AlphaCare: A Musing On Wellness, If You Were A Computer

4 books on a table in front of a bookshelf
How many of us have referred to ourselves with machine terminology? I know I have, in phrases like “my bandwidth is overloaded” or asking coworkers “do you have any bandwidth right now?”. You can find any number of articles comparing human brains to computers (or testing how like a computer you are), and just as many proclaiming the comparison is irrelevant (and with good reason!). In this blog post I won’t argue if we are or are not like computers, but rather postulate that we frame human being wellness as we would device maintenance. As I continue to search for ways to recover from the burnout many of us shared in 2020, I’ve found this analogy to be a helpful reminder of how vital self-care really is. For readers short on time, jump to the quick list of book recommendations at the end.

For a moment let us remember 1997, the year that a computer named Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov (at the time world chess champion). Fast forward to the present and Google’s DeepMind AI has been playing shogi, Go, and of course chess for years now. Today, AlphaZero is now teaching itself, and learning from itself, with only the basic rules programmed. Former chess champion Patrick Wolff is quoted in the book Solomon’s Code  on Google’s AlphaZero:

“I realized that AlphaZero, for all its sheer computing and cognitive power, still lacked something innate to human grandmasters: a conceptual understanding…”

Sure, we now have access to many tools that make us better, and sure we can create systems that do the most repetitive and tedious tasks – and all of this is supposed to allow us to focus on the sorts of things we humans do better than machines (like creativity, empathy, and improvisation). Writers on the subject suggest “There’s no reason to compare yourself to these tools. It’s nonsensical.” I get it, but from the angle of self-care and wellness I observe humans (myself included) taking better care of their tech than themselves. We literally expect more out of fragile bodies with emotions than we do from our devices. Any I.T. professional will tell you, and most consumers know this by now too, that regularly shutting down or restarting your devices benefits the performance and lifespan of the device.

Exhibit A: Macbook Pro Black Screen of Death, December 3, 2020.

What happens to a computer that is rarely powered down for fear of losing the work left in progress? I will tell you: Flashback to December 3, 2020 at 1:06 PM. On this work from home day with an important deadline at 5 PM, my poor Macbook Pro crashed and all I had was the black screen of death. This wasn’t the first time of course, yet I still hadn’t learned my lesson. I had been working it too hard, keeping files, programs and way too many browser tabs open all week long in pathetic attempts to finish several things before letting the machine hibernate. Hours of troubleshooting later, it finally powered back up and I had a major epiphany. Although I had not been taking great care of my personal laptop in the work from home environment, I had also not been taking care of myself. I’m embarrassed to say that Mac was actually in better shape than I was. How could I prevent the black screen of death from happening to me (…again)? I present exhibit A: photo of me, burned out, if I was my computer. I realized it wasn’t just my computer that I was running into the ground.

I know I’m not alone… and if you are reading this you are probably like me. You know you should restart yourself each day, just like you probably should with your smart phone or work computers, but how often do you really restart? You know every so often you should completely shut down the machine that is you, just like you should periodically shut down your PC or Mac. But honestly, how often do you do this? Of course things would be much simpler if we really were computers! There are excellent guides with good recommendations for how to decide when to restart or power down, and how often based on your device type and age. Yet, as smart as we humans are to develop these specific guidelines for our computers, we have yet to craft ideal measurements for our own self-care. And since human begins are each unique, unlike identical machines assembled in mass, no guidelines could ever hope to fit our species as a whole.

bathtub curve graph
The graph demonstrating failure rate over time is commonly called the bathtub curve. Wyattsderivative work: McSush / Public domain

In summation, I have to admit I have zero answers, and am testing for myself the best ways to care for my own body and brain. In the mean time, I can share a few book titles that are helping me to better understand how my brain is wired, how I can better restart or shutdown, and how I can work better once I’ve powered back up again:

Silence in the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge

Contemplateing the various forms of silence around and within us, this book offers solutions for finding such silence amidst endless interruptions… Kagge expands the concepts of silence and noise beyond their aural definitions and engages with modern culture’s information overload, need for constant connection, and cult of busyness. Great pleasure lies in Kagge’s creative investigations, leaving the reader more mindful of the swirl of distraction in everyday life.

The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism by Kyle Chayka

We commit to cleanse diets and strive for inbox zero.  Amid the frantic pace and distraction of everyday life, we covet silence. Chayka seeks better ways to claim the time and space we crave. This leads him to the philosophical and spiritual origins of minimalism, and to the stories of artists such as Agnes Martin and Donald Judd; composers such as John Cage and Julius Eastman; architects and designers; visionaries and misfits. The result is an elegant new synthesis of our minimalist desires and our profound emotional needs…

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

This book breaks through the invisible yoke that binds 21st century first-worlders to our app-driven devices. With a thoughtful look at the attention economy, Odell’s book is a manifesto for re-learning how to look at the world. Activism in our modern age is disconnecting and making time and space for observation and thought. The book braids ancient philosophy together with contemporary visual and technological culture, weaving an original route to re-wilding the mind…

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media…

Solomon’s Code: Humanity in a World of Thinking Machines by Olaf Groth & Mark Nitzberg

Whether in medicine, money or love, technologies powered by forms of artificial intelligence are playing an increasingly prominent role in our lives. As we cede more and more of our decisions to thinking machines, we face new questions about staying safe, keeping a job and determining the direction we want our lives to take. And the answers might depend…



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