In 1990 There Was No Internet, Today It’s Affecting Our Creativity
Today, technology is pervasive and ubiquitous with life. Our attention spans are shorter than ever and creativity is suffering. But it…
Today, technology is pervasive and ubiquitous with life. Our attention spans are shorter than ever and creativity is suffering. Here’s how to combat the distraction.
It’s the fear of missing out.
It’s the fear of not being valued, of not being accepted by your peers.
It’s the pressure to conform despite feeling deep down that this play is not for you, but you do it anyway.
It’s that anxious feeling of having to be somewhere more important than where you are. Or that you need to be doing something you’re currently not, like replying to the 50 emails that just hit your inbox or posting a fake picture to Instagram every 10 minutes.
It’s the everyday bombardment of your sensory apparatus by bright shiny things. The clever sales pitches by men in red ties (because let’s face it, it’s usually men), men who need your attention or they cease to exist.
And you give it away for free, for a dopamine hit, for the thrill of the rush.
But it’s merely a temporary release.
It’s a short-term fix to the long-term hiss of the noise and static. And like a child stimulated by too many toys, you are continually distracted, your attention span progressively shortened as you turn to ever shinier things in pursuit of that elusive something.
Meanwhile all around you is in turmoil.
Like millions of others, you’re born into it. You have become desensitised, and you’re killing your creative abilities without even knowing it.
In 1990 I was 16 years old. I left school and started working, and personal technology and the internet were non-existent. My father occasionally had use of a mobile phone, but it was one of those massive cavity block-sized jobs that cost a small fortune to keep.
Nokia Mobira Talkman. Image courtesy of Pocket-lint
Four years later, as I left for the United States, the internet hadn’t yet become a thing for me or my peers.
I arrived at my aunt Cora’s place in Twinsburg, Ohio, on 15th January. After I got settled in she said, “there’s a computer in the other room with internet, feel free to use it any time you want”.
“Internet?” I said.
A couple of months later, I left for Philadelphia, and there also, technology was not prominent in the everyday lives of people. My boss had one of those cavity block mobiles I mentioned earlier, but he rarely used it.
Instead, we used pagers. Everyone in business used a pager.
Technology had not yet wormed its way deep into the consciousness of people. But by the time I got home 18 months later, my mother of all people had bought a Windows 95 PC with dial-up internet, a scanner and a printer.
Nokia 5210 — my first venture into personal technology. Image courtesy of Pocket-lint
Everyone was getting a mobile phone, and Nokia was the leading player. So I bought one too. And by 1998 modern technology had well and truly arrived for me. However, it would be another ten years before I built a website, began writing online, and taking my digital world with me on the go.
The difference between then and now is that my contemporaries and I had an upbringing without the ubiquity and all-encompassing penetration of data and technology.
Technological distractions existed, but they were much less pervasive. The greatest reach technology had into the consciousness of people was via the TV and telephone. When we left our houses it didn’t come with us.
We played ball on the green, we cycled our bikes up the north road, and we met up — face to face! We went into town on the bus, played racketball, we hung out in each other’s houses and watched movies and played board games. If you wanted to talk to someone you went to their house because often if you phoned, they weren't there.
We hadn’t been completely assimilated back then. But these days it’s different, to a concerning degree.
Kids are still taking the bus together, but instead of talking to each other, they are texting. Their lives exist in a virtual reality interrupted by physical reality.
A friend told me a story...
He was taking the 49A from the city to the Navan road recently, and the kid beside him was busy the entire journey, her head buried in her phone, texting. After a while, she turned around and to the girl sitting behind her and said, “why aren’t you answering my texts?”
We laughed about it, but at the same time remarked at the insanity of it.
For kids of today, and for those who became young adults in the last ten years, it seems the line between physical reality and virtual reality has disappeared.
For millions of adults and teenagers, there is no separation between these two realities.
In his 2018 book titled, In Praise of Wasting Time, Alan Lightman says;
“the grid is an addiction. It replaces the in-the-flesh reality with virtual reality, and that virtual reality is loud, all-consuming, dehumanising and relentless.”
Lightman quotes Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-injury and Recovery;
“Our young people are in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from, don’t want to get away from, or don’t know how to get away from.”
I was a young adult when this current wave of technology hit, and for me the before and after contrast is stark.
I contend that we are at a significant transitionary period in our existence, which will ultimately prove to be the breaking point for this particular version of humanity.
Our attention to external sources is switched on almost permanently. From the moment we rise to the moment we retire, our brains are on high alert, seeking out stimulation in TV, mobile phones, and other data sources.
Corporations like Amazon and Facebook are training us, and we are allowing ourselves to be trained, towards this always-on mind with a short attention span, one that’s incapable of prolonged focus on a single task.
And that’s pretty much disastrous for creativity.
Alan Lightman highlights a recent Harvard study which examined students’ ability to sit alone in a quiet room for a few minutes without any external stimulation.
Researchers requested each of the 146 participants to sit alone in a quiet room for 12 minutes with no books, phones, or technology of any kind. The only device in the room was a button beside where they sat, that when pushed would administer a mild electric shock to the participant.
Before commencing the experiment, the students were instructed to press the button to test its function and report on how they felt about the shock. Every one of them said the shock was unpleasant and was something they would want to avoid.
On commencement, the students were told they would be in the room alone for between 10 and 20 minutes. The exact time wasn’t revealed. There were two rules; 1. They couldn’t fall asleep, and, 2. they couldn’t leave the chair. The only action they were permitted to do was press the button which, as they already knew, would give them a shock.
67% of male and 25% of female participants chose to shock themselves rather than sit quietly with their thoughts. A remarkable result which shows that human beings are becoming accustomed to, and dependant on, negative stimuli.
“The moment of drifting into thought has been so clipped by modern technology. Our lives are filled with distraction with smartphones and all the rest. People are so locked into not being present.” — Glen Hansard, Musician
We are distracted too by the response to the work we do, and by the opinions of apparent experts who have something to say about it. Too many people tell you what to make, what to write, and how you should do it.
They tell you their needs must come first. Forget about creative integrity — you must form an ulterior motive for your work and create for the sake of the response. Your internal voice doesn’t matter, or if it does, it comes second to the needs of others.
Well, go ahead and try that out for a while then come back to me and tell me how you did. If you make it big I’ll shake your hand. But be sure of one thing; you’ll never make them happy. So you’d better make yourself happy.
You see, here’s the thing…
Outside sources of stimulation, be that by advertisers, social media, people in praise or criticism of our work, serve merely to distract us from the work we are supposed to be doing.
It dilutes our concentration and ability to create meaningful work. Work that ultimately is the only thing that can ever bring us long-term gratification. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t learn from those who came before. What I am suggesting is that something closer to home should come first.
Yes, I know it’s challenging to stay focused and trust yourself when all the world is trying to convince you to change. For me, too, it’s challenging. But you must be steadfast, determined and focused on the work, first and foremost, because that’s all that matters.
I too get sucked into self-doubt sometimes, and I can feel the resulting discomfort come over me. But over time, thankfully, those voices become less.
I have found that it takes discipline to correct a brain that has been wired for constant stimulation. But the only way I see that you and I can ever make a real difference in the world, to our families, or indeed ourselves, is to tune out the static and go deep.
Close the door.
Shut out the distractions, get stuck in and learn to critique your own work. Find someone you trust to critique your work too, but whatever you do, keep your circle tight.
Create a space where you can focus your mind on the work that engages you and do it every day for long periods.
Then all of a sudden one day someone will remark at how great it is that thing you just made.
I just don’t see an alternative if we are to be happy and fulfilled.
Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters