- Religion and Philosophy»
Zen and the Art of Computer Maintenance
I have always been amazed by how much the workings of a computer seem to reflect the workings of the human minds who created them. It is almost as if we have created computers 'in our own image', just as God is said to have created man in his own image in some religions.
For example, within a computer there are two kinds of memory - ROM and RAM. These two forms of memory have fairly precise correlations to the different types of memory which human beings also possess.
The ROM, or read only memory, is full of information that is permanently stored on the hard-disk. It is difficult for the computer to add new information to this ROM, and doing so takes a relatively long amount of time. In many ways that is similar to the long term memory of human beings. It can be hard to get new information into your long term memory, and so this generally takes a long time to do.
In order to function properly and go about our lives we need to process lots of information which we do not need to store permanently in our long term memory. This information goes into what psychologists call our 'working memory'*. The working memory is vital to being able to fully process sensory information and formulate complex thoughts, which would not be possible if each piece of information had to be written to our long term memory and retrieved again from there each time our thoughts referenced it. In the same way our computers use their RAM to store information they are working with at a given time, but which doesn't need to be recorded permanently, in a temporary location which can be written to and read from very quickly.
We might also liken a computer's processor to our attention - a limited resource which is responsible for deciding what we are actually doing at a given moment and for performing specific actions within the moment. Of course you can also compare a computer's inputs to our own senses and its outputs to our own motor functions.
I am far from being the first person to make this comparison between man and machine; it is actually a very popular analogy within cognitive psychology*. But what interests me is whether the analogy can be taken one step further, to include the software that we use on our computers and the best practices for keeping them working in good condition. So, drawing inspiration from the title of the famous book 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' I decided to write this hub, which is only very loosely related to Zen itself, but which seeks to explore the parallels between technology, psychology, and spirituality.
How We Age
As they get older computers start to get befuddled. They don't work as well as they used to, they keep throwing up errors, they get slow and sometimes they can't do things that they used to be able to do. Eventually they just die. Unfortunately, the exact same things happen to human beings too.
Computer hardware is actually very reliable. When most computers 'die', or can no longer function well enough to be useful and to perform the necessary functions to maintain themselves, it is not due to hardware failure. Usually it is a software problem. When computers become slower, less able, and more prone to errors with age, it is also usually a software problem. Computer maintenance can sometimes involve taking the case apart to get to the hardware, but more commonly it involves working with the software which is running the machine.
What I would like to suggest in this article is that a similar thing can be said to be true of human beings, and that the best practices of computer maintenance may have something to teach us about taking care of ourselves too.
Always Install Important Updates
The first, most basic, and perhaps most important part of computer maintenance is keeping your system up to date. It is important to make sure that you always install important updates for a variety of reasons. Older, outdated programs may be incompatible with newer software that may want to run on your system, leading to errors and malfunctions. Security can also become an issue, as many updates are designed to fix vulnerabilities which either weren't noticed before, or only became a problem as other technologies progressed to a stage where they could present a new threat. And of course these updates also bring new improvements, with additional functionality that couldn't be accomplished before and redesigns informed by a growing wealth of experience gleaned from the program's use.
Installing updates can sometimes be a hassle. Not only do you have to take the time to perform the update itself, but often you will then have to take the time to learn how to use the newly updated software, which might not work in exactly the same way you are used to and may have different features which you don't understand.
In a similar way it is always important for people to update their ideas and habits. This can be a hassle, as it requires effort to do, but it is important for many of the same reasons. We often carry outdated ideas and habits around with us. These are things which were once useful, which were once the best that we could get hold of, but which we have since carried around unchanged despite the fact that new information has become available and new challenges ad opportunities have entered our lives.
Most people will be familiar with the saying that old people are 'set in their ways'. Old people sometimes find it difficult to learn new things, or to adapt to a changing world. This can be more than just an inability to use new technology; as we age we can become less able to deal with the world around us and to overcome new challenges because we are stuck in a mode of being which was developed to fit another time, which has now passed.
This can have a negative impact on our health. We literally become inflexible, and rinstead of being able to roll with the punches that life throws at us as we did when we were young, they break us.
This is not, at least in the first instance, a hardware problem. Older people are not fundamentally less capable - because unlike computers our hardware is not being radically improved with each new generation. This is a software problem - a failure to install updates. As such it is something that we can correct. To do so requires effort, and sometimes the pain of letting go of some of program's features to which we have become sentimentally attached. Because of this we often put it off. When do this we usually do not see a problem at first, so we may feel that it is ok to ignore these updates, but by doing so we are only storing up problems for later.
Remaining flexible, as the Yogi teaches, helps us to remain young in mind, spirit, and also body.
The security issue may also have a parallel. By failing to keep ourselves updated we leave ourselves vulnerable to others who would take advantage of the gaps in our knowledge and defences. We open ourselves to the possibility that people with ill intentions can turn our once positive ideas and opinions towards a new purpose for which they were never intended and which was never even imagined when we first formulated them. To give one example: it may have once been a good idea to build up our military to defend the nation against communist Russia, but to have installed a 'support military build up' program and not updated it may now leave us vulnerable to those who would turn our noble intentions to keep our community safe and defend our precious ideals to more offensive purposes (this is just an example, and I hope you get the principle whatever your opinions about current military policy are).
Regularly Remove Unuseful Programs
Over time we download and install more and more software programs onto our computers. As the number of programs on our computer increases, so does the likelihood that our computers will start running more slowly and that bugs will be introduced into the system and lead to serious malfunctions.
One of the main reasons for this is because when a developer creates a new program, there is simply no way that they can test it on every single configuration of computer and running alongside every other possible combination of other software programs. Because of this there are often small contradictions or incompatibilities between what two different programs want to do. One program may have left its footprint in a place where another program wanted to tread.
This same principle holds true for our ideas, opinions, habits and thought process. An idea or opinion may seem perfect and unimpeachable when considered in isolation and on its own terms. But we often cannot immediately see how this will interface with our other ideas and habits. Over time as the number of fixed ideas, opinions about the world and behavioural habits that we have builds up, we find that the number of contradictions and incompatibilities increases. Human beings are often a 'mass of contradictions'. These contradictions act like a kind of interference to reduce our effectiveness, and can also lead to stress, self doubt, self-judgement (manifested as unhappiness with oneself) and a raft of related health problems.
It is also true that the more programs you put on your machines the more you will take up the available memory space. As we age we experience a similar phenomena - our memory starts to become saturated and without letting go of the past and those things we once knew and cherished, it becomes difficult to learn and fully experience new things.
The solution to these two problems - those faced by our machines and those we face ourselves - is the same. It is good practice to regularly consider whether all of our 'programs' are still necessary and useful, and to un-install those which have outlived their usefulness. Letting go like this can be a hard thing to do, but it is a vitally important part of computer maintenance and, according to both Buddhists and many modern psychologists*, an important part of 'human maintenance' as well.
Optimizing for Performance & Energy - Close Background Processes
So far the points that I have been making have been primarily concerned with the ageing process and the parallels between how a machine ages and how the human mind ages.
But computer maintenance is not just about keeping a machine in its original condition and preventing the build up of problems over time. It is also about optimizing the machine and making sure that it is operating to its maximum potential at any given time.
In the previous section I mentioned how installing a large number of programs can lead to problems. It can also lead to a loss of performance for another reason. Many of the software programs which we run on our machines have some kind of 'background process' which is running all of the time. Even when we are not using a program or app and don't even have it open, it may be doing something in the background without us even realizing it. This is a particular problem on many modern mobile phones, but also applies to all kinds of computers. Android phones in particular can suffer from poor performance if you install a lot of apps, because many of them will be permanently running in the background eating up the handset's computing resources and battery life.
Of course getting rid of those programs and apps which we no longer use can really help with this, but it might not be enough. That's because some of us actually need quite a few different apps and programs - so we may have lots of them installed on our machine (enough to cause problems) but we still may not be able to find any which we can afford to get rid of.
Fortunately there are still things that you can do. If you learn to find your way around your device's operating system you will find that you can choose to stop various processes which do not need to be running at a given time. If you have an android phone you can even get apps which will help you to do this*.
In many ways this is similar to the Buddhist process of quietening the mind. When a person meditates and learns to art of mindfulness what they are essentially doing it learning how to silence the plethora of background processes which we habitually have running through our minds, even when they are not needed. Putting aside the religious aspect of reaching 'Nirvana' and escaping from the 'cycles of Karma' if you are able to take this process to its most extreme level, these Buddhist practices are really all about improving the performance and efficiency, and therefore the health, of the human mind.
In both machines and humans these background processes consume energy, reduce performance, and can increase the likelihood of contradictions / incompatibilities which cause some kind of error or malfunction. There are now many studies which show how meditation can improve mental performance and health*, and the computer analogy helps to shed light on how this occurs.
Define Meditation in Python:
interference = 0 error_probability = 0 performance = mental_capacity inner_dialogue = ["Are politicians corrupt or just stupid?", "I fancy that woman over the road who I'll never talk to", "I wish I was rich", "I can't believe that soap character did that thing to my favourite character", "that was cool when my team won last week", ",what should I say at the meeting?", "What if they don't like my idea?"] While len(inner_dialogue) > 0: for thought_process in inner_dialogue: interference += 1 performance = mental_capacity / interference error_probability += interference def meditation(is_meditating, attention_level): if is_meditating: if attention_level <= len(inner_dialogue): inner_dialogue = inner_dialogue[:-attention_level] else: inner_dialogue =  else: break is_meditating = raw_input("still meditating?") meditation(is_meditating, attention_level)
Firewalls, Scanning for Malware and Registry Cleaners
Another important aspect of computer maintenance is protecting your machine from external threats and malicious third parties.
The first line of defence which a computer connected to the internet uses to protect itself from external threats is the firewall. This firewall analyses incoming and outgoing information to make sure that it isn't dodgy.
The human firewall is scepticism. It is our scepticism which enables us to analyse new ideas coming to us in order to see if they are consistent with what they claim to be. It allows us to analyse our interactions with other people to see if there is some hidden intention, some ulterior motive behind what they are saying and doing which goes against our best interests.
In order to maintain a proper scepticism we need to have a proper level of detachment. This simply means taking a step back in our minds to look at something objectively. If we are attached to a certain thing, idea, or habit we are effectively giving it unfettered access to our behavioural routines without it having to go through the firewall of scepticism - in technical terms we are creating a 'security exception'. Although this may sometimes be necessary, such as when we give ourselves to another person in love, it should not be the normal state of affairs. Maintaining a firewall and allowing it to do its job is vitally important to a computer's health, and in the same way maintaining an detached attitude in which we can analyse the world around us objectively and with the defensive filter of scepticism is vitally important to our own mental health and well-being.
This is an important basis for the Buddhist practice of 'non-attachment'*.
In a similar way the process of introspective meditation and spiritual reflection, as well as the call to cultivate 'right thinking', may be likened to the process of scanning your computer for viruses and other 'malware', or using a registry cleaner to erase redundant data.
The Effects of Techology
Technology can be positive or negative depending on how we use it. Which best describes the relationship between your use of technology and your mental state
More Spiritual Writing
- Profit of the Gods - Devtome
Most of my writing here on hubpages is about technology; if you like my unusual approach to spiritual subjects you may like to check out my profile on Devtome (Hubbers should also head over there for an original and ethical way to earn from writing)