When Computers Aren’t Such A Good Thing

Media fascinates me. It’s interesting to see where we’re going next in terms of the way we communicate. But two facets of the modern media really irk me. One is this perma-gravitation towards everything being “online”, and the second, following on from the first, is this arrogant presumption that everything is inherently better or superior because it’s “on the Internet”. Is it?

Consider this for stupidity. I’ve seen people walk into a room where the telly is on, and announce, proudly: “Hey! You don’t need to do that. I can switch on my computer and watch it online, you know!!!” – whereupon they have to power up yet another kilowatt-guzzling device in the same room as the already-on TV. The compu’er invariably has inferior sound and visual output to the TV, which was designed for prolonged periods of watching. Then there are people who hover around with their laptops strapped permanently to their side who seem to take great delight in walking into a room where the radio is on and going, “Stop! Turn that off. We can listen to that online!!!” Then someone has to go and find the remote to turn off the radio (usually left on standby), then wait while the computer powers up before “clicking on” the website from which the radio station can be listened. Backward? No…!

These days everything must be “online” or it isn’t worth a look in, apparently. Simply everything has to have a website attached to it. I wager these days the most common letter in the English language is not ‘e’ but ‘w’. Double-you-double-you-double-you; that’s all you ever hear these days. As if that makes it smart, or cool, or something. Newspapers – online. TV reports – online. Board games – online. Telephone conversations – online. Socialising and catching up with friends – online. It’s fast becoming a sedate old life. The only things I don’t think they’ve discovered how to put online are Sleeping, Eating, and Urination. But watch this space.

I went to a library (the ones that stock books, not computers – remember those?) the other day, and my browsing led me to stumble upon a lovely book of pictures. It was a book all about architectural sketches through the ages – from Leonardo da Vinci right the way through to modern day designers such as Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava. The style of drawing and the techniques used varied dramatically over the centuries but the most fascinating thing about all the designers featured was that each used a simple ‘pen and pencil drawing’ to “work things out”: to see, to think, to design. And from the initial sketch came the great building.

The most basic act of human creativity is almost always most naturally carried out with these simple tools. Tool 1: pen. Tool 2: paper. Writers, artists, engineers, architects, inventors, illustrators, carpenters: basically anyone worth knowing does all their ‘thinking work’ using these simple tools. No computers, no mouse, no keyboard, no fancy peripherals – and certainly no fancy digital software. People who think they need these things to come up with the goods are sadly lacking in inspiration. The book showed me that.

Yes, we’ve got fancy software to help us refine designs and to “mess about” with our initial idea or concept, but too often I think we use technology and modern media as an excuse for ‘a poor sketch’, or indeed, no sketch at all. I made the horrible realisation that I had ‘no sketch at all’ in my life when I saw that book – it’s too easy to do everything with ‘the click of a mouse’ without ever really seeing anything; to ingest everything but simultaneously to produce nothing useful at the end of my mouse-clicking labours. And the simple reason for this being that the Internet and the advent of ‘online everything’ was quite literally sapping me of (a) my time, and (b) any creative energy I had. I wanted to go straight home and lob my computer out the window!

You see, the Internet revolution means it is now possible to spend no time being truly creative or original at all. We tend to think (or are led to believe by ‘The Media’) that being online is going to make our lives better, more culturally rich, more easy, more efficient – when the reality is, it can rob us of all our ‘creative’ time. Computers can therefore be the very enemy of creativity. For one thing computers are designed and based around logic – lists, formulae, series, things in sequence. People who interact with computers tend to exploit them for these idiosyncrasies. Creative, holistic thought on the other hand tends to come from the opposite side of the brain – the right side – which doesn’t deal in lists, programmes, sequences, and so on, but in pictures and ‘wholes’. In other words computers are by their nature very left side of the brain-centric.

I am not a Luddite or a technophobe – computers and onlineness can help us and can save us time – but too often I think that we are fast migrating in the wrong direction, moving further away from what it was that computers were originally designed to do. At work I’ve seen people who think they “aren’t doing work” when they aren’t physically strapped to their computer, and who seem at a loss as to what to do without one in front of them.

Certainly from my own experience, it is now possible to spend a whole day strapped to a computer without learning anything you originally set out to learn nor really having been inspired by anything worth being inspired by. Sometimes our most lucid moments are those when we just sit with everything digital switched off and a pencil and paper in our hands.

Unfortunately what the e-revolutionaries have failed to realise is that there is still a gaping disparity between what we are led to believe is the place we live in these days (the ‘digital age’, the ‘e-world’) and the actual reality of the thing, which is a deeply explorable physical world. A world of trees, muscle, sky, flow, birds, boats, metal, soil, pen, and paper. Well, it was the last time I looked anyway…