Joined up thinking

Yesterday I tried to clean the carpet in the dining room.

I had finished decorating the room and thought it would be satisfying to complete the process with a clean carpet. I got out the carpet cleaning machine from the depths of the cupboard under the stairs, dusted it off and attempted to assemble it. I must have used this machine twice in the twelve years we have had it (a house warming present). It has more pipes and tubes than a cow’s digestive system along with other bits and pieces that would be analogous to the evacuating end of the cow.

We had long since lost the instructions and so I had to resort to other methods of divining its assembled form. I used intuition, common sense and memory to fit the pieces together. When I had finished, it looked about right. I filled the reservoir with cleaning solution, picked up the lance with the cleaning head at the end and expectantly turned on the powerful motor. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it didn’t explode into the Trevi fountain, it did the opposite – it didn’t do anything.

No fluids of any kind could be seen flowing anywhere, only a loud motor noise could be heard. The transparent tube that led to the cleaning head remained desert dry. When I switched the machine off and checked the reservoir I discovered it was empty! The machine had simply pumped the cleaning solution into the waste bucket beneath, bypassing the cleaning hose.

I won’t go into excruciating detail about my trials and tribulations but an hour passed with much swearing and shouting and experimenting with different configurations, most of them just a stupid repetition of what I had tried already – why do we do that? Eventually I sat down and thoroughly studied the machine. Using scientific reasoning, I figured out that a hose that led from the reservoir had to connect directly into the cleaning head hose for it to work and not simply dangle loose into the waste bucket which is how I had it. I think I must have imagined some kind of vacuum suction miraculously moved the cleaning solution from the dangling hose into the other hose. It sounds incredibly stupid now but the design of the machine suggested to my intuition that that is how it should have been put together. The correct configuration was counter intuitive because the connecting hose seemed superfluous, it could have been designed much better to my mind.

As I walked into the village later on and reflected on how a lot of design nowadays is counter intuitive and thus difficult to use (especially with digital technology) a horrible realization crept into my consciousness.

I got the feeling that I had been through exactly the same experience the last time I had used the machine. It was such a long time ago that I had forgotten about it but the more I thought about it the more convinced I became that I had repeated the same mistake and come up with exactly the same result. History had repeated itself. The reason I felt horrified was because this seemed to confirm the suspicion that some people have that we are moist robots and that our thinking is limited and rigid. How disappointed I was in myself for being so predictable. I felt like a lab rat.

Well maybe not quite a lab rat because in order to ensure I didn’t repeat the mistake for a third time when I next used the machine, several years hence, I wrote out a note for myself explaining the design fault with the tubes along with a diagram of the correct connection. This I stuffed into the stomach of the machine before I packed it away again into the cupboard.

This made me feel much better as I congratulated myself on demonstrating the defining characteristic of the human species; we can think ahead.

Come to think of it, is a squirrel burying nuts thinking ahead or is it a hard wired instinct that comes into play when the harvest is good?

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