Technology and Idle Creativity are Not Mutually Exclusive

One thing that really aggravates me within anti-work or work-critical scenes is this sort of reflexive distrust of technology and blaming it for our lack of idleness or focus on creative endeavors. Instead of blaming it on the folks who owns the means of production and who start the wars, it’s all the fault of consumers. You see it more often from the older folks who have not grasped the importance of staying connected and what being interconnected can do for ourselves.

To be clear, I think there can be too much connectedness. I think we can pour ourselves so much into one thing that we don’t spend enough time with another. But that doesn’t mean we need to minimize technological use as much as possible and try to reestablish some weak connection with nature. Taking long walks is a great idea, but doing it without your phone means you’re not available if something were to happen to a loved one. It means you can’t bring some of your favorite music with you. It means you can’t bring a GPS or a map in case you decide to go exploring a little.

There are benefits to having both the technological and nature side. Maybe you bring your phone on the long walk in the woods but you keep it in your bag and only for emergencies, etc. Or maybe you only use it for a music source so you can disconnect from the world while still engaging with it in other ways. All I’m saying is maybe consider that having technology can quite often be a boon to your attempts at reconnecting with nature.

And so too with idleness.

Although workplaces often use technologies to isolate ourselves, schedule countless meetings and send you unwanted emails at ungodly hours, that isn’t all there is to technology. There are also the times that technology allows us to quickly jot down ideas (and legibly!)  so we can easily save our creative thoughts for later. There are the times where technology helps us capture (through video or pictures) those moments that give us creative ideas in the future or help inspire others on their own projects. There are times where we can use technology as a way to relax.

Whether that’s through Youtube videos that help with meditation, a calming breathing exercise or perhaps a quick survey you can fill out to get your mental health checked on. Maybe you’ve got a friend you can talk to or a Facebook group or page that cheers you up and makes you feel more at ease.

The point is: Idleness and technology don’t have to be split apart.

I say all of this partially because of an article by Derek Beres entitled Being Busy Permanently Reduces Your Capacity to Think Deeply and Creatively (a very long title now that I type it out):

The other day a friend mentioned that he’s looking forward to autonomous cars, as it will help lower the accident and fatality rates caused by distracted driving. True, was my initial reply, with a caveat: what we gain on the roads we lose in general attention. Having yet another place to be distracted does not add to our mental and social health.

This is how Beres starts the article and it’s a completely non-sequitur to me. Not having to drive doesn’t mean you are going to be distracted and it isn’t like driving is the most fun a person can have. Driving might give people hyper focus but they still try to distract themselves with audiobooks, the radio and general conversation. Is this wrong?

Those “distractions’ as I pointed out can help us keep interconnected with friends. It can also give us plenty of entertainment that is crucial to some folks mental health. It can also keep us safer by letting us know where we are and how close we are to our destination. It’s a good way to preserve mental and social health and I don’t see any compelling reasons in this passage to think otherwise.

That’s where, presumably, this comes in:

Among many qualities that suffer, recent research shows creativity takes a hit when you’re constantly busy.

But what kind of “busyness” is it to be on your phone, exactly? When I think of busyness I don’t think of someone who is playing Bejeweled on their phone while listening to Radiohead. When I think of busyness I think of someone who is in a job they hate and being forced to work far too hard at it. When I think of busyness I don’t think about people trying to figure out where they are going in their automated cars or what friends they might want to see tomorrow is “busy”.

Nor do these things strike me as trivial distractions. Even things like listening to music you love and playing a game on your phone (which often have stimulating puzzle solving elements) can be paramount to folks getting through tough days and especially when they’re at jobs they hate. Where’s the mental harm in any of that?

This is one of the highlights (literally and figuratively) in this article:

Engaging creatively requires hitting the reset button, which means carving space in your day for lying around, meditating, or staring off into nothing.

I absolutely agree with this.

I lay around for at least an hour or so before I really wake myself up. But you know what I’m doing while I’m laying there? I’m on my phone and I’m connecting with friends, thinking about the world, organizing my thoughts, giving my day a bit more structure, waking up my brain by giving it time to process whatever is happening, etc.

Sometimes I lay around and do nothing and I try my best to meditate 30 minutes a day. I think these things that Beres are mentioning here are integral to our mental health and worth taking seriously. I wish more people would meditate and take some time out of their day to just lay down and do nothing. Staring off into space is great as well and I do that, though I mostly do that when I’m bored and therefore especially at work.

In any case, none of this is particularly conflicting with technology. I use my smart phone while laying around, I use my laptop to help me meditate and my staring off into nothing is therefore also helped by my laptop.

This is impossible when every free moment—at work, in line, at a red light—you’re reaching for your phone. Your brain’s attentional system becomes accustomed to constant stimulation; you grow antsy and irritable when you don’t have that input.

You’re addicted to busyness. 

So, again, just want to point out here that “busyness” isn’t just being involved with your phone. And while it’s true folks get antsy when they don’t have certain outputs their accustomed to…this literally goes for anything. Foods we love but don’t get, television shows that are delayed, friends who end up being late, morning walks that are interrupted, etc.

It turns out, people just really don’t like their expectations not being met. Who would have thought?

And so none of what Beres is saying there proves anything. People get irritated when they lack their favorite inputs that they expect to receive. But this goes for so many things and not just technology. Isolating technology therefore doesn’t make any more sense than to do it for food or our other favorite routines we perform, even meditation.

And that’s dangerous for quality of life. As Seppälä points out many of the world’s greatest minds made important discoveries while not doing much at all.

This certainly has some truth to it. I’ve gotten a lot of good ideas while doing absolutely nothing. Certain ideas have come to me while I let my mind wander or I might remember some important things I have/had to do while I’m meditating and letting my brain rest. All of which is to say I’m not denying the importance of these “do nothing” moments that Beres and the folks he is citing are talking about, I’m in complete agreement with their importance.

But (and perhaps I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but so be it) technology isn’t mutually exclusive with staring off into nothing. Sometimes, when I’m working on my comic book, I’ll type out a little bit and then maybe switch to a different task to take my mind off of it for a few minutes. That way I can let my brain soak in what I’ve just wrote and often enough I’ll get some new idea that I can add to it. Other times, I’ll just stare and think and wonder about what I could add to my comic book and sometimes it comes to me or it doesn’t.

Perhaps we now need to engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume. Otherwise our lives become like a Morse code transmission that’s lacking breaks—a swarm of noise blanketing the valuable data beneath. 

I agree that we as humans can miss out on valuable information by not just taking time for ourselves. But it seems like an overextension to act as if we can quantify it to such an exact extent that we can talk about the amount of communication and correlate how much we don’t get out of it.

How to disconnect in a time when connection is demanded by bosses, peers, and friends? Seppälä makes four suggestions:

1. Make a long walk—without your phone—a part of your daily routine
2. Get out of your comfort zone
3. Make more time for fun and games
4. Alternate between doing focused work and activities that are less intellectually demanding

All of these are great things, so agreed. Disconnecting can be a healthy and necessary thing to do and I’ve certainly considered it (and do it!) somewhat often.

That seems to be lost in being “connected” is really irreplaceable time gained to focus on projects. Without that time, he says, you’re in danger of rewiring your neural patterns for distraction.

Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.

Can you not focus on projects better by being connected? You can get friends to help you with projects, you can get their feedback on what you’re doing, you can get encouragement from them. Or you could do something completely unrelated and look at the most recent memes and have a good chuckle. What’s so bad about that?

I demur that the time people spend on their phones are “frenetic shallowness” and think those sorts of judgments rely on a kind of techno-paternalsim that really disgusts me. Most people that I know and that I’ve seen connect in meaningful ways even if they may seem shallow to people on the outside. And in any case these people are going to know better than these supposed experts on technology on what is or isn’t “shallow” for themselves.

That’s what all of this reduces down to though: A sort of paternalism about how people use their lives. Folks like Beres think they know what’s best for everyone just because being lazy and idle can be good for us once in a while. And they take this obvious fact to solutions that are controlling and could only be implemented by some sort of cultural fear-mongering about technology and its supposed defects.

Lastly:

Regardless of your vocation a flexible mindset open to new ideas and approaches is invaluable. Losing it just to check on the latest tweet or post an irrelevant selfie is an avoidable but sadly sanctioned tragedy.

This is just unnecessarily dismissive and rude. People taking pictures of themselves or staying informed with whatever is going on in the world isn’t a “tragedy”. And regarding such important ways of staying connected with friends and the world around us is a dangerously sanctioned tragedy by people who think they know better than the rest of us.

If you ask me, they’re distracted by their own hubris.


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