Years ago while on co-op I was having lunch with Mark M, one of the lead technical people at the company. April 1st was fast approaching, so the conversation was obviously focused on pranks we could pull on a co-worker. The standard ideas were tossed out like Saran-wrapped car, cubicle filling, and changing the walls of the cubicles. But since we worked for a company that was only 7 or 8 years old we figured we could get away with something a little more 'interesting'.
Being the college student, I suggested that we go to Google and find something that other people have done. Mind you, this was when Google was just a search engine – before Gmail even started their invites, making the idea fresh enough to bring up. Mark kind of shrugged at the internet approach and mentioned that my generation of engineers relied too heavily on the internet for ideas. He thought it stifled creativity – squashing the moment when someone comes up with a truly unique thought by framing the start of brainstorming with a list of how others approached the problem in the past. Not wanting to be branded as the 'stupid co-op,' I countered that Google only jump starts the creativity process; my generation's broad use of the internet was simply a reflection of how easy it had become to do fast, broad, and shallow research.
Fast-forward to these past few weeks where I rarely had my laptop, and the only internet I could access was random free Wifi. I couldn't even get a decent 3G connection with my phone! When exploring new ideas that would come to me throughout my day, I confess the first thing I thought was, “Dammit, I can't pop over to Google and see what comes up!” Sometimes it even frustrated me to the point of making a mental note to check it out later; and we all know what happens to 'mental notes':
Quote from Mr. Burns when Maggie give him his teddy bear, Bobo:
Burns: I'm actually happy! Take a note! From now on I'm only going to be good and kind to everyone!
Smithers: I'm sorry sir, I'm don't have a pencil.
Burns: Eh, don't worry, I'm sure I'll remember it.
What was surprising to me was that the lack of consistent internet acted as a creativity hurdle; almost as if a major tool in my problem solving arsenal was gone. I immediately flashed back to the lunchtime conversation from years ago – was Mark right? Did he predict the negative side to having a seemingly infinite source of information at our fingertips? I decided that I would embrace my analog notebook and continue as people did decades ago by working a problem on paper.
I wish I could say that I swore off the internet for a while to regain my sense of creative independence from the internet. But instead my broadband connection was finally installed and like a true addict, I quickly returned to spending the majority of my workday on the internet. Although I must be frank, the first day back was insanely productive. Exploring ideas I had thought out myself in my notebook charged forward. But by the second day I was back to running a search within moments after hatching an idea.
Not to waste a good experience, I implemented a significant change: I now take some time with each idea and hash it out with my notebook. I take ideas to the point where I know exactly what I want and how I will start my search. Yes, it takes an extra 30-60 minutes, but I've noticed my searching is more focused and fast (but sadly not fast enough to pay for the brainstorming session). Upon discussing this phenomenon with GardenState, another E14 member, he brought up that a 'smart agent' for search engines will be the next step in search technology. Something along the lines of Wolfram Alpha, but more advanced in the direction of IBM's Watson. An 'intuitive' understanding of what users want based on vague search terms will surely make my brainstorming sessions obsolete by being faster and more far-reaching. But will it compound the possible problem discussed here of people not coming up with ideas on their own?
Even with the current search technology I am worried that the time pressures of work will slowly shrink my brainstorming time to irrelevance. Is anyone else worried about search ruining creativity? And even more interestingly, has anyone else tried disconnecting in a similar manner to prevent creativity loss? I'm open to ideas, and love experimenting!