Nostalgia and Creativity in the Digital World

Why boredom is beautiful.

There are a few years back there, around the age of ten to fifteen, when every experience burns deep, etching a permanent groove that you can’t help but run your mind’s finger over for the rest of your years. Maybe only dementia or death can shake those adolescent memories loose. During those summers time disappears into a haze, as the carefree youth crashes into the weighty burden of adult emotions, resulting in the prolific creation of new ideas, new feelings — idolizing girls, deifying musicians, and bad attempts at teenage poetry.

Those endless teenage summers have been well documented in music, from Bryan Adams (“Summer of ‘69”) to Ryan Adams (“When The Summer Ends”) and everyone else in between. Why do those years produce such reverie, and can we ever find that timelessness again? Does the modern teenager still experience that space, or has our proclivity for instant hits of wireless notifications crowded out that precious place where creativity is given the room to spark? Is it just nostalgia or has the world really changed?

I did most of my amateur philosophizing sat in the back of the family car staring at a passing hedgerow. A few years later I considered my place in the universe while idly pumping petrol into my Peugeot 206, I wrote awful poems and sentimental letters riding a slow bus to London, staring at the back of a cigarette burnt headrest. Nowadays all of these activities are invariably carried out with a digital screen within arm’s reach, relieving the mind of any real introspection or creativity.

They say that the reason that time passes so slowly when you’re young is purely mathematical — to a ten-year-old one year represents ten percent of their short life, but to me, at thirty-five, it’s barely three percent. But that timelessness of adolescence is far more monumental than a bottom heavy ratio, as a ten-year-old boy on a dairy farm in England time really didn’t exist at all, a summer felt like forever — one hundred percent.

The truth is probably more biological than mathematical. Those formative years are just that, because while your brain cells have evolved enough to store memories, they are still growing. Every teenage moment of fondness, sadness or worry embeds itself into a growing brain as an all-consuming matter of love, tragedy and existential crisis, deep into the tissue, like trying to paint a clay pot while it’s still spinning wet.

One particularly entrenched blissful memory of mine is riding on top of a trailer full of hay bales with my brother, bouncing across the field as Dad drove the tractor pulling us along the golden hill. So much of that idyllic imagery must be nostalgic optimism — a quick check on any meteorological data shows that in the late 80s, as now, the sun only really shone for 10% of the time in England. To me, it was always sunny.

My lenses are so rose-tinted that to this day I relish the smell of bovine feces, purely because it surrounded me in those formative years. My wife laughs at me for this now. Nostalgia literally makes shit smell good to me.

I know that actually those moments were no more unique to my generation than any other time. Right now, as I type, a couple blocks away by the creek in the park kids are forming those same indelible memories. But in this digital age I can’t help but think something has changed.

Have those creative excursions in which brain stumbles upon new ground been ambushed by digital notifications?

A lawn chair in England, sometime in the 1990s

How do you find those bundles of distant poetic synapses? In space, emptiness, boredom. By clearing your mind, lying in the grass on an English summer’s day to let the sound of finches and a distant New York bound Boeing 747 wallow in your ears. Back then it was easy to find yourself in that open tranquility, now it involves actively putting your device into “airplane” mode, and dealing with the modern anxiety of being unreachable. When you turn your phone off do you feel anxious or free?

Maybe our parents thought the same as we were children, worrying about the chaos of having two televisions in the house. But at least when we stepped outside onto the grass we didn’t have the screen in our pocket. Maybe this is all just part of the relentless slide into a busier technological era. When The Internet Of Things is omnipotent, we’ll be interacting with every blade of grass.

Of course, you don’t need to be sleeping in an English meadow to find solace (although it does help). When was the last time you sat down in an uber or lined up at the post office without pulling your phone out? No one complains about being bored anymore, and that has inversely correlated with the digital revolution. But if boredom leads to sparks of creativity, then boredom is good.

There are almost as many articles about why we should turn our phones off as there are songs about endless summers — we all know how to find that solace, but we’re just too distracted or busy to act on it. Or maybe we’re scared of confronting ourselves. It used to be that if you were scared of your own thoughts you’d have to read the shampoo bottle while on the toilet.

Kierkegaard said that this need to escape the present by keeping ourselves busy is our greatest source of unhappiness.

Creating a void of external digital stimulus may initially feel like the onset of boredom, a negative emotion, but your mind is actually being forced into the present, forced to deal with the earth and air around you. Once there it can explore, take a dive down unknown paths and create things previously stunted by the immediate rush of digital light.

Devon, Early 90s

Great works of art have been conceived in this space, Walden, Desolation Angels, The Monkey Wrench Gang, and the entire works of Nick Drake would not exist had he not found the time to let the natural world fall into his mind. And those are just examples that explicitly reference the world outside.

Henry Miller wrote about the importance of letting your mind find its own rhythm…

The acceptance of the situation, any situation, brings about a flow, a rhythmic impulse towards self-expression. To relax is, of course, the first thing a dancer has to learn.

It’s in those synthetically rushed, shallow, digitally driven moments that the worst human characteristics seem to come to the fore — anger, trolling, resentment and the worst of these, cynicism, are grown in an overwhelmed and irritable mind — an assumption of negativity from those you interact with, hard to argue with after spending much time on Twitter or buried in the quagmire of YouTube comments.

The digital world is encased in an emotional buffer — you click through a hundred dog shelter ads online without a second thought, but if an emaciated mutt was to approach your front door, you’d probably offer it some water.

Even the action of using a digital device is somehow imbued with negativity. See a young couple both tapping their phones at breakfast and it’s easy to snark that they are disconnected from each other, see an old couple both reading the morning newspaper and it’s charming.

We haven’t found ourselves in a constant state of distraction reluctantly. It’s all on us. There’s nothing to stop me walking outside and sitting on a patch of freshly cut grass for an hour this second, but instead, through modern conditioning, I’m staring at a screen awaiting the hit of the inbox ping, instantly and synthetically relieving me of the burden of my own thoughts, at least for a minute or two.

It seems that in the digital era the only way to satisfy this need for solace comes in forcing, organizing a scheduled break — thirty minutes transcendental meditation before the commute; twenty sun salutations before dinner, or installing apps, like Freedom, that forces a writer’s internet connection to go down for an hour. Even the name of that popular app suggests that the opposite is incarceration.

Sometimes all it takes is walking outside at dusk, the magic hour as it’s known in film, for a few seconds. If you’re lucky you can let your mind take a step back and objectively frame the timelessness of nature, creating one of those drifting cinematic moments that only Terrence Malick or Ingmar Bergman has ever got on screen.

The emotional weight of early memories is hefty, likely because it was those events that set the trajectory of all your future interactions and relationships. Sometimes your brain will find those distant reveries when you least expect it.

I was recently cooking in the kitchen with friends. My two-year-old daughter ran in and asked me for an apple. I offered to cut it up for her, but she wanted it whole, “Like a ball”. She took the shiny honey crisp and tried to take a bite but couldn’t get through the tough skin. She handed me the apple and said “Daddy, you need to bite it first, so I can bite it.” I took a bite and gave it back to her and she ran off joyously chomping. My friend was instantly overcome, some dormant synapse in his brain suddenly fired — he didn’t say much but just looked up over his glass of wine and told me “Huh, I just remembered doing the same thing with my dad.” As though he’d just discovered a new earliest memory, a memory that may well forever forward affect his relationship with his father.

Higher House Farm, Devon around 1997

The Europeans used to call nostalgia Mal du Suisse, the “Swiss Illness”, due to Swiss mercenaries in the plains of the French lowlands pining for their native mountain landscapes. That yearning for the simplicity of youth is, of course, common in every generation, and maybe modern technology is merely the Millenial’s scapegoat.

I’m sure that during that perfect moment bouncing around on the hay bales my dad, in the tractor cab below, was worrying about the price of hay, wondering if that pain in his wrist was arthritis, and possibly even remembering when things were easier, before the abundance of motorized vehicles, when he would ride on horseback across the same field with his dad, thirty years before.