View Electronic Edition

Organizing Programs as Mind Extension Tools

WHEN MY GRANDFATHER HOMESTEADED his farm in Oak Creek, Arizona, he faced the problem of tunneling a homespun irrigation ditch through many feet of solid rock. (It was either that or the bigger problem of making gravity ignore the water while it went OVER the mountain.) The available tools were hammer, chisel, and muscle. A secondary problem arose when he tunneled far enough into the rock to lose all sense of directon and realized that he could spend far more muscle than he could afford by tunneling off-course, one hammer strike at a time. Due to minerals in the rock, a compass was not to be trusted. The solution came when he walked outside, placed his hunting rifle against a tree, aimed into the tunnel, and strapped the rifle in place. Now he could fire into the tunnel, feel the rock wall for the bullet's impact, hammer in that direction for a while, then go back to the rifle for a new bullet mark whenever the route became questionable.

Functional fixedness is thinking that rifles are only for hunting, or that computers are only clerical support. Functional fixedness is the phrase psychologists use to explain why so many problems remain unsolved when their solutions require tools having more common, non-solution uses. Information machines suffer from this underuse, perhaps partially due to lack of imagination, but mostly due to functionally fixed ways of considering computers' abilities.

Ask anyone who has discovered personal computers to tell you what computers can do and get replies that include word processing, mathematical calculations via spreadsheets, and bookkeeping or inventory control via database management software. (Occasionally someone will admit to playing games such as PLANETFALL, ENCHANTER, or WIZARDRY, but I certainly wouldn't.) Since computers are a relatively new tool, it is sensible for us to try to categorize them, assign them some role just so we know where we stand with them, and perhaps vice versa.

One arena where personal computer users suffer from functional fixedness on a large scale involves the informational-control software commonly referred to as "database management systems." These software packages are the most underutilized tools in the computer world. They originated for such problems as inventory control in shoe stores and reservation books for airUnes. It's fine that computers have improved those record-keeping functions, but consider what mental inventory you could control. Could you use perfect retrieval of every idea you ever had and the ability to cross-index those ideas according to the project you have underway? Would musicians, poets, monks, or playwrights like a perfect catalog of every inspiration that fired their brains? Would students, teachers, or speakers like an index of every publication they might reference in the future? Would mechanics, farmers, or contractors like a perfect memory for every oddball problem they ever solved, and for how that solution might work on similar problems? These functions can presently be performed by harmonizing a human mind with a database management system.

Those who value the information in their own minds can benefit from extending their memories and retrieval abilities with a computer. First you select a worthy and affordable database package that will perform the filing, searching, updating, cross-indexing, and reporting you require. Second, the more difficult step, you must change your habits. You must discipline yourself to scribble down or tape record the ideas you want to catalog as they occur. This habit change is critical, because important details of information are lost from human memory in a very short time. Stick these slips of paper or tapes near your microcomputer. Last, once a week or month, discipline yourself to sit down with your database program and expand the files of your mind. You can name your inspiration file EUREKA and your future projects MANANA. In just a few months you will build up a catalog of inspirations, insights, and fertile references that you could never buy off any computer store's shelf.

If you use the product of your mind in any valued way, then there may be no more valuable tool in your life than a good database management system keeping an ever-expanding, never-forgetting, totally cross-indexed catalog of your mind. Your personal computer can serve this mind-extension role and still balance your books, explore your income tax options, and (ho-hum)
type another letter.