When it came to painting a picture with words, Steve Jobs was a genius. In this video, he describes computers as bicycle for the mind. Here’s what he says —
I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.
And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.
What a wonderful metaphor — Bicycle of the mind.
But more than the metaphor, the insight that struck me the most about Jobs’ observation was that we humans are tool builders. Even before computers and bicycles, thousands of years back, our hunting-gathering ancestors were crafting tools using stones and bones.
In the movie 3 Idiots, Rancho describes it succinctly —
A machine is anything that reduces human effort. From the tip of the pen to the zip of your pants, everything is a machine.
However, tool is a better way to describe the idea of “anything that reduces human effort” than a machine. Machine still conjures up the images of electrical/mechanical contraptions but a tool, in modern context, could be a software running inside your smartphone.
During the industrial revolution, people progressed from moving stuff with their hands to pulling levers. In the 20th century, the effort of yanking levers were further reduced by moving fingers to press buttons. Today, with devices like Alexa and virtual assistant on your smartphone, all you need is to issue a voice command.
Jobs’ vision for Apple was to bring this tool building power to the common man. He was obsessed with design because he wanted to bridge the gap between man and machine. The history of super-user-friendliness of Apple devices can be traced back to Jobs’ idea of making everyone a tool builder again.
So are you a tool builder?
Observe what you do every day. Is there some part of your work where your efforts can be reduced by using a tool?
For example, recently I started building an application to search keywords inside the annual reports of all the listed companies. I am not inventing something new. There are softwares in the market to do that already. But they’re expensive and they won’t customize features for my specific usage.
Being a professional programmer, I thought it would be an interesting tool to build. Here’s what I have so far. It’s still work in progress.
If you want to try out this tool/application, drop me a message and I’ll give you access.
The biggest upside of building tools is that even if your tools turn out to be useless, you develop a mindset of a tool-builder — someone who is always looking for hacks to simplify life. Plus, it’s more fun to cobble together your own crappy solution than to buy something off the shelf, isn’t it?
So, which tools are your building currently?
Or shall I say, borrowing words from Steve Jobs, “what’s your bicycle of the mind?”