Let me start with a confession: when I went for a walk with my infant child yesterday, I stopped in the park, pulled out my iPhone and checked my emails. Work-related stuff, of course. I even responded to one of them. It was dark and cold, but the baby was wrapped up comfortably and asleep. So I checked my Twitter as well. And my feed reader. I hope nobody sees me now, I thought to myself. Am I a distracted bad parent, a clumsy technophile without concern for my child? Have I become asocial because of social media? Is the internet slowly turning my brain into an indistinguishable lump of dead cells?
Going cold turkey
Recently, we went on a family vacation to Maremma in Italy. It was supposed to be a quiet time, maybe with a little bit of work here and there. But then I found out that there is no internet in Maremma – and don’t even think about WiFi. At least not in the picturesque old manor houses where we decided to stay. The only internet cafe was in a little village six miles away and did not open before 8pm. When it was open for business, the computer next to the pool table was occupied by drunken adolescents. Let me put it this way: it was like going cold turkey in four steps. I was astonished, then restless, then grumpy. And finally, and surprisingly, cured. I accepted being offline, moved the breakfast table out into the Italian morning sun, patted the dog and made coffee. We read books all day and went out for pasta at night, without a vibrating cell phone in my pocket. Thus, it turned out to be not only a very relaxing break but also a very creative one. I had completely forgotten how many good ideas come to mind when you’re not staring at a stamp-sized screen every other minute. I did have a moment of weakness and asked our landlord – a flamboyant member of Italy’s rural aristocracy who never failed to wear a scarf and carry a cognac glass – to use his private computer to check emails. But that’s between you and me.
How much time do we need to be creative?
The American productivity consultant Merlin Mann argues that the most important challenge today is to determine the line between communication and distraction. In other words, when does our connectedness keep us from pursuing the things we ought to pursue? And then we have to find a way to communicate it as well, in a way that is socially acceptable. That could mean, for example, redirecting calls to voicemail or sending automated away messages from one’s e-mail account. That’s a lot more realistic than German doomsday scenarios. When we dig through all the gossip to get at the root of the information challenge, we are left with the simple question of how to manage the new technologies and the wealth of information they continually produce. How much time do we need to be creative? What do we have to cut or curb to be able to create something new? Mann says that we must “build protective walls” around our time to be productive. That’s exactly what I learned in Maremma. At home, the revelation lasted for about a week. Sitting at a restaurant with a few friends, I caught myself engaging in the most humiliating behavior. Excusing myself to go to the restroom, I snuck out to check my emails. And Twitter. And, quickly, my RSS feeds. I hope nobody saw me.