When Ernest Hemingway would stand at his desk, he had a funny habit as he wrote: when he was working on the tough bits he'd write in his boyish, punctuation-disregarding longhand. Once the juice started to flow, he'd switch to the typewriter.
Hemingway was moving between unmediated and mediated work: the pencil to his page was unmediated, the typewriter mediated. The analog helped to find flow, the mediated helped find efficiency.
As Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, would argue, working in analog or mediated ways changes how our brains and thoughts behave: anyone who's ever received a serendipitous answer from someone on Twitter has experienced how technology can amplify our social thinking, while at the same time if you've put off your projects because you're fiddling on Facebook, you know much tech can distract us—to the point of changing the structure of our brains.
The point Thompson makes in the book isn't that online is good and offline is bad, but that we need to have different sorts of stimulation in order to have the best ideas. Our brains get easily distracted when we do one thing again and again. Just as it's unhealthy to eat only one kind of food all the time, you shouldn't have one kind of stimuli for your work.
Thompson has a term for this kind mindfulness of media: cognitive diversity. As he explained to Psychology Today:
If you're a person that works with words all day long like I do it’s really good to do something completely nonverbal in your spare time. I’m an instrumentalist, so I’ll play guitar for half an hour at the end of the day and it’s a fabulous way to put my brain in a totally different embodied state. I often come away from it having solved some sort of problem. And it is very emotionally valuable as well, which exercises whole other parts of my personality.
These are all things that are connected to the quality of our overall lives and thinking. Knowing when to shift between public and private thinking—when to blast an idea online, when to let it slow bake—is a crucial new skill: cognitive diversity.
Why is this so important? Because, Thompson says, doing things that are different than the keyboard-hammering so many of us spend our days with drags our minds into different modes of thought.
Reading immersively, going for long walks, arguing with your friend at a bar: these throw our minds into new environments, allowing the problems we've been thinking so hard on to hang out in our subconscious for a while and bump into other ideas.
It's the same reason we get ideas in the shower, he says: When you spend most of your time with one technology, you'll be limiting yourself to the way of thinking that technology encourages.
The challenge for us thought-loaded screenfaces, then, is to find ways to get our faces in front of other forms of life, be they paintings, forests, or curries. Then our thinking can have, like Hemingway, a little more character.
Hat tip: Psychology Today