Unix Metaphors

If only people were as transparent as computers.

Timothy Wilson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, in his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” introduced the idea of the adaptive unconscious. In essence, some 80% of your thinking happens automatically. Think of the adaptive unconscious as that generator in the basement that powers your actions–instead of what you consciously will. Similarly, your computer also has lots going on in the background beyond the few programs you’ve asked it to run, but unlike the adaptive non-conscious, it’s possible to learn exactly what your computer doing.

For example, this PowerBook that I’m writing this entry on is running Mac OS X–a modern operating system with a Unix underbelly. Developed by AT&T Bell Labs in the late 1960s, Unix was designed to multi-task. Ever wonder what your computer was really up to? Launch a terminal window and just type “top.” For my poor friends marooned in the Windows world, try Start>Run>taskmgr for a similar, though less informative, result.

In the words of the venerable unix manual pages, top is the “display and update sorted information about processes.” It’s a list of all the programs and sub-programs that are running, how much processor power the process or program is consuming, and how memory its using. In non-geek speak, it’s what’s going on underneath the hood.

People do not come with shells or command lines–at least, not yet, but what if they did? Here’s my guess at what my own “top” command might show:

$tedbongiovanni> top

things of which i am not consciously aware 80 %
writing 20%
music listening 3%
excitement about trip 1%
environmental filtering 1%
wedding planning .5%
wedding anxiety .5%
wedding bliss .5%
work problems, i mean, “challenges” .5%
forgotten items .5%
vague worry about forgotten to do’s .5%
fear that kerry will lose election .5%
hope .5%
anger that bush is president .5%
memory repression .5%
belief that people are basically good .5%
thinking about breathing .25%
thinking about digestion .25%
thinking about blinking .25%
thinking about heart beating .25%

You might conclude from this list that I worry a lot–and you’d be right. But, I wonder how the engineers who created the original version of Unix were thinking when they created the top command. Was it part of a debugging routine? Something’s wrong, where’s the problem? Or was it something they specified from the start–a list of all the things we’ve asked the system to do. Or was it some sort of longing for what Wilson got at in his book–a non-conscious desire to understand what was going on inside the brain?

It’s difficult to discern the motivations that lurk in people’s hearts. Though even the top command is a bit like that line on statistics being like a bikini–“it conceals more than it reveals.” Wilson advocates looking at actions and soliciting feedback about our behavior to gain a greater understanding of ourselves–perhaps the best approximation of “top” available to humans.

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