Tuesday 17 September 2019

Katie Byrne: 'Is tech killing everyone's imagination?'


'Scrolling through Instagram can certainly feel creative, but that's because we've started to confuse inspiration with imitation'
'Scrolling through Instagram can certainly feel creative, but that's because we've started to confuse inspiration with imitation'
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

It seems strange to mourn the disappearance of something that doesn't actually exist, but that doesn't make me any less sad to discover that children's imaginary friends may be in danger of dying out.

The news comes from a survey by daynurseries.co.uk, Britain's leading reviews site for nurseries. Out of 1,000 nursery workers interviewed, 72pc said that fewer children have invisible friends than they did five years ago. Nearly two thirds of respondents attributed the decline to the rise of technology.

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It's a sad state of affairs but really, is it all that surprising? Children's schedules are so tightly packed nowadays that their imaginations aren't always given the space to flourish. They're ferried to extra-curricular activities, bundled off to play dates and then handed a screen when - perish the thought - they get bored.

Our child-centered culture is hell-bent on keeping children entertained, yet adult-centred parents of previous generations never bought into that idea. Children were expected to keep themselves entertained. And they did - with a little imagination.

Of course, we can hardly pontificate about the perils of too much screen-time for children when we adults are just as imperilled.

Regardless of age, we all need to give ideas space to percolate. The trouble, however, is that digital distractions often get in the way.

We're still going through the motions of the creative process - furrowing our brows and fixing our gaze on somewhere in the middle-distance - but just as the synapses start to tingle, the phone starts to beep.

This is one of the reasons why artists - mainstream artists - are leaving social media. Actor Channing Tatum recently announced that he's taking an Instagram hiatus because he wants to "get inspired and create again". Musician and self-proclaimed "tweetaholic" John Mayer quit Twitter for three years when he realised that he was "using it as an instrument to riff on". The irony was that he "couldn't write a song".

You could argue that social media is a font of creative inspiration - a never-ending source of fresh ideas and cultural phenomena.

But that, right there, is the problem. There is so much stimuli online that we can't quite process it all. We bookmark articles for later. We screenshot photographs as reminders. We skim-read everything.

Like the over-scheduled child, we're hyper-stimulated - and in desperate need of some white space where we can connect the dots and make sense of the digital deluge.

We seem to have forgotten that inspiration doesn't strike when we're bombarded with emails, news feeds, targeted ads, push notifications and cat gifs. It strikes when we allow our minds to wander: when we're singing in the shower, when we're strolling through the city, when we're lying in bed staring at the ceiling.

Scrolling through Instagram can certainly feel creative, but that's because we've started to confuse inspiration with imitation. Ideas don't beget ideas anymore. Ideas beget identikit iterations - which is why everything from our weddings to our wardrobes is beginning to look the same.

The consequences of a world where productivity trumps creativity - and where doing trumps being - are as imminent as they are inevitable. Plagiarism is on the rise - in the music industry especially. Cultural homogenisation is spreading like a virus. And it seems as though every new film is a reboot or a remake.

Meanwhile, the zeitgeist is getting shorter and shorter. Friends who pitch creative ideas for a living tell me that they're struggling to stay ahead of the curve. Their million dollar idea has currency for about five minutes before the hive mind of social media leads everyone else to the same flash of inspiration.

It's no coincidence that creativity-boosting books, apps and techniques are having a moment. Those who need help unlocking their imagination can employ the services of a creative coach, book a weekend away at a creativity retreat or download a self-hypnosis programme that promises to stoke their creative fire.

Elsewhere, in Silicon Valley, experimental types are using psychedelics like LSD to spark non-linear thinking, which is a little like using a sledgehammer to crush a nut.

Those who spend vast swathes of time staring at the blinking cursor of a word document will have at least considered one of these creativity-boosting tools. I know I have. But perhaps it's time we realised that we don't have to find new and novel ways to open the doors to creativity. We just have to turn off our phones.

Roddy Doyle is away.

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