“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity,” so opined Henry Beston in what is a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology.
Beston was writing in the late 1940s; but his remarks about our relationship with technology – and the potential pitfalls between our ever-closer relationship with it – are perhaps more pertinent today than ever before, especially as new research is published showing the vast majority of us claim to be distracted by near-constant, often idle, scrolling on our Smartphone devices.
This isn’t to advocate the luddites, but simply to draw attention to a remarkable trend that has been emerging in recent years as the use of mobile technology has proliferated among our society. Indeed, since 2012, when for the first time over half of all US citizens owned a smartphone, there has been a rapid change in not only our technological usage, but even in our characteristics as individuals and as a society. A new generational divide has even been seen to open up, as Jean Twenge points out in their work, iGen, which sees the generation born after millennials as being increasingly dependent upon their smartphones – using them to derive pleasure, to communicate with one another, form and maintain relationships, even while use of these devices is linked to poorer mental health and increased feelings of loneliness and decreased productivity.
Few, perhaps, will be surprised by findings that suggest our reliance on smartphone technology has come at a cost. As Rebecca Solnit notes in this wonderful analysis, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.”
Indeed, to build upon this, and to explore why increases in smartphone usage seem to be linked to feelings of loneliness and poor mental health, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.
The impact of smartphones on creativity
So what does all this mean for aspiring and established creatives out there? Well, apart from ensuring we all do what we can to support ourselves and one another – looking out for signs of depression and doing what we can to protect our mental health and wellbeing (creative types, after all, may be more likely to experience mental health problems).
But it also means making a conscious effort to switch off our phones and minimise the distractions we face from them. Some of this has a simple reason behind it: with 66% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by their phones, and 31% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by streaming services like Netflix (source), and since we know that reading more and widely helps to improve our writing and creative abilities, switching off our phones and picking up a book would likely spur the creative juices needed to produce original pieces of work.
Indeed, this in part is just common sense. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan has said, in an interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”
In fact, cutting ourselves off completely may be the only way to truly minimise the impact of modern technology. As a study by the University of Texas at Austin published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found, a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent — or even when powered off and tucked away in a purse, briefcase or backpack. Putting these distracting devices out of sight does not necessarily put them out of mind, in other words.
But perhaps there’s also something more here. A battle not between ourselves and our urges to distract ourselves from reality (perhaps an understandable impulse given our reality is currently catastrophic climate breakdown amid a geopolitical maelstrom of inaction and the rise of the far right); but rather a battle between society and the Tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg who make billions of dollars precisely from our distraction; and in turn a battle between us and the politicians whose interests it’s in to keep us distracted, to keep us disengaged with reality, because they know (and fear) the potential impact a suddenly creatively energised society could have upon the world.
The art of waiting
What this all ultimately comes down to, perhaps, is patience. The patience needed to work with feelings of boredom and frustration, rather than against them. The patience needed between conversations and meetings with friends to appreciate them all the more (and so much more than you can ever appreciate a simple snapchat streak). The patience needed to properly read a book and appreciate it, rather than simply scanning the pages as one might a smartphone webpage or app. As the brilliant novelist Tim Leach has written, “The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.”
Perhaps if we are able to put down our phones, the wait for the lightning that changes the system will be shorter than we think.