The Heavyweight Thinker

By Balaji Prasad

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; the hands can't hit what the eyes can't see." ~ Muhammad Ali

Opensource software is supposed to be really good. In principle, lots of programmers jump in, inspect, and write or modify code that keeps the software growing and improving.

Alas, “opensource thinking" is not quite the same thing. First of all, all the thinking out there is not from people who are motivated to really take the time to understand things and enjoy the process of creating insights for the pure enjoyment of doing it, or for the high that comes to an artist relishing the birth of their own brainchild. There are a lot of people for whom information production is a job. They are paid for this by people who may have motives and bias; of course the hands-on information artist may have their own motives and biases too, not least of which is to get the research and writing done within deadlines, and without compromising their personal lives and hobbies.

Secondly, information is not software. You can test software to make sure it works. It works; or it doesn't. Information on the other hand is often in the form of words and loose language-based logic that can be used to knead raw data into various shapes and forms as desired by the shaper. So, information is not only inherently probabilistic but also variably probabilistic in its parts. Some of it can be true, some of it can be false, and there can be fifty shades of gray in between. Fact or fiction? That's generally not an easy question to answer. It is hard to test the structural integrity of an adjective as we might with software, or something even more tangible, e.g. a bridge. Just how bad is “bad"? And when someone says there was a “lot" of this and a “little" of that, what do those words mean? Things are measured relative to some baseline measure, and maybe that measure resides inside the author's head or, perhaps, and a bit more deviously, it's relative to where the author would like the reader's mind to go.

The weightless mind

The human mind is inflatable. It can be pumped up and set afloat to soar into the azure skies if there are no anchors to moor it to firm ground. This does happen when we read some headlines or watch a video clip that causes our minds to boldly go where no minds should have gone before. But if the minds that produced those artifacts went there, we go there too, often all too eagerly.

However, we don't always float. So if someone were to urge us to jump from atop a cliff, it is unlikely that we would. Our survival instincts, and common sense, provide the anchor that holds us back from going where the mind can certainly go but where it would be foolhardy for the body to go. The extraordinariness of this is that we don't have to strain our intellectual powers to do some complex analysis to end up alive. Our common sense comes rushing in, seemingly from nowhere. “You've got to be kidding me!" we say incredulously to the huckster who's attempting to get us to plunge into the gaping void.

We are barely aware of it, but we clearly have a hidden autonomous system that unilaterally activates when we contemplate something that is detrimental to our existence, and it steps in to protect us from ourselves.

The heavyweight mind

So, like Muhammad Ali, we float, at times, like a butterfly - maybe even most of the time - but when the time comes, we rise to the occasion, and, like the indomitable heavyweight, sting like a bee. The irony is that when we think we're thinking, we float; and when we're not aware of any conscious thought, we sting.

If somehow we could do more stinging and less floating, would that not make us a bit more successful in the boxing ring of life that we have been thrust into? Maybe when we feel safer, we end up floating up like a helium-filled balloon, and it's only when we're faced with a real threat is when the genie that is bottled up inside us rises up and scoops us out of harm's way? Can't we unlock our private magic genie at other times too, when we're not quite as much in real mortal danger?

There is a lot of fiction out there. The challenge is to keep that fiction from sucking us in and transporting us to some parallel universe where we become unwitting characters in a plot constructed by mysterious and unscrupulous authors. We need to think critically. Or more critically, we need to not think so that our genie can come out if its bottle more often, and do its magic. Avoid opensource, I say. Write your own code if you must, and let it run free!

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Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or balaji.prasad@newcranium.com