It’s late August, and I’m finding it quite difficult to focus on screens and words. I’ve been struggling particularly to pull together this edition of Galaxy Brain because I can’t seem to stop procrastinating by playing guitar. Like every fifth white dude in their mid-30s, I picked up the hobby again during the pandemic and enjoyed relearning some basics, but I’d still describe my approach to the instrument as relatively shallow. Guitar was supposed to be a fun distraction, so whenever I hit a wall, I’d bail and return to familiar territory: a style of noncommittal half-songs and scales that I have dubbed “ambient noodling.”
But in the past two months, my mindset’s shifted. When I hit the wall now, I try, gently, to climb it. This started when I found an archived Instagram Live video that my favorite guitarist did during the pandemic: an introductory music lesson that includes an exercise he uses to warm up his hands to play. It consists of every combination of the ways you can move your four fingers on a guitar string, 36 sequences in all. I printed out a little chart of the combinations and started trying the exercise out.
To be honest, it’s dull, rote practice work. The sound it makes isn’t particularly soothing or cool, and it’s not exactly easy at my level. When I first started doing it, my fingers moved in a stilted, confused manner. The exercise also hurt my brain at first; continually flubbing the sequence or having my hands and brain out of sync made my synapses feel all tangled. I finished the exercise, and every part of me felt spent. Sometimes I felt worse at the instrument than when I’d started.
What follows is predictable: I’ve stuck with the exercise and gotten better. Every time I’ve done it, my fingers and brain have moved with a touch more fluidity. Mentally, it is still exhausting, but there is something satisfying about the energy expense. The only way I can describe it is by likening it to shoveling a path out of deep snow, watching the path as it is chiseled out of the landscape with each heave.
I’ve adopted this kind of rote practice with other aspects of guitar play as well, and while I’m still not very good, I find I’m having microscopic breakthroughs every day. A little piece of theory will click in, or a riff I’m trying to pin down will, for the first time, lock into place as my fingers unexpectedly sync with my brain. Even if the task itself is mundane, the feeling is transcendent—made all the more so by every previous failure.
I’m deeply fascinated by the art of this kind of slow progress, especially when it involves physical activities that engage both mind and body. In addition to guitar, I’ve become equally obsessive about learning how to hit a golf ball straight and long for the same reason: It’s this incredibly complex physical process where minuscule adjustments and repetition give way to small-seeming but big-feeling improvements. I’m fully addicted. Last week, for the first time, I dreamed about the guitar fretboard and notes moving across it. It was weird and cool.
I’m not suggesting that I’ve stumbled onto anything new here. Learning to play guitar is fun! is not exactly a scorching hot take. Still, I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to think about why this appeals so much to me, especially right now. The most obvious reason is that learning an instrument is decidedly not a screen-based activity (though I am using YouTube quite a bit for my instruction). I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life reading, writing, and focusing my attention on overwhelming streams of constantly updating and intruding information. Big chunks of my days require some kind of mental dexterity but much less tactile engagement, so it checks out that a hands-on endeavor might feel extra satisfying. But I have a hunch that there might be more to it.
I started hunting around to see if there were more scientific-sounding explanations for this particular flavor of gratification. What I stumbled on instead was an old idea, but one new to me: the theory of “calm technology,” a phrase coined in a 1996 essay by the computer scientists Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown. Weiser and Brown, who both worked at Xerox PARC, predicted that the growth of the internet and microprocessors would help usher in an era of “ubiquitous computing” sometime between 2005 and 2020. This era, they suggested, would be dominated by the rise of “imbedded [sic] computers” in all kinds of formerly analog devices: “in walls, chairs, clothing, light switches, cars—in everything.” The pair also anticipated that the ubiquitous-computing era would erode our sense of calm. As computers were initially intended for limited daily interaction, Weiser and Brown argued that they were designed to excite by delivering information quickly, perhaps even in overwhelming ways. Naturally, they worried about what might happen to our senses when computers were everywhere and in everything. It’s safe to say that they were onto something.