Smartphones, Boredom, and Creativity

2013-04-15 iPhone Killing Creativity

Brian Hall, writing for ReadWrite, is afraid that his iPhone is killing his creativity. The basic thesis is that boredom lets your mind wander, and a wandering mind is a creative mind. That’s somewhat plausible, but first I want to step back and point out that there’s an entire genre of “technology spells our doom” writing (closely related to the “kids these days” genre), and I’m generally skeptical. Change almost always has positives and negatives. So finding out some negative aspect of a new technology and then writing an article exclusively about that is a way to pay the bills, I guess, but not really interesting in and of itself.

But I like this topic for two reasons. The first one is that I think there is something important about having your nose pressed to a screen in every spare minute. I walk my dog a few times a day, and I’m always tempted to spend the entire time browsing Facebook or catching up on Google Reader. But I find that I actually enjoy the break if I just put the cell phone away and spend a few minutes just looking around at the sky, the clouds, and letting my mind wander. But that’s not boredom, really. It’s just a break. And it’s not where I get my creative energy.

The old question: “Where do you get your ideas?” is one that famous writers are always asked and (from what I can tell) they tend to hate it. But if I’m ever asked (ha!) I will be able to say precisely where my ideas come from. They come from running, first and foremost, and from long drives where I listen to music. That’s it. The vast majority of my creative ideas (fiction, non-fiction, problem solving, whatever) come from exactly those two activities and nothing else. And honestly, it’s mostly just running.

I’m not sure if other people can so conveniently categorize their creative time, but for me there’s a particular mindset that I get in, starting about 5 or 10 minutes into a run, where my mind has reached the perfect balance of having to pay just enough time to pacing, breathing, and looking out for tree roots that I feel no sense of boredom, but basically it is free to wander. “Out of body experience” would be too strong a term, but it’s as though I have a tiny voice in my head that is full of good ideas, and when I go for a run everything else gets turned way down, and the volume on that voice is loud and clear in comparison.

A big part of it is also the pain. Running hurts a little bit (I like to push myself and I’m constantly out of shape), and the physical struggle–to breathe, to attack the upslope and maintain control on the downslope–is like a perfect ritual reflection of the emotional and intellectual struggle to create. For me, running is a lot like a worship service, and it provides a kind of clarity and spiritual connection that I can’t find anywhere else. (Not even in my actual worship services, sadly enough.)

And you know what? This isn’t threatened by my phone. I think connecting boredom and creativity misses the point. Boredom is a form of mental relaxation–and that’s an important ingredient–but it’s just one ingredient. Being creative, for me at least, requires so much more. And this means turning the phone off is necessary, but nowhere near sufficient, for creativity. Speaking more generally, I think there’s almost always a way to embrace the upside of new technology without abandoning the benefits of traditions and practices that you can carry over from your past.

1 thought on “Smartphones, Boredom, and Creativity”

  1. People are typically playing games (which can be cognitively stimulating as well as a dose of positivity and stress relief), staying connected via social media, or reading: all of which can stimulate creativity.

    I too am skeptical. They should check out Steven Johnson’s ‘Everything Bad Is Good for You’.

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