Time to think

I hate it when my computer sits and churns and thinks and doesn’t actually do anything. That happened this morning at work. For some reason, it had failed to log off properly when I last left. This morning when I tried closing out the error boxes and telling it to log off already, it just sat there with the little “processing” cursor going, while the CPU chittered away to itself. Eventually, I unplugged it to force it to restart. I knew the system wasn’t doing anything vital at the time, just chasing its tail trying to deal with errors. And I didn’t want to waste my time.

I can do that. My computer’s purpose is for nothing more complicated than calling up financial data, processing that financial data into different forms, and delivering company emails. Its processors aren’t meant to process very long or very deeply, because that’s not the work I need it to do. The only time it needs to sit and think is when it puts together quarterly performance statements, and even then I can make it run other things at the same time.

Not all computers are like that. I’ve read a little bit about the computers used to render graphics. The user, and artist, gives such a computer detailed instructions, building worlds inside it, and many aspects of that world must be “rendered”, based on a given program. The artist gives it a framework and patterns, the computer fills in the spaces – light, shadow, texture, translucency, movement. And that takes a lot of time and work; it can’t be done in a few minutes (or half an hour, like my largest databases). Sometimes these computers must run for days. Alone, unattended, with all their power and speed devoted to a single task.

They take time.

I’m the kind of person who likes to have answers off the cuff, who likes to work things out quickly and come up with solutions before anyone else. I think it’s our nature that when presented with a problem, we like to go with the first result our brain gives us. It’s quick, it’s easy, it doesn’t take time. We have lots of other things to get to. We don’t want to miss what’s going on in the world. Mulling thoughts is like an idling computer, and we’re so used to our cheap little machines that need a good thwacking when they get caught up with a bug that we consider our brains the same way. If someone takes a long time to come up with answers, we assume they’re not very bright.

But it depends on the question.

I ask my computer to find me the daily performance of somebody’s 401(k), going back to the start of the account, including every transaction and contribution and fee, and it takes less than a minute before the numbers come up. Our system’s built to do that, and the question’s straightforward. If I told it to render a rose so it looked like a photo, it would take days. Weeks, maybe. Or it would melt. The question is much more complicated, the relationships more intricate, the number of points involved much, much more vast. It takes a lot more thinking through.

But here’s the thing: provided my computer had the right software (and adequate cooling), it would eventually finish the rose. And, provided they were done from the same instructions, it would look just as good as one rendered in minutes by a computer made for the task.

I’m an intelligent person. My brain works pretty fast. But this is the thing: I have to let it work. The powerful computer still needs time to render the rose, even if that time is less – cut it off too quickly and all you have is a wire frame. And I deal with things a lot more subtle and complicated than the image of a single flower. We all do. It’s so easy for us to assume that any question that takes longer than usual to work out is not worth our time, or rely on the answers other, faster brains have already come up with. Sometimes we may be right to do so, even temporarily. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility to think these things through. It doesn’t give us any excuse to pick and choose the easiest questions to tackle. There are questions that must be asked, and must be answered, that aren’t easy. They’re full of angles and shades and intricacies that can take a long time to work out. They must be studied, they must be tested, they must be understood as well as we can grasp. However fast our brains may be, that takes time. However slow our brains may be, the time should still be spent. The answer – the right answer – is worth it.

We have this over computers: when it’s finished, the computer will only have the image of a rose. When we finish, we may have images of the past, of the future, and of places we’ve never been and hope to see. We may find new doors and possibilities. We might have more than one question going at once, and an answer for one might help further another. The best computers in the world cannot render a world as fully and breathtakingly as the human brain.

There are any number of ways to process a question. Some people like to hit them directly, discussing them or writing about them. Some choose art instead, coming at the question from the side. Meditation works, and so does reading about the subject. I like to put questions in the back of my mind and let my subconscious have some time with them. But I have learned, sometimes unpleasantly, not to speak too quickly on the stickier things I face. They have to sit, they have to process, they have to render until what I know, what I believe, and what I imagine have reached a coherent place.

We dislike the computer that sits and thinks, and we chafe when our brains are not as fast as we’d like. But if we want to see the world clearly, we need to take the time to work it through.