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How Technology Can Feed Curiosity

Throughout this series, we’ve emphasised the need to be open to insights and stimuli from outside the industry. For this final chapter in our series, I’ve decided to invite a non-planner into the fold to share with us his thoughts on curiosity, creativity and technology. Tom Chatfield is a thinker and writer that you should be following closely if you’re not already. He’s one of our most perceptive and erudite commentators on technology. If you want to understand technology’s relationship with our minds and our culture, you should read Tom. Also, read Tom if you want to get better at thinking: you can watch a video of his Ten Commandments for Critical Thinking here. I’m delighted that he’s agreed to round out this series with some thoughts on our theme.

- Ian Leslie, APG Guest Editor

Just before bedtime, my four-year-old son and I talk about his day. What are the happiest and saddest things that have happened, I ask? What is the kindest thing he has done? We only started doing this recently—and I was slightly caught out when, after a few days, he asked the same questions back to me.

Explaining how I felt about my day to a four-year-old was an impressively demanding discipline. I had cooked breakfast for mummy. I felt both sad and happy about my work, I tried to explain—although this idea required a great deal more unpacking. It’s okay to feel lots of different things about something, I said, or not to know exactly what you feel.

We talked about whether I work too much, and then about why people work at all. Eventually, I realised he was saying pretty much anything he could to delay the moment when I would switch off the lights and go downstairs—so we talked about that too.

This isn’t a parable about learning from the wisdom or innocence of children—or even about their curiosity (which, in my son’s case, sometimes feels not so much insatiable as opportunistic). For me, it’s a story about time.

I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk typing on a computer, and quite a lot of time checking my smartphone, but during bedtime routine with our two young children I try to give them my undivided attention. My bedtime conversations with my son are vivid in my mind—and have led me down unexpected avenues of self-examination—in part because they occupy a very particular kind of time: one in which I am both undistracted and open to change. There isn’t a lot of this kind of time around, either in my life or the world.

In the year 2018 (and counting), we are surrounded as never before by serendipitous possibilities: glimpses into art, information and others’ lives. But for any of this to become meaningful, we also need a time to make it our own—to allow ourselves to be changed. Otherwise, it’s little better than background noise: grist to the mill of whatever we already happen to believe, feel, wish or fear.

Neither creativity nor curiosity can be pinned down to a single definition, but each entails a shift of momentum: something that deflects us from the predictable and the already-known. One of the ironies of living in an age of algorithmic suffusion is that everything we need and care about is constantly, instantly available at the touch of a handheld screen—and thus, amid bottomless variety, all our time risks becomes the same kind of time, no matter where we are or who we are with.

I’ve already said that this isn’t a parable about children—and I should add that it isn’t a whinge about smartphones, either. The tools and resources at our fingertips should be the envy of history. Yet this exquisite superfluity of options counts for little if we lack the time to let it work upon us—to allow ourselves to be transformed.

Here, then, is the moral—for me at least. A full life requires different types and textures of time; spaces and registers within which curiosity can breed change. If we don’t cultivate the habits, environments and encounters that allow this—and this means thinking hard about how and when technology can get in the way—we may end up mistaking a cacophony of confirmations for all that we need to know.

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