26 Aug 2009

Learning How to Focus

There’s an interesting saying that is a golden proverb, one that has descended the ages:

[…] and yet the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.

— Plato, The Republic

It’s been adapted over the years to read simply: “Necessity is the mother of invention”. If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, or don’t quite remember what it means, I’ll give you my interpretation. It means that invention (or ingenuity) is spawned from a direct need or necessity. Ideas and Machines and Businesses are all created because of an attributable need of some force, be it human or otherwise.

Washing Machines & Microsoft

A few months ago I had a weird thought pop into my head when I heard that phrase during the day. I thought, “Sure, in most cases necessity is the mother of invention, or the cause of why the invention was created. But if you reversed the phrase, would it also be true? Could Invention be the mother of Necessity?” At first you may dismiss this as a mere play on words and give it no further thought. But go back and read it again:

Invention is the mother of necessity.

— My weird brain

Could it be, that a real need or necessity created these ideas and inventions and businesses, and once the ideas and inventions and businesses were created, they created and psychologically enforced a “need” to use them. Take for example the washing machine 1. It was invented because a real need existed. People doing their washing all over the world had to do it by hand, which was slow and hard and probably boring. What if someone created a turning basin that would make sure all the clothes were scrubbed together without having to do it manually? Of course, I’m sure the washing machine wasn’t met with immediate overnight success like MySpace or something. Customers were probably sparse at first, but surely as you’re reading this post right now, the washing machine grew in popularity and ubiquity because it fulfilled an enormous need.

And here we are 318 years after the first washing machine patent was issued. And everyone has got a freaking washing machine. Ok, I know the kids in Africa don’t, and college students and other poor people, but still, it’s a big market by even Microsoft’s standards. But let’s get back to my thought. I’ll agree whole-heartedly that the washing machine was invented because of a real need. But now, because we have the washing machine we kind of have to use it, don’t we? I’m not entirely convinced either, but it’s a weird loop to get into if you’ve got some time to kill.

Bit by Bit

And so we jump from washing machines to one of the most incredible and unbelievable inventions ever created: the Computer Processor (see 1). From ENIAC to iPhone, the computer processor has absolutely transformed the world culture more completely than perhaps any other invention has ever done, certainly faster than any other. This pace of evolution was quickened significantly by the arrival of the internet nigh-on twenty years ago (thanks, Mr. Gore).

Entrepreneur’s have flocked by the millions to the internet in hopes of cultivating some small corner for their prospective ideas. In this case, the invention of the internet has created a vacuum so strong that for the last 20 years the world has been frantically scrambling to catch up to the opportunities that multiply exponentially each day. As with every free market, there are giants and there are peasants. The internet giants are the household names: Google, Wikipedia, Digg, Craigslist, Facebook, Twitter, etc. They’re so widespread that my grandma probably knows Google, Facebook and Wikipedia, even if she’s not sure what they are or how you would use them. Anyone with a lick of sense can tell you that the ones who are making internet Empires are building them on top of some form of content aggregation. In the design, marketing, and advertising industries, the saying goes that Content is King.

The problem with having all of this information being so readily available is that it creates the need to process it. The necessity of finding and consuming information exists due to ease of acquiring it. Okay, let me back up a bit… the problem I have with the internet is my need to process as much information as possible. Programming, Business, Design, Comics, Photos, Friend Updates; all these things cry out for attention, and often I oblige. Much too often.

Why, _why?

On August 19th, 2009, one of the biggest names in the Ruby industry disappeared entirely and completely from the internet. Why the lucky stiff (who often goes simply by “why” or “_why”) trashed all his sites, github projects, and any other notable web presence completely. At first people were afraid he had been hacked big time, or feared that he had been physically hurt or even killed. All of this was a bit overkill if you ask me. The final few days on his twitter account he continually posted rhetorical questions about the purpose of life and programming. _why didn’t get shot or hacked, he got sick of information overload. He got tired of having to be defined by what the masses thought of him, so he bailed.

I was surprised because you just don’t see that kind of thing happening to high-profile people online (unless they really did get hacked). I was sad because he’s contributed in some ways to my love for the Ruby programming language (his TryRuby site was key to that), such that I feel like the Ruby community did take a substantial loss. I was intrigued because of the sheer style in which he went out. He knew what he was doing, probably had been planning it for a few months now, possibly even years. He hit a wall. A wall where the invention created a necessity he felt he could no longer support.

Operation “_why not”?

Since the day _why went offline (7 days ago) I’ve been formulating a bit of my own escape plan. Last night, I launched the first (and possibly only) phase. Time will tell if there are additional phases. You may have already noticed some of the effects of my actions. The first is that you will notice that my recent tweets no longer show at the bottom of this site. Yes, I deleted my Twitter account. Not only mine (@localshred), but OSG’s as well (@onesimplegoal). Go ahead, go check, I’ll wait. Right, are you back? Okay, good. I also deleted my facebook account. Not deactivated, I actually found the link to completely delete the account. It’s supposed to be deleted in about 13 days, though I’m supposedly able to cancel the request at any time before it happens. I won’t be. The third strike was drastically truncating the majority of my RSS feeds. I now only subscribe to family blogs and photo feeds, as well as a few key tech/programming resources like 37Signals and Jeff Attwood’s blog (and yes, xkcd made the cut).

You may be perplexed by my actions. To tell you the truth, I am still a bit perplexed that I actually went through with it. Quite a few months ago I went through a similar purging excercise, but not to the extent of deleting accounts. The best answer I can give is that I feel like my need to consume and digest information is completely getting in the way of my progress as a programmer and human being. I crave it, need it, just like a drug. And some days it’s all I can think about and act upon.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever create a facebook account again, as much as I really did enjoy it when I had a small number of friends who mattered to me. I am fairly certain, however, that I will utilize twitter at some point in the future as owning a business becomes more a part of my day to day activity. But for now, I’m partially following _why’s example and turning off the invention in order to subdue the necessity. Here’s to learning how to focus. Cheers.


  1. I have never done, nor plan to do any research on the invention of the washing machine (or computer). :)