In my family, car repair has been the family business for currently four generations. I of course am the odd one out, the one son in the family working with computers instead of mechanisms.
One perk of having so many car mechanics in the family is the cheap car repairs. I’ve had a few old cars over the years, and have had my Dad help with the occasional repairs whenever something went wrong, as is inevitable with old cars.
One time, my Dad did some repairs on a truck I had that had been having some issues. Afterward, he told me about the things he had fixed, as well as the problems that weren’t worth fixing yet but were worth keeping an eye on.
He pointed out how, if you listened carefully to the noise the truck made when starting, beneath all the revving and other noises the engine made, you could carefully hear a faint “tk-tk--tk” noise. He described how during startup, the starter - a small electric motor - turns a small gear, which then turns a much larger gear, kickstarting the main engine.
“That tk-tk--tk noise,” he explained, “means that the big gear is missing three teeth.”
I’d like to point out that this is all deep inside the vehicle, and getting a good look at that big gear would have required a much more involved disassembly of the vehicle than what he did that day - he made that precise observation entirely by ear.
I have a young teenage brother who I had once spent years trying to get involved with programming. For a while it wasn’t clear if he was more interested in computers or machinery, but at one point he explained to me that he had made his decision.
He explained that, if he writes code and something isn’t working correctly, it’s very difficult to figure out exactly what’s going wrong. On the other hand, a mechanism that’s not working correctly emits sounds and vibrations that are easy to intuitively triangulate to the source of the problem.
He currently spends his free time buying, repairing, and then selling old lawnmowers, snowmobiles, and other small vehicles. If you have some machine with a small motor that hasn’t run since the 70s, he can pretty reliably have it running in seemingly no time at all. He’s astonishingly good at it for a teenage kid.
Using More of the Brain
There is a colloquial claim that people only use 10% of their brains. This is often refuted, though I’d nitpick and point that exactly how much of the brain is used at a time is extremely dependent on how one chooses to measure such a thing. Neural encodings are actually pretty sparse to begin with.
Regardless, “using more of your brain” is obviously an improvement and we should aim to involve more of the brain in our work. Think about what is involved with software development, or even most desk jobs in general - sitting down, staring at a screen, tapping on a keyboard. Think about the large swathes of your brain involved in touch, proprioception, motor movements, and processing smells and sounds. Little to none of that is being used for anything productive when you’re working at your computer.
I look at my family members working on engines - they are using sight, sound, touch, and even smell to diagnose problems. It’s astonishing how many different fluids and greases are involved with these machines, and how often they have extremely distinct and noticeable smells! They’re constantly moving around, squeezing their hands and tools into narrow spaces, walking around vehicles to get to better positions and perspectives.
I personally do my best thinking while moving around, frequently pacing around the room or going for walks. I’ll often [at least quietly] think aloud as well. I tend to speak with my hands a fair bit. Most of my senses are at least somewhat engaged in the activity. When thinking in this state, I can often wind up in a flow state, a kind of trance of deep thought that I can sometimes stay in for hours, producing many of my best insights.
Then when I have to write code, or write an article, I have to sit down and stare at a screen. I’m often restless, wanting to move around. During the writing of this article, I’ve gotten stuck several times, stood up, paced a couple laps around the room, and had my head fill with new ideas that I then sat down to write.
Perhaps this restlessness could be diagnosed as ADHD or something, but I don’t see this as a disorder of any kind. If I’m engaging more of my brain in an activity, getting more out of it by leveraging the habitual movement of my hands do part of my thinking, that’s an advantage. If anything’s wrong, it’s not my brain but rather the work itself, and how poorly it conforms to the kind of work the brain finds ideal.
I strongly suspect that such diagnoses, especially among the younger generations, may not be mental defects so much as our brains collectively crying out for more multisensory work, and being provided with little to none of it.
I don’t find it even slightly surprising how many software engineers have extremely physical hobbies such as rock climbing or weight lifting.
Sensory Junk Food and Sludge Content
I’ve written about this somewhat in the past, with an old article of mine - Why Do Programmers Listen to Music - where I posit that the brain craves these multisensory experiences, and that people listening to music while working is a form of auditory junk food. I’ve only become increasingly convinced of this thesis over time.
Music helps satiate the brain’s demand for an auditory component to work, and it does so incredibly well with its perfect balance of complexity and repetition that the brain finds so pleasing. However, it provides zero structure that is actually relevant to the task at hand. The desire is satiated, but the problem the desire is meant to address is completely unresolved.
Recently, a youtube channel I watch that discusses internet content and virality (Whatitis) made a couple of videos discussing “Sludge Content” - videos, often on TikTok, that combine several unrelated videos into one. This usually takes the form of a relatively unengaging video with interesting audio content paired with footage from a videogame or of someone completing a “satisfying” task.
This video surprised me, as the phenomenon I described over a year ago is very similar to the explanation given for this baffling content. His argument is roughly that the unrelated “sludge video” in videos like this are more visually engaging, effectively hypnotizing the eyes while the ears maintain their attention on the audio. When the audio gets particularly interesting, the eyes often break out of this hypnosis for a few moments to pay attention to the primary video, the “less engaging” video that’s actually connected to the audio.
This kind of content is often used as an example of how much the attention spans of younger generations have been utterly destroyed, though I think there’s some nuance that perspective misses.
These kinds of TikTok videos are also often an order of magnitude more popular than videos that do not engage in this kind of editing. This is for the same reason that people consider themselves so much more productive at desk jobs when listening to music compared to sitting in silence. It satiates the brain’s hunger for information better than the alternative, with more complex, more structured information, even if those individual pieces of information are disconnected and largely irrelevant to each other.
The Solution: Multisensory Computing
I expect that to a large degree, TikTok’s sludge content is here to stay, and will likely become much more common across more conten platforms, especially in content designed to absorb your entire attention.
All the content that exists to be on in the background while you do something else - music, podcasts, audiobooks especially - is probably safe from sludge content. Granted, either that content or the task you’re trying to focus on along with it is itself the sludge, the sensory junk food, at least in some sense.
In some of these cases, I don’t see much of a problem. I spent a couple years delivering pizzas to pay my rent. Listening to podcasts, music, and audiobooks while driving was a valuable improvement to the otherwise dull and frustrating hours spent each day in traffic. The goal was not to allocate more of my brainpower to driving, if anything it was go as far in the opposite direction as was safe.
However, for tasks meant to absorb all possible attention, meant to make maximal use of the brain - both productive work and engaging with content - we should prioritize keeping this sludge to a minimum.
Accomplishing this requires a more multisensory approach to computing and its interfaces.
We must make interfaces from the computer into the brain more dense with meaningful information still remaining legible. The sweet spot is likely pretty close to the kind of structure found in music and video game graphics, which are already specifically designed to absorb a great deal of human attention and put people into flow states.
There’s also a good reason why videogames are so multisensory - visual, auditory, and sometimes even involving haptic feedback. Because for getting people into engaging flow states benefits from bringing in as many senses as possible, letting people think with a larger proportion of their brain. There’s a reason games are so fun and addicting, and we’d probably all enjoy our work more if it was similarly engaging.
At the end of the day, much of the most “addicting” digital content - Tiktok, videogames, etc., is doing things that I would argue has value, but are often doing so in suboptimal ways, and with goals that amount to merely wasting time or spreading unwanted messages.
The proper solution to this problem is to gain a deeper understanding of these principles and apply them for more productive, more fulfilling ends.
Some related articles:
Thanks for reading this week’s article. I hope you found these ideas interesting and unique.
If anyone is interested in experimenting with more multisensory interfaces in their own software, feel free to hop into the Bzogramming subscriber chat. I’ve spent time thinking about more concrete ideas, and have a few I’d like to try out myself at some point - I’d love to get into technical details if anyone’s interested.