Consumption, Noise, and Creativity


In high school, I knew a kid named Dave. Dave and I didn't know each other too well, but we were in many of the same classes. I had this idea of him as a thoughtful, relatively quiet sort, who occasionally appreciated my inane silliness. That was and is our relationship. After going our separate ways for college, we haven't spoken. This is regrettable, but the way of life for many college freshmen.

But during our senior year we, as well as all of our classmates, had ample free time to wile away in the cafeteria, inventing little games and talking about who knows what. As it happened, there was a good deal of crossing over between cliques during this period, so I often found myself chatting idly with someone with whom I shared only a loose social association, someone like Dave.

One day, I'm talking with Dave, and he mentions that he is thinking about getting a tattoo.

"What of?" I inquire politely, expecting something either wholly generic, or symbolically or personally inscrutable.

He replies: "The word creya, written in red here." He pointed to his collarbone. Now, my curiosity piqued, I asked him to explain.

Although I now forget which language the word was in, he told me, "Creya is the imperative of 'create'. The reason for that is because I'm so sick of people just consuming constantly and producing nothing. It's just..." He let out a frustrated sigh.

I was floored by his answer. For one, this relatively unknown person suddenly gained a previously unhinted depth and texture of personality. I later found out that he was not only an avid reader and writer of poetry, but he was also the lead singer in quite a good band comprised of other students from my school. I regret that I did not talk with him more, and it makes me wonder about all the potential depth and creativity that I missed in my other classmates.

But the second reason his answer surprised me was that it resonated with my own thoughts. It was startling to hear how someone I barely knew shared almost my exact thoughts on a relatively obscure topic. For that year, I had been thinking a lot about creativity and the role of constant consumption in place of creation. In fact, he used almost the exact same words I had used when thinking on these topics, and his tone closely echoed my own frustration.

So what I hope to do in this essay is convey my thoughts and feelings on these matters of consumption and creativity, and, in doing so, inspire you to think more deeply about them in your own life, recognize them as problems, and from this realization, grow creatively.

To begin, what exactly do I mean by consumption? This word, depending on context, can be loaded with all sorts of extraneous meanings. For example, consider the following phrases: "consumer culture", "the snake consumed the mouse", "he was consumed by greed", "this lamp consumes more electricity than that one", and so on. Each of these phrases has varying and subtly different meanings.

As hinted at in the preceding story, when I talk about consumption, I'm talking very specifically about the consumption of media such as television, movies, music, books, websites, videogames, advertisements, text messages, and conversations with friends; essentially anything that can be passively transmitted to you with virtually no work done on your part.

In some regards, this idea mirrors the "consumer culture" listed above. However, in my mind, this phrase evokes feelings of undesirability and anarchy that I wish to distance myself from. It is true that we are a consumer culture in that, generally, we've specialized to the point where we make very few things and consume a large number of things made for us. Seen from the perspective of economics or evolution, this is not a bad thing. Specialization is a necessary step in the growth of an economy or a species, and allows both to achieve higher states than otherwise. It is my argument that for the individual psyche, though, consumption of media leads to a languishing of talents and creative energy.

The opposite of this languishing is growth. Growth means we are using our talents and energy for constructive purposes, either literally in the sense of making physical things, or figuratively in achieving higher states of consciousness. To illustrate why growth is good, consider Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's incredibly lucid book, Flow. In it, he says,

[Flow activities] provided a sense of discovery [in his studies], a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth lies the key to flow activities...

When challenges and skills were both high [people] felt happier, more cheerful, stronger, more active; they concentrated more; they felt more creative and satisfied.

Growth, then, is a positive and desirable goal.

Much of the languishing I'm so frustrated with, the lack of growth I see in myself and others, resides in consumption. For most people, consumption seems to be a passive process. We sit in front of the TV and zone out, letting the TV do the thinking. We indifferently browse the internet. We escape into a movie. These activities are fine and even necessary some of the time (everybody needs to decompress now and again). However, to make this type of consumption a habit is damaging because it affords no new opportunities for growth. Most of us need external stimuli and media to function, as there are many interesting ideas, skills, emotions, etc. that we can only perceive and internalize through these channels. This type of media consumption, what I call active consumption, can and often does lead to growth. However, the process of passive consumption—described in the sedentary activities above—does not. Passive consumption leads to a static, unchanging mind, whereas active consumption and creation offer opportunities for higher states of consciousness (i.e. growth).

One way to understand the static mindset and the type of consumption that brings this about is through the metaphor of signal processing. Specifically, signal noise. In this concept, noise is unnecessary "filler" information. Media that is passively consumed is like this noise: it is ultimately worthless. It is just coherent enough so that the mind can latch onto it and not think, not take the hard path of making signal, the kind of growth we're looking for. Unless consciousness is structured or directed, silence can be a terrifying experience. When the mind is undirected by external stimuli or media, feelings of boredom, depression, and existential angst spurt from the mind's cracks**For more thoughts on boredom (although less developed than my current views), see my article, Boredom.. Its effects closely mirror the effects of extended sensory deprivation. One way of dealing with unwanted silence, then, is to constantly fill up one's life with relatively meaningless noise, or passively consume media, as I call it.****My corollary to this rule: anything that makes people shut up is a good thing on some level.

For example, my roommate in my freshman year of college never experienced any silence, to the point where I became angry, not because the literal noise bothered me, but because the seeming pointlessness and lack of growth in his life was so total as to be agitating. When he was not doing homework (which was often), he'd be consuming something. He always had the TV on (to Fox News, no less), was always listening to music or watching TV shows online. He said he'd been working his way through every episode of The Simpsons and that when he finished he would start right back at the beginning. When he went anywhere, he would put on his headphones and block out the world entirely, being oblivious when confronted with someone he knew in the street or at the dining hall. He told me himself that he had no friends at the college, so did not need to expend energy in maintaining relationships. Even in situations where silence is essentially required, like in the shower, he would mutter or sing to himself, presumably to drown out the corrosive effects of an undirected mind. He became so dependent on noise that he even had trouble falling asleep when the TV wasn't on. Yes, he was a bad roommate, and yes, I am somewhat bitter about it, but his reliance on noise helped to clarify my own feelings about consumption.

Now, what is noticeably lacking in his behavior is any expenditure of real energy. It seems that whenever he could experience any amount of boredom, he crammed some type of media into his brain. Growth is an inherently energy-intensive process; most things that lead to positive feelings in one's life are going to take work. A useful notion is the endergonic reaction in chemistry. This type of reaction uses energy to make new chemical bonds, thus creating structure. This is the essential difference between active consumption/creation and passive consumption. Whereas the former requires energy input, the latter requires nothing, and can, in fact, take energy. Extending the chemical metaphor, passive creation is entropy, the dissemination and random distribution of energy. Chaos. It is watching every episode of The Simpsons and starting over once the end is reached. It leads nowhere, only in ever-constricting circles. Instead of contributing to chaos by passively consuming, we should be using our energy to make something, whether it's connections in our minds or the physical or quasi-physical representation of an idea realized through creation.

This is where I differentiate between active consumption and creation. Active consumption, while not explicitly making something, requires energy input. If one is actively consuming media, they are analyzing, comparing, contrasting, imagining, and most importantly, learning from the experience to achieve higher levels of thinking. Creation, then, is the process of using this knowledge to make something. What is interesting is that making something is almost always a learning process, as well. The entire routine creates what Douglas Hofstadter might call a strange positive feedback loop, where the process of creating, in turn, contributes to learning, and can then be used in further creating** See my creative collaboration, On the Other Side of the Mirror for more thoughts on the creative process. (and so on). Taken all together, the dual processes of learning and creation lead to a higher complexity of self, and a rewarding sense of personal improvement and growth.

Reading and writing are two areas where I have personally felt these rewards, and I am sure many others have as well. Reading, I think, makes it easier to actively gain knowledge than in consuming other types of media. One is already consuming at a higher level of abstraction than in other media by turning written symbols into relatable concepts, such as images or emotions. It nearly requires an input of energy just to consume. I think that this is part of the reason that people often achieve flow during reading and that reading is such an unpopular activity among my generation. Few other types of media require energy input, and thus people follow the path of least resistance.

Writing, complementarily, uses energy to translate thoughts into language. Abstract ideas and fictions in the author's mind are hewn into (hopefully intelligible) words and phrases. This translation process is a complex and subtle art, and necessarily requires a high level of thinking. Writing can also create a higher clarity of thought and help structure one's world. It seems the mere act of trying to put something into words makes one more fully understand their own thoughts. More, the process of writing modifies the consumption of written language, as its mechanisms are explored at one's own hands. For example, writing fiction gives one a better understanding of the processes of character development and plot expansion, and thus allows one to read more in-depth, both on the level of in-story analysis, and extra-story creation.

It is important to note that reading and writing both require the use of constructive energy. Writing, especially, uses a lot energy, and the more energy one puts into something, the more satisfying that activity will be. In fact, any creative act requires a large input of energy, by definition. Whereas consumption can be either passive or active, creation is necessarily always active, and will then lead to a greater complexity of self. People tend to feel good after they've created something, partly because of a certain catharsis of expending energy for some goal and partly because of the sheer satisfaction of seeing their ideas realized. It is difficult, no doubt, to create anything, as it goes against the grain of entropy, but I think doing so improves one's overall quality of life by contributing to psychic growth.

I would further add that the more constructive energy put into a task, the more growth that occurs. While there is no strictly "passive" creation, there are certainly levels of energy usage, not to mention that that energy can be used for destructive purposes as well. One can expend energy by stealing or murdering, but this does not lead to personal growth. Likewise, arguing frivolously with someone is an expenditure of creative energy, but it's not really constructive. The amount of growth that a creative activity lends itself to varies among types of activities and people, too. What could be an astounding expansion in capabilities for one person could be altogether worthless (or even harmful!) to another. So as best I can tell, one needs to be keenly aware of what kind of activities may lead to new depth of character in oneself.

One aspect of human activity that is tightly integrated with positive energy expenditure is relationships. I specifically have in mind romantic relationships, but the same concepts apply to any constructive person-to-person relationship. To me, a good relationship requires a deep engagement from both partners that leads to an ever-increasing complexity. The primary path to growth is in conversing with one's partner. When listening, one is actively consuming his or her partner's thoughts and integrating them into a complete picture of that person and one's relationship. Likewise, when talking, one is trying to elicit in their partner this same type of engagement and create more meaningful personal connections. This give and take is part of a deeper relational engagement that, one hopes, will one day lead to, well, engagement. Spoken of in such a dry manner, it is not clear that I am talking about the same relationships that bring so much joy, pain, longing, and satisfaction to humans. The growth I'm talking about in this context is simply the development of love in a relationship. For love to bloom and mature, both partners have to be actively engaged in the relationship. If one or both people are passively engaged (or even at the bare minimum of active engagement, as explained in the previous paragraph), then the relationship isn't healthy and cannot last. The more constructive energy put into any relationship by both partners, the more likely that relationship will succeed. My speculation is that there is a possible connection between peoples' lack of engagement in both media and relationships (as evidenced by the high rate of divorce), but only time will tell.

Luckily, the world isn't entirely filled with passive consumers. There are plenty of people creating both commercially and personally, making art, writing good TV shows, constructing buildings, building relationships, etc. With more leisure time and better tools for making and distributing information**Of course, better information distrubtion has also contributed immensely to the problem of passive consumption by making a lot more media—and bad media at that—easily available. My realization of this fact is partially what sparked this essay., more people are creating than ever before. In fact, types of media we've never even seen before are cropping up, and it is a very exciting time to be alive, with so much potential creative energy at hand. All we need to do to harness this energy is stop consuming for a bit and make something. We will grow as people and find our quality of life increasing. So what are you waiting for? Creya.