In class we discussed the state of “flow” – a dance between conscious and unconscious activity.
I want to explore how our use of tech peripherals as an extension of our bodies works into this flow.
Like Riding a Bike
Exemplified by the piano anecdote in Incognito by David M. Eagleman:
"Consciousness can take all the credit it wants, but it is best left at the sidelines for most of the decision making that cranks along in your brain. When it meddles in details it doesn't understand, the operation runs less effectively. Once you begin deliberating about where your fingers are jumping on, you can no longer pull off the piece"
If you have zero musical talent like me, you may find the same to be true of other instruments:
- Exercise – sports, dancing, walking, climbing stairs
- Typing on a keyboard
- Video games (controllers)
Attempting to be aware of the dance between these layers of our thought – how our ideas and expression are translated into synapses and bio-physics – halts our ability perform the actions we know so well.
What’s more, this awareness doesn’t even scratch the metal effort of considering how to tools we use actually work. If we we’re trying to stay conscious of the striking of a piano key for what it actually is – a series of levers, mallets, and strings that push air molecules with a specific wiggle – our poor conscious would never get anywhere.
This division between controlled and automatic behavior is well described by an Elephant/Rider metaphor in The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. From the wikipedia summary:
"His metaphor is a rider on the back of an elephant in which the conscious mind is the rider and the unconscious mind is the elephant. The rider is unable to control the elephant by force: this explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement."
I find the elephant represents our habits and the speed/elegance with which we perform them – “training the elephant” is building or refining this subconscious behavior and the state of flow between it and consciousness.
Cooking the Elephant
I recently experienced this flow first-hand while playing a fucking fantastic video game called Overcooked. For those not familiar:
"Overcooked is a chaotic couch co-op cooking game for one to four players. Working as a team, you and your fellow chefs must prepare, cook and serve up a variety of tasty orders before the baying customers storm out in a huff."
Check out this video:
Starting this cooperative game with a friend, we were challenged to do the activities so gracefully performed in the video. To pick up an ingredient and chop it was a series of conscious commands with no unconscious backing:
- Move to the ingredient
- Press “A” to pick it up
- Move to the cutting board
- Press “A” to put it down
- Hold “Y” to chop
This simple activity required a lot of mental effort. Chaining activities together was an entirely different animal, and communicating with my friend about who does what activities (and when) was a whole different genus!
Yet as we continued to play, our subconsciouses began to pick up the slack, and the results were beautiful. The controller evolved into an extension of our hand, and subsequently of our minds.
Our conscious eyes see we need to “Chop the onion”, but our unconscious now takes more command over what signals are sent down our arms, out of our fingers, through a series of analog components that send a wireless signal to another machine, back through wires, and out of the screen.
“Press A to pick up” transitioned simply to “Pick up”. Then, after more experience “chop the onion” morphed from a series of discrete tasks to a single expression.
This evolution of the controller peripheral into an extension of one’s mind is not unlike a tennis player and racket, a driver and steering wheel, an artist and brush. When this level of connection is achieved, gaming becomes a true art and fantastic medium for self-expression. But I digress…
What’s really awesome about Overcooked is the state of flow it commences both within a round, and throughout the game’s progression. After taming the controller ‘elephant’, the management of kitchen activity becomes its own dance between conscious and subconscious.
While chopping an onion may now be more or less “automated” making whole dishes is a higher order of commands. Our conscious mind sees an orders come in, and thinks:
- Chop the ingredients
- Cook the ingredients (and don’t burn them!)
- Plate the cooked food
- Add garnish
- Serve the dish
- Wash the dish
…all while navigating obstacles within the game space and communicating with other players.
Yet as we tame the elephant of this larger process, the round changes from a series of stressful tasks to something that feels more like conducting a symphony. Our conscious mind and eyes see the kitchen, see the round, but our unconscious does the heavy lifting and reports back to the conscious in a beautiful cyclical fashion, a state of flow.
This flow is a euphoric feeling and explains why a game about frantically preparing digital food is so fucking fun and rewarding.
As the game progresses, it presents new challenges and higher standards that encourage us re-tame our elephant, push our conscious/subconscious dance and team communication to higher levels. Revisiting previous levels, we’re able to conduct symphonies so much more beautiful then we were previously able to.
Find Your Edge
Edge-finding is a term I borrow from yoga. From the article linked above:
"Your edge is the point in the pose when you are mentally and physically challenged, but also able to find balance and ease. The edge embodies a calm challenge, exploring your limits, stepping away from your comfort zone, and cultivating awareness of your mind and body."
As we progress through the game, the different difficulties within levels show us this edge, producing a creeping feeling in the brain – a state of suspension that feels weird but also great – self-awareness.
If it sounds strange that a cutesy little video game contributes to self awareness, you should try it for yourself. Like most things in life, it’s even better with friends. 👫
Rest Of You Project
OK – now that you know why Overcooked is awesome, let us return to the concept of flow and use of digital peripheries. While I’m not a good (real) chef or practiced driver, My subconscious and mac keyboard definitely have a strong bond I want to explore.
I love keyboard shortcuts and being quick to navigate towards my goals on the computer. I take pride in optimizing my workflows and being “agile” between tasks.
Specifically, one keystroke combination is essential: COMMAND + TAB
This command to switch applications is basically hard-wired into me. Virtually all of the work I do on a computer has command + tab. Using command + tab in combination with other shortcuts, I can do things very ‘zoom zoom fast now’ and also retain a state of flow more easily. I ❤️ command + tab.
When pulled off correctly, it gives me a euphoric feeling similar that of the to the Overcooked Symphony. Just look at this menial (but sexy) command + tab flow from a data art project last year:
However, I’ve started to wonder if doing things “zoom zoom fast now” is really as powerful or effective as my conscious mind makes it out to be. Conversely, I wonder if some of the keyboard habits I’ve developed are administered against my conscious will… sometimes I command + tab before I am aware of where I am going.
As such, command + tab also symbolizes my reliance on a GUI and heavily influences the feedback loop between my screen and fingers. It is my everything, and yet I know nothing about it.
For my Rest of You class project, I plan to install a key-logger on my computer to explore my relationship with command + tab (“CT” from here on) in detail. Some ideas:
- CT frequency by time of day
- CT velocity & acceleration
- CT vs. its step-brother command + shift + tab, and step sister command + `
- CT & my location
- CT & my mood
- CT by task
- Applications most intertwined with CT
- CT vs. other typing speed, timing, distance