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Paperwork uses evolved skills, but in an unnaturally narrow and unforgiving way. Where our ancestors worked in complex visual, tactile and social settings, alert to subtle opportunities or threats, a clerk manipulates a handful of simple symbols on a featureless field. And while a dropped berry is of little consequence to a gatherer, a missed digit can invalidate a whole calculation.

The peripheral alertness by which our ancestors survived is a distraction to a clerk. Attention to the texture of the paper, the smell of the ink, the shape of the symbols, the feel of the chair, the noise down the hall, digestive rumblings, family worries and so on can derail a procedure. Clerking is hard work more because of the preponderance of human mentation it must suppress than the tiny bit it uses effectively.


Like little ripples on the surface of a deep, turbulent pool, calculation and other kinds of procedural thought are possible only when the turbulence is quelled. Humans achieve quiescence imperfectly by intense concentration. Much easier to discard the pesky abyss altogether: ripples are safer in a shallow pan. Numbers are better manipulated as calculus stones or abacus beads than in human memory. A few cogwheels in Blaise Pascal's seventeenth century calculator perform the entire procedure of addition better and faster than a human mind. Charles Babbage's nineteenth century Analytical Engine would have outcalculated dozens of human computers and eliminated their errors. Such devices are effective because they encode the bits of surface information used in calculation, and not the millions of distracting processes churning the depths of the human brain.

The deep processes sometimes help. We guess quotient digits in long divisions with a sense of proportion our ancestors perhaps used to divide food among mouths. Mechanical calculators, unable to guess, plod through repeated subtractions. More momentously, geometric proofs are guided (and motivated!) by our deep ability to see points, lines, shapes and their symmetries, similarities and congruences. And true creative work is shaped more by upwellings from the deep than by overt procedure.

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