Imagine standing in line at the bank. Based on the number of customers ahead of you, you roughly calculate the time it will take until your turn to be served. You use your estimated free time to:
b) Contemplate remaining tasks on personal to-do list
c) Lament the financial industry as a whole while devising a complex scheme of burying cash reserves in corrosion-proof coffee cans in your backyard
The answer is likely d) None of the Above. If you are like me, you’ll grab your phone to check Facebook, Twitter, email and review any new viral cat-related videos on YouTube you may have missed since this morning.
Advances in technology continue to reduce our time in a state of boredom. Our phones provide instant access to information and entertainment on demand. While the idea of streaming realtime data is relatively fresh, human’s desire to demand more of what we want, when we want it is certainly not a new concept.
Man harnessed fire to be warm on demand instead of patiently waiting for the Ice Age to end.
We created the telescope for on demand access to the stars. (Not to be confused with “Access Hollywood” or “Entertainment Tonight” — both notable creations in their own right.)
The Internet was invented so my mother-in-law can efficiently collect computer viruses I’ll need to extinguish later — on demand.
3-D printing has given us the ability to create an almost limitless inventory of physical objects, on our demand (medical devices, car parts, tools, prototypes). We can print a 3-D lime green plastic likeness of my left pinky toe, 31/32nd size, simply because we DEMAND to do so. (Because why wouldn’t you?)
Technological advancements like these have provided humanity with comfort and convenience. However, as we continue DEMANDING instant fulfillment of our own needs, wants and whims, do we eventually hit a point of diminishing returns? We now have the ability to fill every free moment of every day as a consumer of information and entertainment. Free time is so scarce, it’s almost a mythical concept — like mermaids and bipartisan health-care reform. Spending that time productively is more challenging than ever. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. I can dance at weddings and mow my lawn shirtless, but that doesn’t mean those are good ideas.
Speaking of crimes against humanity, what if the brilliant minds of yesterday had access to the same time sucks we have today? Maybe Beethoven would have stopped at Symphony No.4 if he had a Netflix account. He would have really enjoyed that closed captioning feature. Imagine Benjamin Franklin posting selfies of his new bifocal lenses on social media instead of spending his time discovering electricity. (I realize that doesn’t make sense as social media technically requires electricity. Just go with it.) J.R.R. Tolkien spent 16 years writing the Lord of the Rings trilogy — roughly the same amount of digital programming currently stored on my DVR. That guy had no room for extra distractions.
These pioneers spent their time giving to the world instead of taking from it. Creating instead of consuming. Today we have the same opportunities to produce, but also have unprecedented temptation to exist in a perpetual state of consumption. The more time we spend consuming, the less time we have to create. Try as we might, we can’t stream inspiration. We can’t download innovation. The really good ideas come in moments of quiet. Perhaps even in — Heaven forbid — moments of boredom.
So next time you are waiting in line, put the phone away and just let your mind wander. Maybe you’ll come up with humanity’s next great idea.
Footnote: It only took me three months to write this column. Eat your heart out Tolkien! I would have finished sooner, but I was wasting time watching cat videos and looking up useless information on the Internet, like, “How long did it take Tolkien to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy?”