The Bicycle and The Bumper Car

There’s an old video of Steve Jobs, wherein he describes that the personal computer would be “a bicycle for the mind” — that a human mind using a computer would be incredibly efficient.

His youthful, round face, framed by strands of black hair, beams as he explains that the human is a very inefficient traveler on foot, as compared to other animals; but that on a bicycle — on a bicycle, a human blows away even the condor, which can glide for miles with a single flap of its wings.

He looks skyward as if to prevent the camera’s lens from disturbing his mental image. He’s seeing a future where everyone is riding this bicycle to be more productive, more creative, and happier.


What a beautiful mental image: A bicycle for the mind. Coasting down the road, wind blowing through your hair, the fresh spring air tickling your lungs — your body in harmony with a machine, easily adjusted to the right amount of resistance for your energy level and the terrain.

Is this how you feel when you wake up in the morning, and in the process of turning off your alarm, discover a text message from your boss?

Is this how you feel that first moment before you check your inbox, and the mental peace afforded by the previous night’s rest is obliterated by a deluge of requests for your time?

Is this how you feel when, in the midst of a session of flow, you get a phone call, on your computer?


What is supposed to be a bicycle, is more like a bumper car. Just when you start coasting in the right direction, BAM! you get sidetracked.

Ironically, all of this happens on the very device on which you are supposed to be doing your work.

There’s a whole other world of chaos to be wrangled with in your own mind. Whether it’s a sudden memory of your best friend in 4th grade, or a debate with your coworker over what year Spoon released the Girls Can Tell album, you’re only a few finger flicks away from The Bumper Car.


The economist, John Maynard Keynes, famously predicted that by 2030 we’d all have a 15-hour work week. Ostensibly, we would take our massive productivity gains and focus instead on “the art of life itself.” Call me a pessimist, but it doesn’t look like this will happen. Most modern economists agree with me.

The computer was supposed to be a bicycle for the mind. The key thing to notice here is that it was never intended to be a motorcycle for the mind. The performance of a bicycle is limited by the physical limits of the rider. And our minds are only so strong.

For example, The Bicycle helped me type this article much faster than I could have written it by hand. But to type something worth reading, you have to first think something worth typing. The Bicycle can do little to help you with that, and in fact, it will just expose you to The Bumper Cars.


Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products will be on my podcast this Thursday to ponder “Is Silicon Valley Leading Us into the Robot Apocalypse?” Subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss it.

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