Not Programmed to Think: Is Technology Killing Our Creativity?
by Lorena Limongi
“The feeling of not knowing is the last step in the creative process. To erase that sense of uncertainty - to jump straight from not knowing to knowing -- is to deprive life of its lifeblood: randomness, accidental discovery, serendipity.” -- Michael Harris, “The End of Absence. After spending a couple of nights and daydreams musing over the condition of human nature and creativity, I felt fairly frustrated. The trigger was a conversation I had with a friend of mine who is a very talented young cartoonist from my hometown. I asked him a question about how he got his ideas for his stories and his plots. . He didn’t say much on the matter, only shrugged his shoulders. I wasn’t satisfied , so I pushed harder: “And for how long have you been drawing? Your cartoons seem professional to me already, did you ever take a class?” He was very hesitant in answering the question. “Well, I look up most things I don’t know how to do,” he said. “The Internet has been my classroom for a couple of years now.”
Mulling over this conversation, I spent a couple of walks and bus rides observing strangers, trying to absorb their stories, even if only through my imagination. However, two thirds of the people my eyes encountered would be looking down at a smartphone, tablet or laptop. It felt odd trying to connect with these strangers on a human level when I couldn’t see any expressions or eye colors and didn’t hear any conversations. The only sounds they ever made were from the typing on their phones. Clearly, technology has become one of the most essential parts of our daily lives. It has become our main source of communication, learning, recreation, and distraction. However, studies have shown that the creativity of children is declining, and many point to the overuse of technology as a cause. I notice the pull of technology in my own behavior, when I catch myself checking my phone every now and then to see the time, even if I’m not in a hurry. I also notice that it is a lot harder for me to work on a creative project after scrolling down Facebook or Instagram, and I have a very hard time focusing on any task for long periods of time after spending long stretches online that day without a break to introspect and only think. In short, I believe that I’m not the only one whose creativity has been affected by technology for the past couple of years.
It’s important to point out that technology can sometimes be advantageous when it comes to creativity (as in the case of my artist friend). We are experiencing new forms of art, and new forms of creative expression, and we are able to learn from technology in ways that were were never capable of before. We have access to much human recorded knowledge and experience right in our fingertips. Ms. Kate Towery pointed out during a freshman English class discussion (which I was allowed to observe) that “Technology and the Internet can help us find our creativity.”
Colin Murphy, a senior at Athens Academy and digital photographer, agrees -- to a point. He describes how technology helped him acquire desired results and improve his work. Photo editing software is a big part of his creative process, he says, and he finds it much easier to translate his ideas by manipulating the original photos he takes. However, there is also a downside to this process, because it takes an absurd amount of time for [him] to edit a photo to [his] liking, and “there's kind of a beauty in the errors that I can erase with digital [technology], for better or worse. Also, getting so caught up in equipment, as well as the digital processes, is irrelevant to my skill in photography. It becomes a huge time suck.”
In the same freshman class discussion cited before, all of the students agreed that being creative requires a lot of energy, concentration and dedication. The book “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon mentions that a key to being creative is focusing most of your energy on creativity instead of squeezing it in when you can -- and always remembering to “spend as much time as you can connecting with your inner self, and your ideas.” And that is what we have been losing due to all of the exposure we have to information and technology.
If we prioritize technology instead of our inner creativity, we end up depriving ourselves of solitude and living in the moment -- half of our minds are inside our phones most of the time. “Today, most of our creativity is coming from pictures, and phone screens, not from traveling, relationships and empathy” says Brian Olson, Chair of Service and Leadership at Athens Academy. He added, “We are not playing outside anymore. When you play outside, you learn what is safe and what is not, what hurts and what doesn’t. You get relationship skills, you make mistakes, and you get hurt. But, with technology, you can hide; you don’t get those same experiences, and you don’t learn what you can and can’t do as much. Creativity is decreasing because our passion is decreasing, because our experiences are not the same.” It is undeniable that technology has become an essential part of our lives, and consequently our human experience is changing. We may enjoy the ability to connect with each other and information at a rapid pace, but, as the author Michael Harris says in the quote at the beginning of this article, we are depriving ourselves of an essential part of the creative process: the freedom to ask questions, to wonder, and to allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn from experience. We live under the false assumption that we no longer need to do these things, because, after all, the benefits of the Internet -- the fact that all of the information we could possibly ever need is right inside our pockets -- have distracted us from the bigger issues about our humanity and our creativity; and it is time for someone to sort this out.
This article is part of a series on creativity. Part two will appear in the next Spartan Review.