The laziness of the long-distance input-seeker - on the value of staring into space

October 31, 2018

I grew up in the era of cassettes, and I’m inclined to dismiss the idea of bringing them back as ridiculous retro hipster-ism. Tapes were crap. The sound quality wasn’t great, you couldn’t jump to the track you want, and even after the apparently miraculous invention of auto-reverse, you’d often have to laboriously disentangle the tape from the mechanism by spooling it back with a pencil.

But lately I’m starting to understand some of the nostalgia for tapes, even the imagined nostalgia of those who are too young to have experienced them the first time round. We would have the same tape in our Walkmans (Walkmen?) for days or even weeks on end, so we’d actually listen to albums, and get to know the songs intimately. Being unable to skip a track wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. We’d hear the hidden gems that lurk within albums, the ones that don’t make it onto playlists.

There’s a laziness that develops when everything is instantly available. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choice offered by Spotify - rather than face the almost infinite choice choosing, you’re likely to end up just listening to one of their playlists. After all, the more options that are available, the more of them must be the wrong choice.

Having fewer options makes it easier to choose, and reduces the risk of becoming Buridan’s ass. When everything is possible, it’s impossible to do everything, and it’s inevitable that you’ll miss out on something. Sometimes it’s useful to set yourself some limitations, and often it’s better to make a decision and start, even if that decision isn’t the perfect one. As Jack White put it, “having a huge budget or unlimited time … robs you of a lot of creativity, because you’re not focused or confined. We purposely confined ourselves to help us be more focused”.

The same is true for our consumer habits. So many of us seem to be addicted to input, constantly seeking new stuff to occupy our brains. Some people need to feed this addiction while walking along the street, head down staring at phones even as they’re crossing roads against the lights. A while ago I went on a course, and as soon as there was a break, I was jumping to other tasks, checking my email and Twitter - seeking more input. It was like a compulsion - I should have been giving my brain the opportunity to process the new information it had received, but instead I was checking that there was no pending input, no tasks to be done. Of course I was deluding myself - there always will be tasks to be done. Even if you are able to clear your to-do list, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be a fresh deluge - “the reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more”.

On the thankfully rare occasions that I commute by public transport, this addiction to input is particularly bad. Wedged in to a tiny standing space on a train, it’s difficult to focus deeply, so I don’t even try to read a book.While I listen to a podcast, I’m scrolling through Twitter, so I’m not really taking in either of them properly - I’m just trying to stave off boredom, to fill the mental space until the next thing.

Sometimes what we need is a sanctuary from input. All that input can be overwhelming, which is why mindfulness is becoming so appealing to so many people. Last year I spent a weekend on a canal boat with some old friends, and it felt good to be moving slower than you could walk, decelerating from London speed to a slower pace of life, in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal. Not having an internet connection can be liberating. It’s good to take a break from the relentless input of social media from time to time. If we force ourselves to disconnect from the wider world, we can connect more closely to what’s around us.

There’s a tension between these two forces - the push and pull of a loud quiet loud life. I want to live in a city. I want peace and quiet. I want to be surrounded by activity. I want to relax. I want to keep up with what’s going on in the world. I want to switch off. I want to have new experiences. I don’t want to be bored.

But sometimes we all need a break from busyness, some space to unwind. Besides, boredom can be good for us. Someone who is never bored has no reason to be creative. All the time that we’re consuming input, we can’t be productive. There’s no room for original thought if you’re constantly filling your mind with input, especially if that input is the bite-sized banality of social media. Our boredom killers also risk destroying creativity.

So here’s to doing nothing. Here’s to having downtime. Here’s to creating some mental space to be creative.