Zen and the Art of the Analogy

This guy’s “computer” has a lot of memory but not much hard drive space. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance first introduced me to the competing concepts of the “classical” aesthetic and the “romantic” aesthetic. In short, and with apologies to Dr. Pirsig, the classical aesthetic is the ability to see beauty and meaning in systems and the interconnectivity of systems, while the romantic aesthetic is the ability to see beauty and meaning in individual objects. While these two aesthetics are not necessarily at odds with each other, I find that in my work as an academic technologist in the humanities, it really helps me to understand and exploit these distinctions.

Most of the faculty members I consult with in my departments are really excellent at the romantic aesthetic. They are trained in analyzing discrete bits of culture or language or history, and then delving further into their topics to tell us something interesting or new about the world. That’s not to say that they don’t also have highly developed senses of the classical aesthetic, but there’s very often a disconnect between their ability to understand and appreciate the beauty and meaning of systems in the world and their ability to understand the same things about their own computers and the technology they depend on every day.

I am often called on to consult with faculty members who need help using a particular computer program to accomplish a task, and many of these faculty members take out a pencil and paper during our meetings to write out every single step of the process. I tell them it’s okay to do that to help them remember what they need to do, but that they really need to try to understand the system, the beauty in the system, of the program they’re using. The programmers who created [insert name of your program of choice here] have in essence created a logical system. The system may not always work perfectly, but it has an internal logic that anyone recognizing the classical aesthetic can manipulate to master the program they’re using. I encourage the many faculty members I consult with who have this block about technology that if they just think about what they’re trying to accomplish, and if they believe that there’s an internal logic in any of the programs they use, they should be able to make great progress in overcoming their need to write out specific directions for everyday computer tasks.

It’s About Communication, Not Technology

I guess my training in English literature has developed in me an inclination to use analogies to bring concepts home to my faculty members. The analogy is one of my favorite ways to make technology more user-friendly for those people in the humanities who might be tech-challenged or tech-hostile, since it moves the concepts of technology outside of the realm of tech-speak and into the world of communication. To tell you the truth, I personally am not a fan of technology. I’m really a fan of communication, and I get excited when technology offers us incredible new tools for communication.

So, here’s my favorite analogy that I use with faculty members who are looking to buy a new computer and want to know the difference between this machine and that one. They’ll often send me a link to a couple of computers and want to know which one I’d pick. “This one has more memory,” they’ll say. Then I have to explain that they both have the same memory, but this one has a larger hard drive. “Isn’t that what I said?” they’ll respond. Oy vey, I don’t want to get technical, and I don’t want them to buy the wrong machine for their needs, so here goes:

My Computer Memory Vs. Computer Hard Drive Analogy

Okay, so you have a desk and you have a bookshelf. (This works better when we’re in the faculty member’s office, so I can point to the desk and the bookshelf — my folks in the humanities are very visual learners. If you’re reading this somewhere other than your office, you’ll just have to pretend.) Your computer’s hard drive is like your office bookshelf. The bigger it is, the more books you can fit on it. The more packed full it is, the harder it is to get your books into and out of the bookshelf. It’s also harder to find your books when the bookshelf gets too crowded. So, if you’ve got lots of books, you will need a pretty big bookshelf. Similarly, if you’ve got lots of applications and big files, you’re going to need a big hard drive.

If your hard drive is like your bookshelf, then your computer’s memory is kind of like your desk. You can take books off your bookshelf and put them on your desk. You can open one and read it. You can take out several books at once and read them simultaneously. And you can keep doing this until your desk is completely covered. Once your desk is covered with books, it gets harder to find a particular book, and your productivity starts to slow down. You can put some of those books back on the bookshelf to clear up room for more books or just to give you some free space to work. So it is with your computer’s memory. The more memory your computer has, the more programs you can be working on at once.

Anyway, by then, the faculty member has stopped listening, so I just tell them to buy whichever one is cheaper and hang on to the receipt.

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College