Human Operating System 1 – The Fragmentation of Experience

The Fragmentation of Experience

I was sitting quietly yesterday, just letting my mind run free as I frequently do, and was distracted by a single unusual dinging sound. I checked my phone, I checked my laptop, I checked my desktop computer and finally came to my iPad to discover that it was the game 2048 calling me back to play again.

Can playing 2048 really be so important as to distract me from contemplating whether or not ‘the nature of consciousness’ or ‘the impact of the observer on the observed’, necessarily lead to the conclusion that there must be a God? This juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous seems to be an all too frequent occurrence. In a single hour I can receive a stream of SMS text messages, communications from Whatsapp, Viber, Timbr, Tumblr, reminders and other notifications, emails, phone calls, Skype calls, Facebook messages, software updates, and a knock on the door.

YouTube Video, Why do we get so easily distracted by technology?, Documentary Channel, November 2014, 3:31 Minutes

Sometimes I am shoving so many intentions to respond on the mental stack that the coherence of this fragmentary existence feels that it could, at any point, come crashing to the floor like a waiter trying to clear just one too many dishes. My guess is that from time to time I do lose it – I forget to get back to somebody important, I miss an appointment, or I slip up in the logic of my thoughts about when or whether ‘the singularity’ might occur.

This can be life in 2015 if you are the least bit busy or electronically connected to the world. On the other hand, if you do not get back to people, if you do not initiate, the pace of incoming social communications can rapidly dwindle to nothing. You have to keep the plates spinning on their sticks. Even so, you can rely on the fact that the work demands will not go away, pressures of family life do not abate, and the bills keep coming. I once heard ‘if you think that nobody cares about you, then try missing a couple of car payments’.

YouTube Video, Avoiding Distraction, Jack Wright, June 2015, 6:44 minutes

Related to distraction is disruption. When things happen that are beyond our control, we tend not to react very well. We don’t like uncertainty. But there can be benefits.

BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo: Disruption, July 2016, 27:22 minutes

Paying attention to attention

Daniel Goldman, of emotional intelligence fame, makes the connection between being able to control attention and being able to perform at a high level. Being able to control what you attend to, he maintains, is critical to high level of performance, in part because it provides control over the emotional reactions evoked by the constant stream of circumstances and distractions of everyday life. Fortunately, it seems, that if you are aware of this you can use a variety of techniques to ‘strengthen the muscle’ of emotional control. The concepts of both ‘mindfulness’ and ‘flow’ relate to this. Many of these ideas are echoed later in these blog postings, especially in relation to the prioritisation of intentions and what is known as ‘executive function’.

YouTube Video, Daniel Goleman on Focus: The Secret to High Performance and Fulfilment, iqsquared, November 2013, 1:18:17 hours

Operating System – Human

While the above account may seem particular to life in the first world in the 21st century, this is just a superficial view. Deep down it is about the human condition anywhere and anytime. It is about how we interact with our environment, how we feel about it, how we prioritise, how we interleave our own goals with obligations and demands made on us, how we make sense of what’s going on and how we reflect on our own thoughts about that.

Theories in psychology are bitty. They tend to confine themselves to small aspects or singular perspectives on the human condition. So they might look at, say, attachment, memory, leadership, personality or visual illusions as if they had ‘not that much to do with each other’. In physics we work towards the Grand Unified Theory but in psychology there have been few attempts, although there are exceptions including:

YouTube Video, Theories in Psychology: A Refresher for AP Psych, Charles Schallhorn, May 2013, 8:09 minutes

Only rarely do theories look at the human being as a whole, and in real time, with all the complexity and dynamics that this implies. You can argue that this is because people are so complex that it is impossible to say anything meaningful unless you look at the detail of some particular aspect.

However, in the following account I am trying to do exactly this. I start with the perspective of the person as an operating (or control) system and, drawing on the many and various observations that have been made about the human condition, try to describe what sort of mechanisms might be at play, that both bound and give rise to, the complexity of being human. Rather than focus on particular findings, I am looking for the generalities of the architecture whereby these particular phenomena are emergent from the underlying ‘mechanism’.

This somewhat cybernetic approach considers the human condition as a resource limited and reflective control system embedded in its circumstances and operating at the level of ‘mind’ in order to manage various needs.

This is hardly the first time I have thought or written about these things. I have been studying psychology for several decades, working in artificial intelligence for 10 years, in mental health for 3 years, and been writing the blog for a year. However, it is probably the first time that I have tried to capture the human condition in terms of a somewhat short-term, resource constrained, pragmatic but error-prone, multi-threaded operating system that stumbles about trying to out-guess an uncertain world, to suffice (rather than optimise) in meeting its many and varied, changing needs.

This is not intended to be a truly comprehensive and unifying theory. It will not lead to precise prediction and measurement demanded by science. However, it does try to capture some of the essence of what it is to be human – to ‘duck and dive’ within one’s circumstance, and manage with limited, uncertain knowledge and resources; to seek pattern and manufacture meaning from whatever is presented; to feel and evaluate, prioritise and direct attention; to create, innovate, and hypothesise; to be vigilant to threat; to assume, dream, speculate, model and envision; to aspire to climb a hierarchy of needs; and to fail, re-interpret, re-group and recover to survive another day.

It is the cut and thrust of the real-time operation of one complex control system – the self (itself made up of multiple competing and co-operating components) embedded within other complex systems comprising the environment, that is the essence of what I am trying to capture and label ‘the human operating system’.

Have I missed something?

So, like I always do, and like everybody else increasingly does, I typed ‘human operating system’ into Google in the full expectation that I would find the usual wealth of literature on the subject. I have made one consistent observation over the years, and that is, whatever you think of, somebody else has always thought about it before and indeed there is usually not only hundreds of books and articles on the subject but often a whole industry exploiting it. So, really I was expecting to find, in the psychology or cybernetics literature at least, some comprehensive and well worked out theories describing the human condition in terms of an operating system. Well, although the term has been used many times, so far I have failed to find exactly what I am looking for, and I find this surprising. Why?

Well, the reason is that it is such an obvious thing to do. There are no end of analogies used to help throw light on the human condition.

YouTube Video, Analogy-Human Brain Like a Cow’s Stomach, Michael Harris, December 2011, 1:49 minutes

The brain is compared to the library or the telephone switchboard, memory (usually inaccurately) as forms of ‘recording’, and the computer is routinely used as an analogy for describing people – the brain being the hardware and the mind being thought of as the software. But these parallels are pathetic simplifications that go nowhere near touching on the complexity of either computers or people.

Just off the top of my head, albeit that I have studied both psychology and computers for many years, I can see so many deeper parallels between the sophisticated multi-threaded operating systems used in modern computing and what we know about human cognition in terms of ‘limited capacity central processing’, ‘memory storage and retrieval’, ‘executive function’ and so on.

Without going too deeply into it, a computer operating system is designed to stand between the human user interacting with particular applications (internet browsers, word-processing etc.) and the computer hardware. It looks after managing memory, processes and devices (screens, printers etc.) so that neither the user nor the application have to be concerned with all the detail. In much the same way, the human operating system stands between the person and their environment or circumstances looking after all the details of retrieving memories, switching between tasks and managing inputs (hearing, vision, touch) and outputs (actions / behaviours).

The claim being made in this blog is that the human condition (and the mind) is best explained in terms of the human operating system as analogous to the computer operating system, and that the characteristics and limitations of being human can be made more readily understandable by teasing apart the nature of this operating system. Furthermore, we may be able to account more precisely and predictably for differences between people by looking at both differences in the nature of the operating system as well as differences in the content of the data the operating system works with (i.e. what has been learned and stored in memory as well as inputs from the surrounding environment and culture).

Try as I might I have not been able to find a good video to illustrate this, but here is a video about some of the basic principles of computer operating systems to be going on with:

YouTube Video, Programming Interview: Introduction to Operating System (OS definition) (part 1), saurabhschool, May 2014, 11:34 minutes

I am claiming that this approach might be more illuminating as an explanation of the human condition and of differences between people than many other psychological approaches because it gets at some of the underlying mechanisms of cognition and not just the ‘symptoms’. For example, tests of intelligence or personality measure the ‘outputs’ of the human condition but don’t really explain how they come about. However, if I told you that one person appears to be more ‘successful’ than another because they tend to use a particular type of priority scheduling algorithm or that a person is more prone to error in their judgement of people because they systematically retrieve a particular type of memory, then I am going much further in explaining, predicting (and where necessary remedying) the processes that bring about the behaviours. (Interestingly, just in the area of computer process scheduling there are several possible algorithms types such as ‘first come first served’, ‘non-pre-emptive shortest job first’, ‘pre-emptive shortest job first’, ’round-robin’ and ‘priority-scheduling’ – see ).

Levels of Description

Although, I am primarily interested in the operating system that we call ‘the mind’, as indicated elsewhere in these blogs, much the same mechanisms are operating at different levels of description. For example, here is a description of an operating system at the biochemical level:

TED Video, The operating system of life – George Zaidan and Charles Morton, TEDEd, November 2013, 4:00 minutes

There is something of a gulf between levels of description in terms of ‘mind’ and those concerned with the physical substance of the brain and body. The gulf is given rise to much philosophical debate (the mind/body problem – see: Philosophy Bites, Tim Crane on Mind and Body) and now, especially with the advent of many forms of brain scanning and monitoring (see: Representations of Reality Enable Control – Part 2), is becoming the subject of much empirical investigation. It is this gulf where I choose to focus my level of description and why I think the notion of ‘operating system’ might be a powerful language in which to express it. The operating system bridges between the ‘software’ and the ‘hardware’ in both computer and in human.


  • Life these days is increasingly subject to distractions from technology

  • How we prioritise our thoughts and actions is fundamental to the way people operate. It captures the essence of the human condition.

  • Although there have been many analogies between the human brain and technology, these are usually oversimplistic and capture nothing of the complexities of being human

  • However, computer operating systems are highly complex in the way that they scheduled tasks and manage resources.

  • Also operating systems are positioned between the software and the hardware. In people, the interface between mind and body is really where all the action is and is still largely unexplained.

This blog goes on to use the notion of the human operating system as a language to describe much of the complexity of the human condition.

This Blog Post: ‘Human Operating System 1 – The Fragmentation of Experience’ introduces the idea of the human operating system to describe the interface between mind and body

Next Up: ‘Human Operating System 2 – Managing Demands’. How do we manage to deal with the complex web of intentions (our own and those externally imposed) that form part of our complex daily lives

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Rod Rivers' interests include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.