Brain Pickings

Steve Jobs on Why Computers Are Like a Bicycle for the Mind (1990)


A 20-year-old antidote to modern-day digital pessimism.

The future of libraries — and of information, curiosity, and knowledge at large, of which the library has always been a bastion — is something I think about a lot, particularly the struggles of intellectual institutions like libraries and museums in bringing their vast analog archives into the digital sphere in an intelligent and useful way. In this excerpt from the film Memory & Imagination: New Pathways to the Library of Congress, essentially an extended 1990 infomercial for The Library of Congress starring such icons as Francis Ford Coppola, Julia Child, Penn & Teller, and Gore Vidal, Steve Jobs talks about the future of libraries in the digital age, video games as simulated learning environments, and why a computer is like a bicycle for the mind — a metaphor that I, as a bike lover, a curiosity jockey, and a techno-optimist, want to shake in the face of every false prophet pedaling techno-dystopia.

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.” ~ Steve Jobs

For a related treat, don’t miss this recently uncovered 1995 interview, in which Steve Jobs opens the door to his philosophy on life and failure.

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