Smart Phones: Novocaine for the Creative Mind

There’s a table out front of the cafe. It’s a square, low-set thing surrounded by comfy couches and it’s always in use. Today, it’s occupied by a group of friends drinking coffee. At least, I assume they’re friends. It’s hard to tell because they’ve all got their phones in their hands, too busy texting and tweeting and Instagramming their cheesecake to talk to each other.

Nearby, a young couple talk about their plans for the weekend. In the middle of their conversation, a phone beeps. The woman doesn’t hesitate. She whips her phone from her bag and swipes across the screen while her partner continues talking about restaurants and movies. “What?” she says when he pauses for breath. “I wasn’t listening. Sarah wanted to ask me about Fiji, so I told her I’d call her later.”

At another table, a couple my age eat their croissants in silence. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Before she’s even picked up her bag, he’s pulled his phone out and is tapping away at it, completely oblivious to the world around him.

Everywhere I look, people are on their phones. Not talking on them, just tap-tap-tapping away. Who knows what they’re doing. Maybe they’re texting directions to a friend. Maybe they’re shopping. Maybe they’re flinging righteously angry birds at towers. I don’t know. But what IΒ do know is what they’re not doing. They’re not looking at the world around them. They’re not communicating with their friends. They’re not communicating with themselves.

It’s that last statement that bothers me the most.

For so many people, the idea of being forced to sit and do nothing — to be trapped with nothing but their own thoughts for company — is the worst kind of Hell imaginable. A wait of two minutes is unendurable without the benefit of a phone to relieve the instantaneous boredom. And the thought of being stuck without that mindless entertainment for half an hour? Or an hour? Or a whole day?

I’ve heard it said. “What did you expect me to do, just sit here and do nothing for five minutes?”

Yeah, I kinda did. Because that time when you sit and “do nothing”? That time is valuable. That time is important for your mental and emotional wellbeing. Without that kind of downtime, when do you listen to your own thoughts? When do you truly think and reflect and consolidate everything you’ve seen and done? When do you just be you?

I worry. I do. The modern world is designed for entertainment. From Angry Birds to LOL Cats, World of Warcraft to Bachelor Pad, there are endless opportunities for us to immerse ourselves in electronic Novocaine. And our Smart phones make that possible even when we’re on the go.

Do you know what happens when you spend all your time immersed in electronic media? When you rely on your TV, computer, iPod, and phone to entertain you every minute of free time?

Nor do I.

But do you know what happens when you don’t?

Creativity. Passion. Inspiration.

All those things that require an open, quiet mind.

Think about what you’re doing when you get your best, most crazy exciting ideas. Chances are, it’s either when you’re asleep (or near sleep), when you’re exercising, or when you’re in the shower. When was the last time you had a crazy, exciting, inspired idea playing Angry Birds?

I don’t have a smart phone. I don’t have games on my dumb phone. But even I sometimes fall into the trap. Even I sometimes find myself thinkingΒ I’ve got five minutes to wait. I’ll just check my email…

Do me a favour. Next time you’ve got to sit and wait for five minutes, just sit and wait. Leave your phone in your pocket or your purse or your bag or your car or (gasp!) back at your house. Sit. Wait. Look at the world around you. Let your thoughts wander and see where they end up.

You know, the way you used to back in the olden days .



Filed under Opinion

19 responses to “Smart Phones: Novocaine for the Creative Mind

  1. Oh, Jo. I can usually go five minutes. Give or take.

  2. I agree and disagree, I guess. And there are two separate (though related) things here.

    One is the “I require constant entertainment” thing. That’s been going on for decades, long before the smartphone (or even the cell phone). The invention of the Walkman, for example, was a big factor. I had a co-workers once who was a dedicated runner, but he couldn’t face the idea of running without music. I pointed out that human beings were running for centuries before headphones were invented, but he was not persuaded. I agree with everything you said about this trend, but the smartphone is just the latest focus. In five years it will probably be something else.

    The other, the tendency to allow the phone beep to be more urgent than an actual conversation, that’s rudeness, but that’s a human decision, not the phone’s fault. Phones don’t insult people; people insult people. πŸ˜‰

    • Anthony, you have no idea how much I’ve missed you coming in and disagreeing with me. It’s a while since that’s happened in earnest. πŸ™‚

      I guess I see listening to music as being quite different to obsessively playing video games or checking twitter. I rarely (if ever) have no music playing in the background, whether I’m in my house or my car or whatever. But it’s exactly that — something in the background. I’m not focused on the music. In fact, sometimes I completely forget it’s there. Whereas tapping away on a phone is a completely focused activity.

      As for the second part of your comment, I couldn’t agree more. So often, though, people seem to be unable to exert the willpower to ignore a beep, buzz, or whatever annoying sound their phone makes for even a minute. No, it’s not the phone’s fault. But even so…

      • Well, sorry to disappoint, but on this point I’m afraid we don’t disagree. πŸ™‚

        Having music on as background is one thing (I often have news radio on myself). The main issue to me (well, maybe we disagree a little bit) is dependence, not focus. If your preferred background music is absent for whatever reason, I’m guessing you’re okay with that. The same if I don’t have my background news.

        What concerns me is the people who get anxious (or bored) if they aren’t getting their fix, whether it’s music or whatever else. After Hurricane Sandy, I didn’t have Internet for ten days. I know people who would have been climbing the walls.

        Let alone the guy who burst into tears when he had to live without his phone for three days.

  3. Jo- I still have an ipad but I find it more cumbersome than a smartphone- which I gave up and wrote about last year- Since doing that, I ‘ve regained a lot of micro-experiences I would have lost. I only take out the ipad when I have “work” to do- and I consider writing and brainstorming about writing my “work”. πŸ™‚ It is much easier to do on an ipad with wireless keyboard than on a smartphone. A wonderful site that has embraced the cause of regaining our micro-moments free of message alerts is called Hands Free Mama… Great post- Sorry for being off the grid for so long- slowly rejoining the virtual world…. πŸ™‚

    • Welcome back. πŸ™‚ I remember that post of yours. I haven’t ever had a smart phone (and so honestly don’t understand the appeal) but, as I said, I’ve still felt the temptation to “not waste time”. I definitely agree that writing and brainstorming is work, though!!

  4. JackieP

    Like you I have a dumb phone. Most of the time that stays off. When I leave the house, it’s just me leaving. I do have a phone, but it’s in my purse, turned off. It’s for emergency use only, For a Canadian that means if I get stuck in the snow, I reach for my dumb phone and call someone.

    Personally I love people watching. It is better then any bird game or tv for that matter. People are fascinating. As a writer how can I NOT watch people? I love my computer, but, I also know when I need time for myself. I love the silence, listening to only my inner voice.

    Does that make me the odd one out? Maybe so, but thats who I am.
    Wonderful post!

  5. I could see a horror story in the making while I was reading this, Jo! It was so visual. The story starts at the cafe and no one looks around and speaks to each other – is this our future????

    Fantastic post πŸ˜‰

    • Thanks, Dianne! Sometimes I wonder whether this really is our future. If you’ve ever heard a teenager talk about the horror of losing or forgetting their phone, you’ll have an idea of what I mean. (Seriously, I’ve seen a 22 year old man *cry* because he left his phone at his parent’s place and wouldn’t have it for three days.)

  6. Guilty as charged. But I’ll try to follow your advice – on pretty much anything. But also because that last quote is awesomesauce.

  7. Pingback: The Unhelpful Valley | Davetopia

  8. I definitely feel you on the lack of human interaction and attention span. Hubby and I still have dumb phones. His parents gave him a smart phone as a present recently, but he uses it as an internet device at home, or for reading when out & about. No service plan.
    We can even manage to drive to the store without music playing.
    In a society where everyone’s “plugged-in”, it’s no wonder we have to have laws that make using a cellphone while driving illegal.

    • It really is like a bad sci-fi movie sometimes. The idea of not being plugged-in is some people’s worst nightmare. (Me? I find it somewhat refreshing.)

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  9. Soundsmith

    I’ve been so fed up with smartphones in my generation that I typed in “Smart Phone-effects on the mind” into Google just to see who else is being vocal about this change in our society and you popped up! Love the article.

    I’m a junior in college and no matter where I go, I see people my age living in their phone screens trying to stay “connected” and what not. Whenever I go into a coffee shop and the scenarios that you described are on display, I get saddened to see so many people with minds are somewhere in cyberspace. So often I feel like I’m in the minority of people that are still living on planet Earth!

    I’m absolutely with you on everything you’re saying. I feel like we need to return to the basics of human experience. Even in my three years in college I’ve noticed a huge change in the way people my age act due to these toys. If there only was a way to spread the good word…

    • I completely agree — and it’s great to see I’m not alone! Please feel free to share my post and start some discussion. Not sure how much it will help, but we’ve got to start somewhere!

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