The word adaptation has been coming up for me a lot lately, not just in the recent spate of press about climate change and agricultural adaptation, but in relation to community, the arts and technology. A series of experiences in how humans adapt to their circumstances led me to an epiphany.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but creativity requires desire and undistracted mental space.
Ok, so blinding flash of the obvious you say. But the interesting part is the process by which this thought arrived. Like most personal epiphanies, it came from a collision in mental space. It was a convergence of words, images and sounds. A conversation, a movie, a book, a magazine interview, a song. Here are the bits and pieces:
- My Galapagos friend observed that because resources are so abundant for the island residents, most have no desire to achieve or change anything within their communities. She described a lack of energy for the locals to even partake of the beauty surrounding them. I wondered, why would abundance breed complacency rather than fuel creativity?
- I watched the 2002 movie Adaptation with Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep based on Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, and was struck by a scene where the main character attends a Robert McKee Story Seminar. “You cannot have a protagonist without desire.”
- I noted when reading FREE: The Future of Radical Price that author Chris Anderson uses of the E.M. Forester story “The Machine Stops” as an illustration of what happens when all human needs are taken care of. “Humanity loses its sense of purpose, giving up even the creation of art and writing to the Machine.”
- And when I reread the March 2009 Sun Magazine with a reprint of Wendell Berry’s essay “Why I’m Not Going to Buy a Computer” and an interview with Nicholas Carr, “How the Internet is Rewiring Our Brains,” I noticed both articles address the ways in which we are removing ourselves from direct sensory contact with one another and nature, and how time-saving and efficiency come at the cost of human relationships, community and depth of thought. Again, I asked myself, is the abundant availability of information affecting our creativity?
- So I researched more of Carr and Wendell’s writing and found this blog post from Carr, juxtaposing writers Steve Gillmor and Andrew Louth:
“Gillmor: My daughter told her mother today that her boyfriend was spending too much time on IM and video-chat, and not enough on getting his homework done. She actually said these words: “I told him you have to get away from the computer sometimes, turn it off, give yourself time to think.” This is the same daughter who will give up anything – makeup, TV, food — just as long as I don’t take her computer or iPhone away.
So realtime is the new crack, and even the naivest of our culture realizes it can eat our brains. But does that mean we will stop moving faster and faster? No. Does that mean we will give up our blackberries when we become president? No. Then what will happen to us?
Louth: Western culture, as we have known it from the time of classical Greece onwards, has always recognized that there is more to human life than a productive, well-run society. If that were not the case, then, as Plato sourly suggests, we might just as well be communities of ants or bees. But there is more than that, a life in which the human mind glimpses something beyond what it can achieve. This kind of human activity needs time in which to be undistracted and open to ideas.”
- But it was a rendition of Radiohead’s song “Fake Plastic Trees” sung in a rather poignant way at a concert that pulled all those seemingly disparate pieces together. “She looks like the real thing/ She tastes like the real thing/ my fake plastic love/ But I can’t help the feeling I could blow through the ceiling If I just turn and run/And it wears me out/It wears me out”
The refrain “it wears me out,” nailed it. I suddenly knew what modern life is threatening to do to our creativity. Without desire and space—creativity withers. Our lifestyles, full of abundant information and resources that are designed to make life more productive and efficient, are wearing us out. Instead of evolving towards a “life in which the human mind glimpses beyond what it can achieve” will our technology evolve us into communities of ants and bees, capable of handling tasks but unable to truly create? Could it be, as Louth points out in a Heidegger paraphrase, ”it is the role of the poet to preserve a sense of the earth, to break down our sense of security arising from familiarity with the world. We might think of contemplation, the dispassionate beholding of reality, in a similar way, preventing us from mistaking the familiar tangle of assumption and custom for reality, a tangle that modern technology and the insistent demands of modern consumerist society can easily bind into a tight web?”
Let me do a little more dispassionate beholding of reality and I’ll tweet you when I’ve got an answer.