Creativity in the Age of Distraction

Cory Doctorow has written an online column titled ‘Writing in the Age of Distraction’. Most of the column is actually about carving out 20 minutes of writing time everyday. Warding off distraction and manipulating time use should be seen as two separate albeit related activities necessary for focusing on the writing task at hand. Warding off distraction is an affective capacity to block or focus on specific stimuli. I’ll get this below. ‘Time use’ implies time is a spatialised resource measurable in discrete units — be it a ticking of a clock or the ringing of a bell. I agree with what Doctorow has written and he offers plenty of insights regarding practical methods to ‘find the time’. For creatives however, time is not so happily spatialised or linear. What do I mean by this?

I have been trying to formalise my creative ‘insights’ (I am not sure what the word is to describe what I am trying to describe, they are not quite ‘insights’ I think, it is the non-material stuff of creativity that has material effects, I’d call it an event), because now instead of the ideas lulling about my mind for weeks or months, or writing about these ideas online here, I have to communicate them in a sensible fashion to my work colleagues. When an explanation is required I often have to create logical steps that explains the genesis of an idea that were not part of the actual genesis. Like humour, creative ideas often come from a composition of disparate elements, which is why I suggest ‘insight’ above as an appropriate term. An ‘insight’ is the production of a new visibility (in the Foucauldian sense) within a given discursive practice.

The disparate elements may be very familiar to any and all involved parties, but their specific combination is not. It is like pattern recognition when there is not yet a pattern, or there is a pattern, but the singularities that define the pattern as such are yet to be isolated as ‘recognised’. The non-linear dimension comes into play due to the problematic contiguity of these disparate elements. Creative insights are wrought from a near chaotic assemblage of elements, although it is not chaotic, rather there is an infinite number of patterns that can be recognised. Therefore presenting these ideas requires some artifice, lest I be mistaken for a crazy man. Imagine two lines that are nowhere near parallel or even congruent in the same topological space, it is like I need to fabricate steps in the creative process to give the illusion of them being congruent as idea moves from one to the other. (I am eliding a primary distinction between Doctorow’s piece on ‘writing’ and what I am calling ‘creativity’ in that I am talking about ideas that are meant to lead to action or change, while Docotorow is talking about the practice of writing itself.)

Now that I am literally paid to write within the temporal confines of a working day I have a weird relationship to my work and my rate and quality of output. This is where the affective dimension comes into play. Bigger creative moves or insights are constructed from the smaller ones, like a multiplicity of turning points within a system (or pattern) forming an aggregated turning point. If I stayed entirely on task the whole day, and literally only ever did what my task was at the time, then I would not be a very good employee. By warding off distraction, and not allowing an opening in the regulated habits of the repetitive aspects of my writing job, then I would be in danger of only ever seeing (or engaging with and appreciating) the same repeated patterns of action. When I start looking at elements of my tasks mildly askew that is when the conditions of creativity are ripe. Clicking through an infinite numbers of links online is not suitable, because it is mostly a passive exercise of being lead by someone else’s linking practice (in part, one of the human dimensions of what Galloway calls ‘protocol’). Creativity is an active process, and sobrely modulated distraction may very well be a necessary condition (in the Kantian sense) of creativity.