usually a snooze. For me, the real world—the physical stuff, plus ghosts—is complicated enough. As things like iPhones became more prevalent, I began to observe that I preferred to know less about their world than more.
I rationalized this ignorance by imagining I was scared; perhaps I didn’t want to become reliant on brittle technology I couldn’t depend on in dire circumstances. It’s true that when Godzilla stomps the grid to bits our phones won’t work, and most of us will be helpless and devoured. That’s why I resisted the urge to Google first and think second. That’s why I never crossed a busy street with my eyes in my phone hand. My Luddite stance was, in my mind, a personal choice.
Then I got some new bad news. It wasn't a choice at all. It was my brain’s fault.
I took an intelligence test and learned I’m a specific kind of dummy: I bombed the spatial relations part of the test. More than 83% of people are faster than me at duplicating patterns with colored blocks. I was told this means I have terrible spatial intelligence, a capacity which enables people to envision figures and shapes and move them around in their minds.
Psychologist and Duke University research scientist Jonathan Wai, told me via email that this "has to do primarily with three-dimensional mental rotation, and perhaps dimensions beyond that as well." As he argues in this article, standardized tests only test your grasp of "symbol systems of numbers and letters" and not your spatial ability, which explains why a given student could be a mechanically adept, genius tinkerer, but still do badly in school.
Suddenly, a few things clicked. I've always struggled with a slew of seemingly disparate and particular mental tasks: things like driving directions, the workings of an engine, Chinese finger traps. What had been a gnat cloud of individual annoyances now seemed connected through a new-found lack of ability. Spatially, it seems I’m naturally a flat and shallow thinker. Considering this further brought me back to the multi-dimensional digital world. I began to wonder if my lack of digital intelligence was based on a lack of spatial intelligence.
In his 2007 essay "Holding a Program in One’s Head," writer, programmer, investor, and Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham wrote that mathematicians "try to understand a problem space well enough that they can walk around it the way you can walk around the memory of the house you grew up in. At its best programming is the same. You hold the whole program in your head, and you can manipulate it at will."
Mr. Graham told me via email that "there is probably a connection between the ability to visualize things in your head and programming ability." He said he often sees algorithms and data structures as shapes, and that when he can't understand part of a program, he has "a feeling very similar to the feeling of not being able to visualize a 3-D object." Without anything approaching that ability, even superficial software concepts I find befuddling.
The word of Paul Graham was enough, in my mind, to confirm this connection between the digital and the spatial, which may seem obvious to someone skilled in both, but it is not so clear to someone skilled in neither.
The feeling programmers might have when they can’t understand part of a program is my constant state of mind, except there are no edges to it. There is nothing tangible to me, no existing part that I already understand to serve as solid ground. I can look at the doorways, my computer, and phone, but I can’t really enter the digital world the way so many people do.
"Programmers and developers, who are likely highly spatial people, certainly will see visual possibilities that many of us might not," Dr. Wai told me. "I think there are probably levels of digital intelligence just as there are levels of spatial intelligence."