It would be hard to argue against the benefits gained from the rapid adoption of smartphones in our society. So many things that were previously a challenge have become easy, a lifetime of knowledge in all subjects sits at our fingertips, and our connections to family and friends are no longer hindered by physical distance. But the rapid shift to adopt these technologies has given us little time to pause and consider whether we may have lost things as well. We no longer wear watches or travel with paper maps. We no longer find ourselves daydreaming or feeling bored while waiting in a line, or for appointment, or at the bus stop. We don’t even have to engage in conversation with our barista, ordering coffee from our phones and wordlessly walking in to pick it up off the counter.
In many cases, we don’t really understand what we have lost because it is already gone. Our generation, the last to straddle the world of “before phones” and “after phones” may be the one closest to truly understanding the gravity of this transition. We’ve gained so much from our technology: knowledge at our fingertips, ability to do simple things more quickly. We are never lost, we are never alone, we are never bored. As Michael Harris unpacks deeply in his book The End of Absence, we have lost the absences in our lives. And with them, many good things that we value as human beings
Perhaps one of our biggest losses is the opportunity to feel boredom. In her study of the impact of smartphones on boredom, Manoush Zamorodi implores us to seek out boredom and give our minds time to wander aimlessly. Zamorodi believes we are robbing ourselves of valuable time spent in the “default mode,” or the pattern of thinking that often leads to our greatest, most creative ideas. When our brains enter the default mode, they make connections between what we already know, and new knowledge gathered throughout our days. It’s our processing time. Without this time, when we are buried in the constant bustle of our busy days, we don’t have the opportunity to go deep and explore complex solutions to problems. We also lack the mental space to integrate new knowledge into our thinking, and commit it to long-term memory in the permanent records of our brains.
Cal Newport encourages the same, asking us to seek out boredom in order to go deeper and produce more meaningful work. Newport emphasizes the importance of “productive meditation,” engaging yourself physically so that your mind can work on a single, well-defined problem. He suggests physical activities, such as running, walking, or my personal favorite, swimming, to physically occupy your body in order to free your mind. When you enter into these periods of productive meditation, you should identify a specific problem you want to work through, mentally map out all of the variables, and then iterate possible solutions in order to solve the problem.
But physical exercise is not the only way to get your brain into the default mode, or to enter into productive meditation. Repetitive handcrafts, such as knitting, crocheting, embroidery, cross-stitch, quilting, or sewing can also bring us into this mental space. When we find ourselves deeply engaged in handcrafts, we enter into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, a state of mind that’s completely engrossing and provides us with profound feelings of happiness. In this state, we can also begin to work through problems that are puzzling us, or contemplate new concepts we are exploring. This state of mind also works to reduce stress and enhance mindfulness, both of which can positively contribute to our overall well-being. These mental states are essential for our ability to produce deep and meaningful work in our lives, and to find purpose and fulfillment in all that we do.
Based on research into the impact of technology on our brains, Adam Gassaley and David Rosen encourage us to take frequent technology breaks. They write, “Whatever relaxes you and takes you away from your overstimulating technological environment will help you re-engage with greater arousal, more capacity for attention, and less susceptibility to being interrupted.”
If we can’t go back, can’t turn around, can’t power down or shut off, we can at least look for ways to mitigate the negative impact of these devices on our lives and our thinking. One way back is through our hands, through the act of making things, manifesting something new from tactile materials, using our brains creatively for production rather than consumption.
Making things by hand is the antithesis to the digital age. Making things by hand demands our time and patience. The act of creating requires tangible elements and creates diverse tactile sensations. It’s a physical process of tapping into part of your brain not used by technology. It’s slow and often haphazard, unlike the fast methodical processing of a computer. It just might be the remedy to give us back all that we have lost.