If you're like me, turning off the phone or losing service is a troubling [and possibly anxiety-inducing] proposition. Devices are how we connect to family, friends, and the world today, and they're how we stay on top as professionals. This unprecedented connectivity yields badass benefits culture has never seen, but it's addicting in ways we aren't prepared to admit.
For visionaries, this poses a tough question that I'm on a mission to answer: How can we be creative and innovative when our cultural norms and digital appetites demand we stay plugged-in all day, every day?
In my two-part interview, tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar, explains that our “mental obesity” is hurting productivity and creativity, and that balance is the answer. By intentionally unplugging from the steady text, social media, email, and internet pipeline, our brain is able to switch gears and reflect.
Here’s what he has to say:
Shelley: Your work takes a deep dive into how our digital appetites can block creativity. What have you found?
David: Our digital appetites are insatiable, and this can get in the way of having adequate mental space for reflection. Right now the topics of digital diets, digital detoxes, and unplugging are hot. The point, however, is not that we need to be unplugged--it's that we shouldn't be over-plugged. Creativity and tech use are not enemies. The burden, however, is on us to create an environment allowing for both consumption and reflection. Again, collect and reflect.
Our tech use today offers us tremendous opportunities with the collection stage of content, but has become a struggle in terms of establishing ideal conditions. Just consider where you have your best ideas. Even though most of us are online for a significant portion of the day, you would be hard pressed to find someone who says their best ideas come when they're on their smartphone.
I have found that we often put too much focus on personal willpower when trying to step away from our devices. If I wanted to eat less cookies, I wouldn't keep a cookie in my pocket. What's worse, the cookie is vibrating and basically saying, "Eat Me." Of course I'm going to eat the cookie. Willpower works like a muscle that gets fatigued. We can make our lives easier by occasionally removing our devices from the occasion.
Shelley: You also talk about creating the ideal conditions to give birth to an "Ah ha" moment. What are those conditions? Do you have an example or story from your own life?
David: In September of 2013 I was struggling with putting the finishing touches on a TEDx talk around tech over-consumption. The speech was hitting various points to argue there is a problem, but it was lacking a solution. It was making minor tweaks on the current conversation, but it was still based on existing ideas. Was there a new idea? I was stuck.
To get unstuck, I headed to a quiet beach on the Connecticut coast. Blue therapy. I needed to allow all of the information I had collected, and various thoughts I had, to make an unusual and unexpected connection. The connection I came up with was a Mental Food Plate. My argument was that in the near future we are going to treat our brain in a similar fashion as we treat our body. The massive diet and exercise industries that serve as a counterbalance to our over-consumption of food would be replicated to balance out over-consumption of tech. But how?
I'm a big believer in the maxim that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, and the concept of a Mental Food Plate is incredibly simple. It's kind of a mash-up of our dietary food plate and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs--mental assessment, mindful consumption, reflection, and brain training. Every aspect of how we treat our brain should fall in one of the categories. Sitting there on the beach, I came up with the idea by thinking about how a person goes about getting in shape. They jump on a scale, watch the quality of their food, make sure they don't over-consume, and add in adequate exercise.
I’m discovering that an innovative train of thought must run uninterrupted long enough to reach an 'Aha' moment. By mindfully managing my digital appetite, I’m allowing myself space to reflect--and create.