Bicycle

The bicycle is a surprisingly versatile metaphor and has been on my mind lately. Here are all the uses I could think of of the bicycle as a metaphor used when talking about computing.

Perhaps the most famous use is by Steve Jobs, who apparently wanted to rename the Macintosh to “Bicycle”. Steve explains why in this video:

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.

On the other end of the metaphor spectrum, we have Doug Engelbart, who believed powerful tools required powerful training for users to realize their full potential, but that the world is more satisfied with dumbed down tools:

[H]ow do you ever migrate from a tricycle to a bicycle? A bicycle is very unnatural and hard to learn compared to a tricycle, and yet in society it has superseded all the tricycles for people over five years old. So the whole idea of high-performance knowledge work is yet to come up and be in the domain. It’s still the orientation of automating what you used to do instead of moving to a whole new domain in which you are obviously going to learn quite a few new skills.

And again from Belinda Barnet’s Memory Machines:

[Engelbart]: ‘Someone can just get on a tricycle and move around, or they can learn to ride a bicycle and have more options.’

This is Engelbart’s favourite analogy. Augmentation systems must be learnt, which can be difficult; there is resistance to learning new techniques, especially if they require changes to the human system. But the extra mobility we could gain from particular technical objects and techniques makes it worthwhile.

Finally, perhaps my two favourite analogies come from Alan Kay. Much like Engelbart, Alan uses the bicycle as a metaphor for learning:

I think that if somebody invented a bicycle now, they couldn’t get anybody to buy it because it would take more than five minutes to learn, and that is really pathetic.

But Alan has a more positive metaphor for the bicycle (3:50), which gives me some hope:

The great thing about a bike is that it doesn’t wither your physical attributes. It takes everything you’ve got, and it amplifies that! Whereas an automobile puts you in a position where you have to decide to exercise. We’re bad at that because nature never required us to have to decide to exercise. […]

So the idea was to try to make an amplifier, not a prosthetic. Put a prosthetic on a healthy limb and it withers.

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