In the Industrial Age, humanity learned about the power of Big-Ass Machines. The owners of the machines were lovestruck. The machines were so much bigger and stronger and faster than the workers.
Noted industrialist and BHF (Big Hitler Fanboy) Henry Ford, was so aroused by the power of his Big-Ass Machines that he designed and measured everything against them. Applying his genius understanding of manufacturing and industrial possibility, he re-classified workers (people) as lesser machines, or perhaps as potential padding material and lubrication for his Biggest-Ass Most Powerful Machine.
When we come across any Thing that is overwhelmingly superior to us at a few very narrow tasks at which we suck, there is a human tendency to become blinded to every other performance characteristic of that Thing. We stand in awe, prostrate ourselves, and declare the Thing to be The Best Thing. It doesn't occur to us to ask "The Best Thing... at what exactly?"1
This tendency applies to other People, too: You meet someone so physically attractive that every other trait is obscured in the hazy glow of his beauty. An athlete performs a feat so impressive that you're sure she must be magic. An artist writes a character with such perfect sensitivity and emotional nuance... and then you're blind-sided by the revelation that this artist is a total creep (and criminal). ↩︎
This tendency, when mixed with the psychology of minimizing/taking-for-granted what we are good at, yields a toxic soup of aspiration to be more like The Thing, and less like ourselves. This is Machine Envy.
It's true. Humans are not particularly good at lifting 10,000 pound bars of aluminum or quickly and precisely machining them into the exact same shape over and over again, but humans are far better than machines at almost everything, even some things that would appear through the industrial lens to be machine-like. This is why The Industrial Age, with all of its awesome garbage and dehumanization, is burning stronger than ever. It's just been shuffled on to barges and pushed over "there."1
Most of us will never experience firsthand the factories where all of our garbage is made, but many who have note a striking observation: Many of these factories, rather than being full of loud machinery hissing and banging and clanging, are unsettlingly silent. Just hundreds of thousands of soft fingers assembling garbage together... ↩︎
Undoubtedly, industrial innovations have led to incredible progress, even along the axis of human happiness, but they have also been responsible for massive casualties, and the casualties tend to be ignored because LOOK AT THIS PROGRESS, YOU GUYS.
Now that the Imperial World is entering its Information Age, we are making the same mistakes we did in the Industrial Age, and the consequences are nearly invisible, though they're right in front of us.
This time, the Machine is the Computer, most of us own a few of them, and man oh man, wait'll you see what these things can do!!!
First: They can remember things. Forever. Without degradation. Anything, perfectly intact, the same, forever. Our stupid brains keep muddling things up. Memories transform every time we recall them. We can't RETAIN anything.
Second: They can process millions and billions of informationz and get to the right answer so fast. When we have to figure things out for ourselves, it takes sooooo long, and how do we even know if we're RIGHT?
Yes, computers are devastatingly good at these things. Humans can never hope to compete. But these skills are mere parlor tricks compared to what our brains can do. They are the soles and laces compared to the feet inside the shoes. And privileging them leads only to terrible regression.
So why is it, that rather than using these nifty wrenches to augment the incredible power of our brains, we have taken the approach of forcing our brains, both personally and collectively, to work more like a nifty wrench?
It's the same Machine Envy that Henry Ford had, only this time, it's personal, and we're dumbing down our most powerful tool to the level of our Big-Ass Dumb Computers, rather than using the computer's skills to free us up to do more of what we're already really good at.
This giant step backwards has resulted in major losses including all manner of dissociation, Infosnack Addiction, lack of fulfillment from work, stalling innovation, tribalism, inequality, and worst of all, the atrophy of the magical organ that is the human brain.
Here are a few things we can do, right away, to stop this bullshit:
1. Stop looking for the answers, and start noticing your answers
Before you snap-search Google for the solution to a thing, stare at the wall for 8 or 11 seconds and try to notice what's already going on in your brain. Remember: You can connect anything to anything else. Your brain has ingested trillions of petabytes of data and recycled all the noise and garbage into snaking webs of prevailing patterns and truths beyond what The Lowest Common Denominator of Human Thought (Google) could ever hope to show you.
Go to the library. Ask the librarian for books on a topic (yes, it's crazy, there's a person there who knows about the books that are there). Wander over to those sections and look at the other books sitting next to those ones. Pick one up. Glance. Sniff. You're going to find something amazing that Google could never hope to show you.
2. Stop trying to remember things
Computers remember things well. So you can stop. Cool?
Yes, this also means that we can replace our entire outdated educational paradigm of "retaining" information. That's never what our brain has been good at, and accordingly, most of us hate the tedium of rote memorization.
What we do is make new things by combining other things. This is our birthright, our joy, and the key to solving any problem in the world.
3. Stop trying to organize things.
Use the simplest organizational scheme possible, like the deceptively simple PARA Method from Tiago Forte. Notice the anxiety about all your untagged, unvalidated data. That's just Machine Envy. Categorizing things is what machines like to do. You are better than that. You know how to actually make useful things out of that stuff.
Don't put your emails in folders. Don't make complex tag hierarchies. Have a system, but if you're maintaining that system for more than a few minutes a day, it's not a system, it's just beating yourself for not being a computer.
Let things be messy. Information is like food. You need it, but you don't need any specific slice of it to survive. Don't worry about completing everything. Don't fool yourself that there's some perfect piece of information out there that, until you find it, you won’t be complete. You will make the connections that only you can make with whatever information is available. That’s what you do.
Start where you are, use whatever you have, and notice the unique connections your brain makes between what you have and everything else. And a broader point: Notice how it's doing it by itself, automatically, without your help. Note down what it comes up with. There's good stuff in there that the world needs.
And don’t beat yourself up for trying so hard for all these years. You just got blinded by Machine Envy like most of us. Everything you need is still right here.
You may be the most incredible machine the universe has ever constructed. That computer is there to free you up so you can spend more time being incredible. Let the computer serve you, and not the other way around.