Ever since I notionally transitioned into adulthood, I’ve always been interested in current events. Not just keeping up with the latest technological developments either, news in general is something I like to keep tabs on. Years ago, you basically had two sources: the fairly superficial summaries from TV news and tabloids, or the more in-depth coverage from broadsheet special reports and dedicated periodicals. Generally speaking you got the superficial once or twice a day, and something more probing every week/month.
The Internet changed everything, including the news. I still believe that change is for the better – I remember what it was like to try to find specialist technical information in the years before Google, and I can’t believe how I managed – but I also think that lots of us don’t manage this tsunami of information availability very well, particular when it comes to its frequency. I think the constant stream of information at all levels of detail has overwhelmed some of us to the extent that we don’t know how to stop looking at it, and this has some knock-on effects for creativity and independent thought.
I started thinking about this because I recently took a 2 week holiday, and for the first time in many, many years I took the opportunity to be completely unavailable for the duration. Anyone who has been self-employed, or simply personally committed to a project to the level that they don’t know how to let go, knows what a huge deal this is. Frankly, I badly needed the proper down time and so did my wife (unfortunately the net effect has actually been to push extra stress on to the surrounding weeks, but at least we could relax for a while). It turned out that the place we stayed had almost non-existent Internet access anyway, so my choice was enforced.
So for 2 weeks we had no Internet, TV, radio, papers, nothing – the world outside may as well have not existed. We just had a bunch of pre-loaded Kindles, iOS devices and notebooks – no twitch-checking Twitter, no news, no daily RSS. At first, it felt isolating. Then, it felt liberating. I found myself feeling much more creative, and being able to think about the ‘long game’ a lot more clearly. It wasn’t that I didn’t care what was going on in the world, or that I had any less of a need overall to keep up with technical developments etc. The point was that I didn’t have to think about it so often – catching up with it in a week would be absolutely fine. Or two weeks. Anything ‘important’ that I missed would get flagged up again anyway, and in the meantime, I found there was much more free space in my daily consciousness, not only for relaxation and enjoyment, but for creativity and strategic thinking too.
Looking back it should be obvious. More quiet time to think has to be better, right? There was also a study recently saying that kids should be allowed to get bored because it makes them more creative, and I bet it works for adults too. I’ve always been a bit contemplative anyway, quite content sitting quietly and just thinking. But without realising, I’d sidelined that almost entirely from my routine – extroverts always had this ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra they lived by, but without realising I’d adhered to an equivalent for introverts – ‘work hard, consume new information obsessively in free time hard’ perhaps. Before the Internet, and more specifically before the ‘velocity’ of the Internet increased via Twitter etc, there were lower frequency rhythms in the way new or topical information became available that naturally paced my consumption and the depth/length of contemplation on each, but once the limits were off I slowly became like an ex-hunger striker at an all you can eat buffet. I didn’t even realise it had happened until I went cold turkey.
So, what next? Obviously I’m not going to stop using Twitter, or reading tech news. But what I am going to do is deliberately unplug regularly for periods of time in future. I think a couple of days at a time is the minimum required to reach the kind of ‘quiet brain’ that seemed to me to be much more cogent and creative than the one I live with most days. A weekend a month perhaps, plus at least one full week a year. It’s a bit like clearing all the crap off your desk once in a while – which come to think of it I should also do more often