Prelude: Using this book
In which we first meet some models of the mind, laying open the labyrinthine layers of life and learning
This book is an exploration into one of the most extraordinary areas we know: the ordinary mind at ordinary work. Our technologies, the ways we work on the world, all look predictable enough on the surface; but underpinning those tidy analyses of applied science are many infinitely subtle and infinitely complex processes of mind, the intuitive tools that make up the other half of technology. The intuitive side of technology underlies the magic of skill: without the awareness that this gives us, we would never get anything started — or, perhaps more to the point, we’d never get anything to work.
Applied science, as applied analysis, can tell us exactly what to do when everything is known and predictable. But in the real world there’s always an element of the unknown, the unpredictable: which is why things go wrong, in unpredictable, unforeseeable ways. Yet we do get things to work — most of the time, anyway — which means that we must somehow be using intuitive mode of mind in technology, counteracting the unpredictability of the real world as we work with our skills. But how do we do it? And how can we do it better?
On the outside, every skill is different; but behind the differences is a core that is common to every skill. That core is highly intuitive, highly individual, yet at the same time understandable as a technology in its own right: intuitive technology, the intuitive side of technology. And it really is a technology — a summary of practice — rather than a science: whilst we do know how to put it to use, the one thing we do know for certain about it is that it doesn’t conform to any kind of comfortable laws. It’s full of paradoxical twists and turns, and nothing is ever quite what it seems: so to explore its realms, to create a true intuitive technology, we must wander a labyrinthine path through a hall of mirrors, looking both inward and outward at the same time.
To understand what’s going on, we need a quite different approach than the all-too-simplified rule-books that are typical of traditional applied science. In practice, trying to reduce a world of paradox and infinite complexity to a set unusable equations is more of a hindrance than a help. We can, however, simplify things by going into the complexity, accepting it for what it is, rather than running away from it. Hence the layout of this book, with its two maps of the learning process: the twin-axis spiral, showing the mirroring of two modes of the mind; and the ancient unicursal labyrinth, whose twisting multi-layered path, like the mind itself, is both deceptively simple and yet deceptive in its simplicity. (Both of these ‘maps’ are described in more detail in the next chapter).
So treat this book as a journey through the labyrinth: our goal being a new understanding of an old reality, that paradoxical state of true mastery of skills in which things seem to work almost by themselves. Each chapter is a recognisable segment of the labyrinthine process of learning skills: either a Stage, in which a steady progress — either for the better or, in some cases, apparently for the worse — takes place; or an Interlude, a kind of breakthrough point at which rapid change will occur. Each of these segments is illustrated by an aspect of two skills — juggling, and the inner clock — that we can use as examples to reach towards mastery of skills in general.
But we’re not there yet. Before we can start our journey, we first need to know where we are: it’s always easier to start from where we are rather than where we are not. Even in this most undefinable of areas we must at least describe our starting-point: we begin, then, outside the labyrinth, to look at the ordinary view of technology at work.