The Need for Performance
Better performance: people seek it at every turn. They want to become better writers, better tennis players, better earners, more efficient at sex. Economists wring their hands about “decreasing productivity,” the inability of national economies (like ours) to continue to produce more with less. The specified goal is to grow. To grow, we must become more effective, more efficient, more productive.
That means making less, and less destructive, mistakes.
But there are an infinite number of ways of making mistakes. And like our grandparents and parents, we are finding new ways to make them.
Performance has many variables. They include motivation, education and training, cooperation and competition. But performance also runs up against a biological bedrock – at least until sentient machine intelligence takes over. That bedrock is the human body and its innate capacities.
Certain common factors define human capacity and overload. One is fatigue. Often fatigue is related to time on task – how long you’ve been doing something. Another is timing – when you do something. Biological clocks have a very big effect on performance – try being as creative at 4 A.M. as you are at 11 A.M. Interestingly, both factors are critical for an action that takes a third of our lives – sleep.
Process S and Process C
Most people don’t know that researchers often model sleep with just two variables. The first is called process S – roughly how long you’re up before you go to bed. Did you stay awake for 16 hours? Or did you decide to watch that horror movie Friday night and stay up for 20 hours, not going to sleep until really late?
If you did, you run smack into process C – the circadian, 24 hour part of your clock. If you go to bed four hours later than normal, will you also wake up four hours later the next day?
If you do, you’ll pay a price. Wiping out the morning may have more consequences than missing your kid’s baseball practice. Getting up at 11 rather than 7 A.M. means the quality of your sleep will be different; your alertness and sharpness through the day will probably suffer; your ability to get good sleep the next night may be compromised. If you’re like most of us, you’ll feel tired at strange times and sleepy at others.
For time rules life. And biological time rules much of what you do – or try to do.
People who are up too long perform badly. Get people to work regular 24 hour shifts and they foul up all over the place – and often feel mean and irritable.
People who perform at the “wrong” times of their biological clocks also do badly. Human physical and intellectual performance usually hits its nadir around 4 A.M. No wonder truckers, on average, were 40 times more likely to have fatal accidents between midnight and 6 A.M. as compared with trucking during the day.
But the need for improved human performance appears inexorable. And that’s when we run into the machine.
The Myth of the Machine
Machines, unlike their operators, are unfettered by human biological boundaries. They don’t care about what time it is – Process C, 4 A.M. or 4 P.M. Machines don’t care. If you’re a robot making parts for an iphone, it’s a matter of indifference.
Time on task is another story. If you keep a machine doing the same thing over and over and over, if may heat up, or wear out, or without proper maintenance just fall apart.
Still, with new “space age materials,” machines can keep going a long, long time without stopping.
In order to improve performance, humans use machines. We emulate machines. We even turn ourselves into versions of machines.
Robots will have more and more place in industry and – everywhere else. That’s been predicted for a century. What’s more interesting is the cyborgization of humanity.
More and more, cell phones and their ilk are starting to feel to folks like parts of their bodies. New “wearable technology” will allow us to track ourselves every second we’re alive – and note the exact moment when we’re not.
And if you work with machines all the time, you begin to think you’re one. That provides you new ways to make mistakes.
The New Mistakes
We can start with an important one: thinking that you’re like a machine.
Machines don’t turn themselves over. They don’t rebuild or regenerate – yet.
I have asked my hard drive to replace itself many times. It never answers.
My heart, on the other hand, is mostly replaced within three days. Not only that, it’s always remade differently – rebuilt to new demands.
Here human biological technology trumps machine technology hands down. We are endlessly remade, every moment of the day.
Don’t believe that? Look at the photograph of someone you know as a baby. Then take a photograph of them – now.
They’re the same person. The very same. Yet their insides have been massively renewed and rebuilt innumerable times.
You’re never the same from day to day. You renew yourself all the time – in ways your car and computer cannot.
And a corollary is if you don’t rest you’ll fall apart. You’ll also perform far less effectively. To perform well you need to rest.
Look at interval training. It appears that 10 minutes of walking three times a day is more effective for overall health than 30 minutes done at once.
The same thing looks true for most forms of learning. And learning is what we do to survive.
So unlike machines, we are constantly remade on the fly. And we need to rest in-between tasks to retool and rebuild.
In other words, what’s inside the sandwich – the regenerating rest between activities – is critically important.
Without rest more than performance suffers. So does mood, pleasure, health and survival.
2.Letting machines rule your life.
We love the internet. We love our cellphones. But do they love us back?
Ask them. Answered in proper machine speak, the question is irrelevant to them.
But not to us.
Use a cellphone throughout the day and you get beeped and prodded and interrupted until you make it stop. As Nicholas Carr demonstrated in “The Shallows,” forgoing full attention for many tasks can create much harm.
And a lot of mistakes. Think – texting while driving.
Creativity also normally takes a dive. But then there’s the matter of your personal biology.
Cellphones and trackers at night turn required human rest into a technology connection zone – the Facebook promise of unlimited “sharing and caring.”
You can be together with everybody, and all your machines – all day, every day.
But the light from your cellphone when your boss calls at 3 A.M. with an “emergency, ” very quickly turns off your melatonin production. It makes it harder for you to go back to sleep. Or get the deepest phases of sleep. That light is so bright it also flummoxes your biological clocks – setting you up for jet lag in your own bed.
So you don’t get the regenerating you need. That harms your memory, reorganized in sleep. That affects your alertness, all through the next day. That affects your creativity – for who knows how long.
Not to mention your mood, your health, and your weight. And it happens because machines treat you like another machine.
So the cyborgization of life – pronounced inevitable by millions of pundits – needs to be highly limited.For though machines may massively improve human capacities for work, they can also make us forget how we are built – as living, moving, growing, endlessly changing biological systems that must keep learning to survive.
And one thing we can learn is how to avoid different kinds of mistakes. Some of the newest, most interesting human mistakes will inevitably come from technology that does not reflect human concerns and needs.
Those kinds of mistakes – from new Chernobyls to the shooting of MH370 over the Ukraine – are ones we desperately need to avoid.
You don’t want to be a machine. You don’t want to think like a machine.
Machines make mistakes – especially when they’re human.