The Death of Imagination
(Nurturing Imagination in the Digital Age)
By Maile Sundquist
Although I grew up in the ’80s with the emergence of the PC, my family never had a lot of money and I didn’t obtain my first computer until I was 20. It wasn’t until I went to college seven years later for a marketing major which focused on graphic design and videography, and began using more complex computer software to create music, graphics, websites, and videos, that I noticed a shift in myself. I first noticed how my expectations increased, and with it my stress. I had less patience and expected the computer to have no lag time or glitches, and when it did, watch out! Mrs. Hyde would rear her ugly head and you wouldn’t want to be within a mile radius of my office when that went down. That was the main motivation in my husband building our storm cellar. I slowly noticed how this expectation for immediate responsiveness began to seep into my expectations of not only myself, but of others. Secondly I noticed my concentration diminish. Concentrating on reading a book, sitting in on a sermon or lecture, and even carrying on an in-depth conversation with my husband became a struggle. I also found myself being easily distracted and overwhelmed by tackling my to-do list, getting anxious and stressed as I struggled to prioritize, not to mention – SQUIRREL! Dang it! I can only attribute this to the constant modern-day stimuli, and multitasking that inevitably takes place in the cyber world with pop-up ads and text speak, as well as fits and starts of multifaceted artistic projects that had me jumping between several computer programs to complete. My time management and priorities were out of balance. I was spending less and less time with people and in nature and too much time online and in front of the computer justifying the fact that I hadn’t eaten or moved from my chair in six hours with the fact I was “creating.” Creating, yes, creating sores on my posterior maybe.
Almost as soon as I became aware of these negative byproducts in myself, my worry turned to the future generations. It made me scared for the children who would be raised taking these technological tools for granted and being exposed to them during their cognitive development. My worst fears were confirmed after watching a scientific documentary the other day entitled The Distracted Mind. In it, a doctor speaks of the detrimental nature of multitasking in the digital age, and it’s effects on our concentration and productivity. At one point he interviews a room of teenagers and asks them about their use of technology. They discuss the roll that cell phones, computers, and social networks play in their lives. Most talk about their deep dependence when it comes to online communication. One story that stood out to me was a girl who shares how devastated she was during a weekend with no electricity spent with her family. She mentions that in her “parents’ generation” they talked about “using their imaginations” to pass the time, but that she found herself completely incapable of conjuring up anything that would hold her attention and was left feeling bored beyond belief, leaving sleep as her only option. This was crazy to me! My parents, who were born in the late 1930s, passed along a love for creativity. My father, an inventor and songwriter, and my mother, a talented visual artist, both taught my siblings and me the importance of using our imaginations. Ideas shape the future after all. When we lose the ability to imagine and create, we lose our spirit, we lose our humanity. Since I had learned how to be easily amused, to create, and to enjoy the wonder in the world around me at such a young age, this girl’s struggle was as foreign to me as a sequin dress might be to a neanderthal. Unfortunately, given my now complete immersion in all things tech, and having seen firsthand some symptoms of tech use on my brain, I had sympathy for her plight, especially since she was raised in a society where technology is king.
More and more studies are showing that no pride should he taken in media multitasking. In fact, the act of multitasking is literally impossible: our brains are technically only able to focus on one thing at a time and they switch between tasks rather than processing them all simultaneously. It is only our spirits and our brains which are being “tasked” by our attempts at multitasking. Papers are being written which discuss the impact on development for people that engage in heavy media multitasking, and find that children and teens are suffering from limited social skills, a lack of empathy, and struggles in communication and writing skills. In the work place, people who need to manage emails and projects are being found to be less productive and in the family arena, there is less meaningful time being spent among family members as people are each busy with their own devices – even when they are in the same room. Depression, anxiety, and stress are doing a number on the citizens of first-world countries. How much of this could be attributed not only to poor prioritizing of our values, but to technology and the way we use media in this digital age? I don’t want to make technology out to be bad; amazing things are made possible through the development and use of technology. I couldn’t be a working artist today without my computer and tech tools of the trade, and three quarters of the world’s population wouldn’t know the joys of being addicted to a game where lining up various types of candies is your objective. The answer isn’t to revert to cups and string or smoke signals for communication, but perhaps it lies in how we decide to live with technology.
My husband and I have been having many talks as of late about how we plan to raise our children with technology. We don’t want to give them a disadvantage in the work place, but we don’t want them to be uninspired, unimaginative drones who have social anxiety and can’t focus on an allotted task for more than a few minutes. We have concluded that the benefits of a balanced life more focused on human interaction, spirituality, and nature, will, in the end, reap far better outcomes for our children than having them be the most tech-savvy kid in their preschool class. Computers can be learned at any age, but nurturing your imagination, and learning how to make it work for you is a lot harder to teach and learn once you’re over the age of 12. Being able to draw inspiration and joy from the little things in life, each other, and the great outdoors is vital for promoting and maintaining a happy, healthy, and balanced life. Studies have shown that just from spending time in nature yields noticeably positive effects on the human brain and body, from balancing mood and proper bodily functions to decreasing dementia symptoms. Many mindfulness and meditative practices and rituals are meant to reduce stress, anxiety, and help us live in the moment. Many of them encourage people to not worry about the past or future, but to be in the now, and work through one task at a time. Technology by its nature takes us from the natural human realm of face-to-face interaction, removes us from nature, and tempts us to “multitask.” I believe, by evaluating our core values, re-thinking how we relate to technology, and setting realistic boundaries for it, we can reduce the most negative effects that it can have on our and our children’s psychological, emotional, and physical development. Technology is a tool, and we must keep it as such, making it work for us, not against us. We must make sure we are living a balanced life: going for a hike, dancing with friends, taking a photo, drawing a picture, learning an instrument, or writing a book – the options are endless. Imagination is a terrible thing to waste! Don’t forget the things that make us human and that God gave us for free to enrich our lives and feed our souls. Nurture the natural, and tame the tech!