Rediscovering introspection, thinking in anti-thinking times, and counter-attacking the Attention Thieves—why no time to write means no time to think, and what you can do about it.
Since its advent, writing has fulfilled the crucial role of being a means through which human beings create and develop knowledge. Not only has it allowed knowledge to be passed along generations—it was the way much of that knowledge was birthed, nurtured, understood, actualised. The symbiotic relationship of our conversational abilities and lack of specialisation was what enabled us to edge out all the other human species, including the much stronger and faster neanderthals. Conversation has been core to our evolution.
But conversations has its limitations. It requires more than one person, a common language, a safe place, good faith, and that at least one but preferably all participants are comfortable enough to share controversial ideas. And in previous years, long before any realistic notion of free speech, certain conversation topics were so forbidden that people were murdered1. The limitations and constraints of conversation speak directly to the power and need for writing, an activity done by the individual, usually in private, and, if desired, anonymously. Publishing is optional, the work can be destroyed, and anything goes. Writing allows for the entertainment and development of all possible ideas an individual could conceived of; on the other hand, conversation with even the most trusted party involves at least some degree of avoidance of certain topics, questions, words, and so on.
The seldom-acknowledged elephants in the conversation space—think sex, politics, one’s ugly past—are fertile ground for new ideas precisely because they’re thought about in the open so infrequently. Breakthroughs occur when dangerous or forbidden subjects are discussed; for example, it’s no coincidence that control of speech is the primary strategy adopted by authoritarian regimes intent on keep people ‘in their lane’. In writing, there are no commandments, constitutions, no rules, meaning that any idea, no matter how sketchy or greasy or terrifying, can be thought about and therefore understood.
Understanding is developed through explanation and practice, and where practice in the form of physical action or experimentation isn’t possible, explanation is the practice. And where the explanation can’t be delivered between persons via conversation, perhaps it can in writing; and where it can’t be or need not be shared, it is through writing that it can be developed and refined. The act of writing something on X forces my own better understanding about X. The articulation of some piece of intuitive or implicit knowledge also makes it available for use in other domains—something I call increasing its cross-domain availability (CDA). By enforcing coherency, logic, simplicity, clarity, and shareability, writing makes me a better thinker.
As a practice and art form, writing has always and continues to be fundamental to the way us humans make discoveries, innovate, and ensure the continuity of knowledge across generations. But it has never been more important than it is today, an age when there is always something immediate to do, and always something more attractive and stimulating than what most needs to be done, such as wrestling with one’s own ideas, or formulating a cogent worldview. Our responsibility list is ever-growing, and the internet means we’re always only a few taps away from porn, the facebook news feed, infinite amounts of possibly enjoyable content, and all the world’s information. We’re also at the beck and call of our bosses, friends, and family: we’re only ever just one message and thirty seconds away, no matter our location or current task.
Putting aside all further negative (and positive) arguments about such a world as the one we’re in, what can’t be denied is that it’s a direct attack on time which in years past might be spent in thought, either individually or in groups, about, well, anything—philosophy, politics, the cosmos, love, or science; or plumbing, the first principles of carpentry, what it means to be a man, the beauty and ugliness of a flower, or the origins of Jainism. Time spent idling, undistracted by nothing forwardly penetrative, is a critically underrated element of creativity—and that’s just in the unconscious sense. In the conscious sense, I find it much harder to sit down and write after exiting an internet wave, and even just the awareness of the possibility of another ride is a persistent impediment on my interest to get some proper work done. The distinct difference of import here between former years and 2020 is the absence of free time.
When it comes the development of your ideas, more free time means less need for writing. Why? First, you can only write so much before tiredness and boredom takes over. Second, the magic can play out in other places—on walks, during commute, in the shower, whilst staring at the stars, applied imagination à la Einstein. Today however, walks and commit are accompanied by music and podcasts, showers are rushed, nobody stares at the stars, and exercises in imagination seem apparently impossible when there are so many other things to do right now. Herein lies the reason that today, writing—and preferably, a writing practice—is more useful than ever. The probability that you’ll find free time to think, and that you’ll use the free time to think, is miserably low. A commitment to writing, be it a practice or just for an hour, is a direct counterattack on the current culture that wants and has claimed so much of your attention. It’s a rebellious act of defiance done in the name of nourishing your mind and securing a better future—that might sound poetic, but it’s nothing more than a cold truth.
If you don’t thinking seriously enough that you never separate yourself from the network and ‘go to work’ you can pretty much say goodbye to any chances of heterodox thought and the discovery of solutions to chronic or even urgent problems, problems of the personal and parochial type, or of the type humanity has been wrestling with for millennia and as they pertain to your life. Even if your goal isn’t to write the Great Novel or Cure Cancer, any problems you’re currently entertaining have the potential to be aided through applied thought. And the way to do that, today, is with a commitment to writing or some equivalent means by which you can get some sense-making done.
Sitting down with a pen and paper, a blank page in Evernote, or just your mind and nothing else, is a forcing function2 for deliberation and introspection. The idea is that you will get something done, that you will make some progress, tangible or otherwise. Something is not always better than nothing, but pertaining to this goal and in during this age, it’s an absolute truth of the utmost importance.
- To mention the obvious cases: Socrates, Seneca, Epicurus had he not escaped, Jesus…
- Peer-review is a forcing function for groundbreaking academic wiring (or rather, that’s the wish), the opinion of your crush is a forcing function for hygiene and use of cologne, the wrath of your boss and flexibility of your bonus is a forcing function for good punctuation and work ethic. Forcing functions are the hidden drivers of the economy, the motivators behind our behaviours, and hence very helpful things to be aware of.