As a painter, a blank canvas can often be both the most inspiring of opportunities and daunting of challenges. When everything is seemingly possible, where does one begin? The best tool that I use is that of self-imposed limitation. When I give myself artistic constraints with concrete objectives, I enable myself to narrow my focus. Often times, the results are staggeringly effective. Other times, I try to accomplish too many things all at once and the results are chaotic, muddy and unfulfilling.
Too often my mobile experiences feel like the later, where I splatter paint recklessly and without abandon, like some schizophrenic Jackson Pollock imitator, hoping that by spending a few more minutes meandering around the canvas, a coherent composition will arise. It rarely happens, and because of this, I feel even more compelled to search on, over-connect and linger to the point of exhaustion. It can be an addictive cycle.
The solution with painting is almost always to back away and take a moment to clear the air and then subsequently remove any and all parts that aren't working. In other words, I actively recreate my world by creating negative space. So how does one do this in our perpetually connected digital lives?
The pragmatic use of technology is a source of great artistic and entrepreneurial interest to me and something that has been increasingly picked up on by the media of late. Several months ago I read a book by William Powers called, "Hamlet's Blackberry" which chronicles the artistic and philosophical repercussions that contextually followed new technology within the eras of historical visionaries such as Plato, Shakespeare and Thoreau. The common thread through these historical giants is that technology has always brought new challenges through every generation.
Powers writes that the solution has almost always been to reemphasize the primacy of human connection and occasional disconnectedness by self-imposed limitations. Going for a walk without your phone does in fact transform the way you interact with the world and is a worthy cleanse, if even done for short durations. Yes, I could be having a conversation with a friend while texting on my phone, or trying to work while shopping, tweeting and watching videos at the same time, but am I happier and more productive by doing so? Rarely.
In the Spring of 2009, the commencement speaker at the University of Pennsylvania had the following words as he addressed the graduating class: "Turn off your computer. You're actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around us." As Powers writes, "These words didn't come from a Luddite malcontent trying to hold back progress. The speaker was Eric Schmidt, the chairman and CEO of Google."
Additionally, last week the New York Times featured a piece entitled, "Silicon Valley Worries About Addiction to Devices." Matt Richtel writes:
Google has started a “mindfulness” movement at the company to teach employees self-awareness and to improve their ability to focus. Richard Fernandez, an executive coach at Google and one of the leaders of the mindfulness movement, said the risks of being overly engaged with devices were immense. “It’s nothing less than everything,” he said, adding that if people can find time to occasionally disconnect, “we can have more intimate and authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love in our communities.”
Google, which owns YouTube, earns more ad revenue as people stay online longer. But Mr. Fernandez, echoing others in Silicon Valley, said they were not in business to push people into destructive behavior. “Consumers need to have an internal compass where they’re able to balance the capabilities that technology offers them for work, for search, with the qualities of the lives they live offline,” he said. “It’s about creating space, because otherwise we can be swept away by our technologies."
Indeed it is about creating negative space where we can disconnect from our devices and reengage with the outside living, breathing world. When we return to our technology things are almost always clearer and more peaceful than before and for me, my passion for creating meaningful, worthwhile digital experiences is heightened. At this year's SXSW, I witnessed several "unplugged parties" that proudly touted their lack of connectivity. Although I was unable to attend, I was impressed that at perhaps the most densely populated technophile event in the country, genuine connection trumped all else.
Interactive technology and social media have enabled us to express, learn, and connect in ways in which we couldn't have without them. These powerful tools are capable of enhancing our lives but only up to the point where they don't detract from our most vital connections. When technology solves problems, we are all better for it. In the future, innovation as we know it in interactive tech may not be so much in the addition of features, but in the elimination of those that hold us back.