Probably true.

Fixing the unfixable

On the value of imagining yourself as a mosquito, or a beam of light

In Brooklyn where I live, the mosquitos are brutal in the summer. I’ve tried everything to fight them: Mosquito-repellent candles, bug zappers, those vaguely snake-oilian machines that use propane to try and trap insects. None of it worked. I’d resigned myself to simply never sitting in my backyard or front stoop for the months of July or August.

Then I read a clever solution in yesterday’s New York Times: An oscillating fan.

If you set an oscillating fan near where you’re sitting, it prevents mosquitos from clustering. Why? An incredibly simple reason: They’re not strong enough to fight against the wind. The author of the article, William Broad, discovered this nifty hack while visiting with some friends. They set out a fan, nobody got bit, and Broad, amazed, asked them: Where had the idea come from?

As we left, I asked our hosts about the fan idea; they credited a mutual friend at the barbecue. He, in turn, paid tribute to a friend of his: Frank Swift, president of Swift Food Equipment Inc. in Philadelphia.

So I reached out to Mr. Swift, who replied by e-mail. “The solution came from trying to think like a bug,” he explained, “and realizing I don’t like flying into a 15 m.p.h. wind.”

I love it: He imagined himself in the position of the mosquito. This is not something we’re often told to do when brainstorming a solution to a problem. Sure, we’re frequently told that it’s important to empathize with the humans; they’re the reason the problem is being solved, right? But we’re rarely told that a crucial imaginative task, a critical bit of cognition, is to put ourselves in the position of a nonhuman thing, and see the world from that perspective.

Yet the thing is, the world is awfully interesting when you view it from the perspective of inanimate objects. Albert Einstein began developing his deep insights into the nature of space and time when, at the age of 16, he imagined himself riding a beam of light: Seeing the world from the viewpoint of light, as it were. In 1905, when wrestling with the apparent paradoxes of physics that are introduced by the speed of light being constant and unsurpassable, he looked up at the clock tower in Bern and again imagined the perspective of light racing away from the tower. Boom: In a flash, he envisioned the answer. He realized the clock would appear stopped, because the light from the tower could never catch up to a beam of light that was racing away from it. As Michio Kaku writes:

Then suddenly it hit him, the key to the entire problem. Einstein recalled, “A storm broke loose in my mind.” The answer was simple and elegant: time can beat at different rates throughout the universe, depending on how fast you moved.

Think like light, think like a mosquito. This idea — how does our world appear to things around us — isn’t an entirely new idea, obviously; it’s part of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. My personal favorite exploration of it is Ian Bogost’s fun, recent book Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like To Be a Thing.

Anyway, now I vow to start approaching problems by imagining the mental state of the inanimate objects involved.

(As Broad notes, apparently the mosquito-fan idea is a venerable piece of folk wisdom, so I guess people have been successfully thinking like bugs for some time.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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