Teeth and Telling Stories

Everyone knows the best ideas come when you least expect them. They come when you’re brushing your teeth or walking over a hill or looking out of the window – as if the act of doing a mundane and mechanical thing distracts the brain just enough to let it get on with solving problems. A good idea rarely turns up when a flashing cursor tells it too, but instead might arrive when your brain feels so full it’s too busy to do anything else, or too bored to hardly move.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few reasons.

The first is work. I work in an agency, and this morning I engaged in the monthly scramble to log my time, noting every hour and half hour as if they were all equal: as if there were no minutes spent frowning at an empty Keynote document, no working through a problem at 2am and no frantic notes made while standing at a zebra crossing.

The second is my child. I’d like him to learn to be bored. Some of the best parts of my childhood came from the most boring moments – from imagining my way out of a rainy day or forcing myself to read the only book left on the shelf. But he already knows there’s always, somewhere, on some device, an episode of Octonauts to be watched, and then again I’m also A Parent Who Points Things Out, which probably doesn’t help.

And the third is because TfL are replacing an escalator at Brixton Station.

Replacing the escalator means only half the usual number of people can come in or out of the station at any given time. At rush hour, this can lead to extremely long queues that move at a trudging travelator pace. Commuting in London usually involves everyone rushing past and silently ignoring each other, but this “reduced access” turns the people who arrive together into a cohort that travels to the platform together. And, of course, almost everyone fills the frankly bottomless ennui of the queue by looking at their phone.

Picture by @_preeya_, via The Brixton Blog. Phone presumably obscured by umbrellas.

When the reduced access began last year, the painfully slow pace was made even slower by everyone taking pictures – either the marvellous phenomenon of a queue was too exciting not to Instagram, or all the just-in-time travellers were sending evidence of the delays to their bosses.

But as time has passed and people have factored the delay into their routine, I’ve been surprised by how many people use this 1 or 2 minutes of downtime as an opportunity to start watching TV. When I say it’s a queue, it’s a fairly perilous queue – it involves stairs and a ticket gate and an escalator – but for some people that isn’t an impediment to wearing headphones and holding a screen in front of their face to watch Holby City.

Now I’m aware this makes me sound like I’m a 105. For me, the most enduring thing about Lena Dunham’s book was a description of, I think, someone’s mum as “not from the generation that has TV on in the background”. And while I’m sympathetic to that kind of distraction – I do most of my best work, and all of my best sleeping, while listening to Dorothy L. Sayers audiobooks – I guess what surprises me is that this isn’t even the background, it’s generally right in front of someone’s face. And the reason I’ve noticed this is because it turns the TV watchers into people who expect to be carried by the crowd. They aren’t really contributing any effort to the task of walking into the station; they’re being moved along by the will and direction of the other bodies.

The fact that lots of people look at their phone all the time isn’t news, but it does feel as if the amounts of time that we’re able to spend alone with our thoughts is getting smaller and smaller. I’ve recently – for the first time in years – starting wearing a watch, and have been gratified by the fact that looking at the time assuages my attention deficit almost as thoroughly as checking my phone. I can now spend something between minutes and hours no longer knowing if I’ve received an email, which is progress of a sort.

And from time to time, I get mildly exercised by the bluster and campaigning that proposes everyone should learn to code. The act of creating or, more fashionably, “making” isn’t limited to coding or 3D printing; for me, digital literacy includes reading comprehension and clear written skills, and the ability to engage an audience and tell a story. Making up stories will become more and more important as we have more ways to tell them.

While writers and authors only rank as the “123rd least likely job to be computerised”, their “creative intelligence” still manages to be cited as a “bottleneck to computerisation” in Frey and Osborne’s 2013 paper, ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?“.* And while that’s a still a low risk, it’s a worrying one. If the robots can’t do it either, what will happen if no one is idling in the queue, wondering if the man in the pork pie hat is a spy or whether the two strangers are going to kiss or ticking over another problem from another time and place? If everyone’s watching TV, who will write the stories? There’s a risk that in 30 or 40 or 50 years time we could still be watching the same episodes of Holby City, because everyone forgot to have any new ideas.

And once all that had occurred to me, I felt a bit saddened by this Wired story, about Oral B’s gamification of toothbrushing – using “correct brushing” as a way to progress a story and project it on to the bathroom mirror. Because, if nothing else, we should carry on letting our minds wander while we brush our teeth for as long as we can. And if I’m honest, this is really a note to self to stop re-watching 30 Rock on my iPod and bothering my FitBit and start carrying a notebook around with me. But I’ve written it now.

*Discovered via John Lanchester, “The Robots Are Coming“, London Review of Books, 5 March 2015

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