Idleness and Creativity

Losing free time to screen time

by Andrew Braverman; illustration by Charlie Theobald

Retrieve your phone from your pocket right now.  Now imagine that instead of finding your cell phone—as most of you hopefully did—you don’t. You frantically stand up, and your eyes dart over the vicinity of where you were sitting. Let’s say your search proves fruitless.  Panic seizes your every faculty. 

“Not my smart phone!” 

Texts, calls, calendars, games, reminders, a calculator and a camera instantly cease to be a jean pocket away. You’re unable to contact anyone, you can’t check the time on your phone or send a Snapchat of that belligerent drunk from the party. You feel naked. Exposed.

Many people have their phone within reach at all times—from pocket to backpack to your nightstand when you have it at night and repeat, every day of the week.

While nursing my green tea at Fujiyama recently, I glanced at the parties to the side of my table. To my utter stupefaction, I observed two separate dates where all four parties were silent for minutes as they scrolled through their Instagram feed and refreshed their Snapchats. And these were adults. Teens are no longer the predominant users of technological devices. As the 21st century has unfolded, a dissipation of this obsession with tech products has become evident. Devices have progressed to a point where they’re affordable and portable enough to attract your average Joe.  Now, not only do my cousins in the third grade have iPads, but my grandma has two. As might be expected from a non-technology native, she talks directly into the camera when we FaceTime. Such an unprecedented wave of innovative products has taken many off guard. Only recently, groups have arisen preaching the dangers of excessive screen time for young ones. Even Steve Jobs was a “low-tech parent”—he “strictly limit[ed] [his] children’s screen time,” according to an NPR profile.   

It’s not just mobile devices either. Replace my above hypothetical scenario with your laptop or headphones. Consider no more Netflix, Facebook or Spotify. Sobering thoughts, I know. 

When I lost my phone one night in a drunken debacle, I was terrified. As do many of my peers, I store my gold card on the back of my phone. Since calling someone wasn’t an option, I waited outside my dorm for 30 minutes in the wee hours of the morning for some early shame-walking straggler to let me in. I woke up after class had started the following Thursday morning, because my alarm is preset on my phone. I felt disconnected from everyone. Relying exclusively on face-to-face interaction? The notion was appalling. Confronting a friend over text about some disagreement is far easier than doing so in person.

Mankind’s dependence on different technologies has been around for some time—it is nothing new. One of the predominant minds of the Weimar Republic was Siegfried Kracauer. Citing his mentor Georg Simmel, Kracauer claimed that “overstimulated urban dwellers were prone to develop a “blasé attitude,” [that serves as a] coping mechanism that blunted their ability to react to new sensations.” I know myself to be overstimulated, and so this quote resonates with me. I periodically stop and stare at my blinking cursor as my mind goes blank. Instead of being assaulted with information delivered by the radio, or even just by the imposing advertisements on any busy street, Kracauer called for “extraordinary, radical boredom.”  Despite its assumed negative connotation, he means this a good thing. The “state of permanent receptivity” is even more visible today than it was in the early 20th century. The new cult of technology embraces it, praising the newfound “global connectivity” and increased effectiveness of every device. Everything is faster, cheaper, better. Google’s new “Google Glass” epitomizes this new wave. A device that analyzes everything in your visual field, digests it, and feeds you back information. Kracauer would be dismayed if he saw us today.

An exception to this trend is Sao Paulo, a city that banned all outdoor advertising in 2007. Unfortunately, there are more cities where you can find WiFi in any park than metropolies that advocate “information environmentalism”—a movement whose proponents ban WiFi and tech devices in certain areas. Their mission statement? “To reclaim quiet mental space from the chirping persistence of cell phones, personal digital assistants, instant messaging, niche cable channels and a virtual landscape littered with news, entertainment and sales pitches.” This echoes eerily of Kracauers core assertions.

Every time I get in my grandpa’s car I see something else that reminds me of what the cult of technology has done to society: Road maps. My grandpa loves cars and road trips, but instead of choosing a Garmin or TomTom GPS to navigate around, he uses the road map books from another generation. Now I have seen a few people read directions for road trips off a piece of paper, but they’d always looked it up on Google or Apple maps and then printed the directions. 

The cult of technology is ever-changing, constantly sweeping up and dropping back products and consumers as it plunges forward through time. House phones, for example, were a staple of the American home 10 years ago. Now, they’re on the outside, doomed to never again be a trending product for which people wait hours in line.

Some say a reduction is necessary. As we get saturated with more and more information, we digest less of it. Boredom fosters creativity and, without it, we are less creative. 

An argument can be made for how technology has enabled us to be closer than ever.  “Now you’re never lonely, because your friends are always reachable… You’re never bored because there’s infinite streams of information and entertainment,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman proclaimed a couple of years ago. Thinkers from the same camp see boredom as the problem, and technology as the remedy. Parents who agree with Schmidt see tech products as a more effective means of learning with educational apps and software like Khan Academy or Lumosity, rather than a creativity drain from FRIENDS or Call of Duty. I have an app on my iPhone called Duolingo where I learned basic French. I often read books on an iPad or iPhone. There most certainly is some benefit to mankind being swept up in this cult of technology. To suggest it would be possible to chat back and forth with, send videos to and play games with someone on the other side of the world 30-40 years ago would have been preposterous. The crux of the desire to make technological advances from the wheel forward has been benign, if not outright well-intentioned: improving our lives by expanding what we use and how we use it. Being able to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world and never being bored inevitably introduce some certain negative externalities. Obviously you’re going to have to sacrifice boredom once you inundate your life with data and screens. But is sacrificing boredom necessarily detrimental to our lives? That can be debated. 

Look at Siri. She seems to do nothing more than facilitate convenience in your life. Do you catch people talking to her instead of real people, thus illustrating society’s devaluation of face-to-face interaction? Most likely not. People still meet for coffee; they just are able to talk on the phone or text each other between café meetings now.  For many people, the face-to-face interactions are still there for the most part. We’re just also interacting through other means. 

Depending on how you look at technology—and how you use it—there are certainly pros and cons. Balance is essential. You can’t always avoid being in front of a screen, but you could benefit from distancing yourself every once in a while. When I find my tech use to be too much, I periodically turn my phone off for a couple of days as a respite from constant use. It feels liberating. Most of my happiest times in recent memory have been sans technology. Whenever I step onto the basketball court my iPhone is not on me. When I go hiking I’m usually unaccompanied by almost all technologies, and those trips are still the most fulfilling experiences of my life.  

I have noticed several discernable inconveniences that spring from this kind of change. For someone looking to make a change, I find periods of technological cold turkey to be refreshing. Unfortunately for most, it has to be done within the bounds of life as a college student.

Make what changes you can and you’ll notice a surprising difference. It might lead to a Kracauer kind of creativity.