Technology: Creative Tool or Escape Route?

Creativity and ImaginationFeatures
Artwork by: Vidushi Sharma


She turned around to give me a cursory glance while wrestling with my willful sister’s tangled curls.


It was too much. I knew, as I somehow always did, that this plan was going to fail once again.

“Never mind,” I mumbled. “Nothing.”

I was in third grade at the time, in a small Catholic school. My only friends were boys, and the only times when this caused me discomfort was when the topic of video games arose in conversation. My parents’ stance on “screen time,” which encompassed video games, television, and computers, consisted of a persistent dissuasion rather than any blatant rules or restrictions. The first (and only) time I requested a gaming device, my parents were flummoxed. Why would I want to waste my time with video games when there was an entire world outside to explore? We lived in a cozy, sunlit home bordering the Hackensack River with an endless amount of natural beauty outdoors. My parents’ unsaid boundaries regarding excessive technological use were counter-intuitive, but effective. My own guilt pushed me away from the screens in my home to piles of books, art supplies, or the wildlife surrounding me. After the few other times I ever asked for gaming devices, I felt ridiculous, even ashamed, that I had pinned my hopes on a commercialized piece of metal.

I’m sure that my parents would have succumbed if they thought that video games were something I truly desired, but I never brought the issue to that point. It became a matter of pride; I relished the ways in which my upbringing was different from others’. My childhood memories are of coloring, feeding the ducks in the river, or spending hours on the couch reading books half my size. The computer and cell phones are hazy recollections, if existent at all. Today, I use as much technology as the average teenager. My silver MacBook is often the first thing I reach for in the mornings and the last thing I stash under my bed at night. A sizeable portion of my computer use is devoted to schoolwork, but Facebook, Gmail, and even leave palpable imprints on my web history. I text every day and rarely leave the house without my scuffed blue iPod Nano.

For any 16-year-old like me in 2011, it’s inevitable that technology will (and perhaps should) play a major role in daily life. The only differentiating factor seems to be how someone uses their time away from the screen. Might our creativity and imaginations, as a generation, be hindered by technology? I am certain that my love of reading and art survives today only because of my computer-free childhood. There is no amount of browsing on the Internet that can give me the same rush as writing a poem, painting by the glow of a lightbulb at midnight, or even examining a piece of ancient Roman writing in Latin. Even then, I sometimes have a set of songs humming in the background via Pandora radio. In cases like this, technology enhances the experience. Rather than a distraction or an excuse, it is a tool to help me search for something beautiful. But in the end, there is one main difference that I perceive between kids without much early technological exposure and those who are growing up today surrounded by technology.

I can even sense differences between my 10-year-old sister and me. We’re five and a half years apart, but our interests vary greatly, almost entirely due to the fact that she’s been around technology for all her life. I am the explorer and the learner, trying always to improve intellectually or artistically. Vanita (Ita), however, is a social butterfly who is happiest indoors. She is able to adapt to different social situations with greater ease than I am because of her urge to conform within a group. She can create new visages for herself when necessary because of the social exposure she’s had in interacting with her friends online and in person. This increased flexibility is something I see in many of her friends and classmates as well; as a result, some of the simplicity associated with person-to-person interactions has disappeared. At her age, learning was something I did because I loved absorbing the information and creating my own representations. I wrote long sentences that seem pretentious now for spelling word assignments or an 11-page research paper in elementary school on Marco Polo, simply because I felt like making my projects the best, pushing the teacher’s expectations. Ita is a naturally gifted learner, but I don’t know if she has the same kind of singular motivation that I did, and it’s difficult at times to resist trying to make her into a clone of myself. I have my own idealistic moments, when all I want is to sit outside sketching, walking, reading, or learning with her. I want to be connected by that rare, otherworldly sense of coexistence that the Internet can’t provide. The problem is, our definitions of perfect “sisterly” moments usually don’t coincide. Ita is a very indoorsy person who’s usually hesitant to try new things, which is a quality that sometimes both irks and frightens me. It seems that some of her classmates or peers are incredibly disconnected from the arts of the world. They spend most of their time on something akin to Microsoft Paint, a website called Sketchfu that lets users create virtual drawings online and share them with friends. The way they use it, Sketchfu is a mini-Facebook, letting users create their own profiles and send private messages to other friends. It’s hard to remain objective, because the very idea of “drawing” online instead of from life with real materials frustrates me. Little of what happens on that website is “drawing” anyway–the few glimpses I’ve caught of my sister and her friends’ work consist almost exclusively of friendship lists, little sayings, or crude stick-figure messages to others, all woven in with the dramas of sixth-grade life.

There are disparities between myself and friends my age too, albeit to a lesser extent. I’m still close with the kids who spent a decent portion of their childhood time playing Need for Speed or watching Spongebob while I was urged to pick up a book instead. During elementary school and middle school, I felt alone in finding a genuine pleasure in learning and seeking chances to extend myself beyond the classroom. There were choices that had to be made: spend a few hours playing video games with friends or work on the last few chapters of a science book that I knew we’d never get to in class? To enroll in creative writing and math classes or to spend my weekends watching cartoons? There was always a balance—I watched my fair share of Spongebob and Fairly Odd Parents too—but the scales were tipped against heavy technological influence. As a result, my confidence as a student writer, artist, and researcher grew and formed a foundation that helps me today in school as well. I can’t help but think that my upbringing is what helps me find more academic success than the kids who were brought up constantly using electronics. Many of my closest friends today have also been raised without a heavy reliance on electronic media, and they are independent, creative, and less prone to procrastination.

The desire to latch onto something encountered in school and explore it further in outside life, or vice versa, seems to be a marking characteristic of the high-achievers who’ve grown up like me. In fact, the New York Times released an article on September 3rd exploring the place of technology in schools. The article states that, “In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.” There isn’t evidence that increased technology in schools is hurting student performance either; in fact, it seems to be magnifying the positive or negative learning patterns that are already present in individual classrooms. As a student, I know that it is all too easy for teachers to fall into the hype of using technology in a class when it is unnecessary, which ends up giving kids mindless tasks to complete or easy distractions to avoid them. Online research for school projects is integral to the way we learn, but teachers often are unable to monitor how much of an effort students make to absorb material found on websites and effectively put it to use. In the end, it’s the relationship between student and teacher motivation and stimulation that makes the difference in a classroom, not the number of laptops or Smart Boards used. The classes I enjoy most are discussion and writing-based, and rarely use any sort of technology at all. The learning is an open, person-to-person experience.

No one can possibly argue that technology is “bad,” or even fully deterrent to the creative process. Who am I to say that an hour spent walking outside has been inherently better utilized than an hour clicking through pictures on Facebook? Social communication might even be a new form of creativity; it requires a certain amount of immersion and skill to manage interactions between hundreds of friends online. Everyone knows that computers can either give users a huge amount of creative freedom or tightly restrict creativity and the imagination. Computers are an indispensable tool if used properly—for group projects, research, or digital art. More often, however, they serve as a distraction to the creative process and dampen the imagination. Why? I think that social networking interactions give more instant gratification than long-term creative projects do, usually becoming irresistible distractions. I’ve probably flipped sporadically through my email more than a dozen times while writing this very piece. Although I’m conscious that what I am doing is impeding the creative process, I can’t help but continue. I might have a greater appreciation for the values of solitude and non-technological treasures because of a childhood with limited electronic exposure, but I am still easily distracted by the Internet. And with this irresistible distraction comes my final and greatest complaint against technology. I feel that “ars gratia artis” (“art for the sake of art”) is a painfully rare phenomenon today. Earlier, if people needed breaks from work, plausible alternatives would be creating something, somehow — a drawing, a poem, a letter to a friend. Today, the Internet is an easy “break” from any type of work; browsing through online headlines or personal communication for a few minutes in between work seems innocent and fleeting.

Nonetheless, a higher reliance on technology and the constant diversion of our thoughts buries the pleasure of creation for the sake of the moment. Technology makes time deceptive. Someone who might not think he or she has an hour to spare to work on an inspired art piece may very well spend fragments of time that add up to an hour on social media websites during the day. Although the pace at which we can retrieve information online is blindingly fast, time remains a constant. What has changed is the ease of making the conscious decision to spend that time doing something that might help us discover ourselves. In today’s world, the philosophy that “everything has to have a goal” adds to the easy diversion of thought. I see in school that when most students read or write, it’s because they have an assignment to finish. Sometimes I ignore ideas with potential because I can’t see an “end point” — there doesn’t seem to be enough time to balance writing for school and writing when I really have something to say. Creativity comes from disregarding outlines. When a teacher gives me a strict step-by-step format for an essay, I’m frustrated, not relieved. Even my best academic work has come when I free myself from what might be a safe way to earn an A. It only makes sense that an audience would be passionate about reading work only when the author has been passionate about writing it. Today, when our expressions are continually buried, we turn increasingly to electronic media. Can we use technology as a tool instead of an escape route? The actions of our generation will hold the answer.

Vidushi Sharma is a junior at Ridgewood High School. Growing up in a vegetarian household in a community bordering the Hackensack River and wetlands, she has been enthusiastic about vegetarianism and environmental preservation all her life. She is rarely found traveling without her sketchbook, and is an avid reader, writer, Latin student, and tennis player (as well as Roger Federer’s number one fan.)