In January of 2000 I was sitting pretty high. RoboCop Prime Directives was nearing the end of its production cycle and I was living my life as a screenwriter with a bright future. I had money in the bank, I had just upgraded to a very nice apartment in a nice area of Toronto, and my Monday-to-Friday was occupied by writing. My weekends were movies and activities and hanging out with friends, at bars, at pool halls, or coffee shops. I’d even managed to pay back my student loans.
It was a much different life than the one I have today. Today I’m a husband and father; I live on a nice, tree-lined street in a prosperous suburb of one of New England’s larger cities. I still spend my days writing but those days are broken up by school drop-offs and pickups, chores and errands, and general day-to-day life stuff.
The world has changed. My world has changed. But one area where it has not changed, thankfully, is that I still allow myself the simple pleasures of being bored.
It’s why I gave up having a cell phone which makes me a rare beast in today’s connected world. I don’t like carrying any device on me, frankly, be it tablet or smartphone. I find them cumbersome, not for their size, shape, or weight, but for the burdens they carry; the expectation to be “Ponce de Leon, constantly on” (to paraphrase the Beastie Boys); that ever-present need to be online.
When was the last time you were bored? Nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to keep you occupied other than your own thoughts? When was the last time any of you just sat there with nothing to fill the empty space?
If you have a smartphone on your person, I’m guessing the answer is “never”. Thanks to the smartphone you have the internet and all its distractions. You browse websites, you scroll social media, you shop, you watch videos, you listen to music. You constantly allow something in to alleviate that boredom, am I right?
I have a little thought experiment for you. Picture a drinking glass. This is a metaphoric glass we carry with ourselves at all times that is neither half empty nor half-full. It just is. And there’s always something handy to pour into it; mostly basic day-to-day stuff like waking up, eating breakfast, starting work, all through the day until your head hits the pillow later that evening.
All of the above occupies roughly two-thirds of that glass. The rest is filled by whatever you want; a TV program, a movie, a video game, some reading or listening to music, a walk, dinner with friends, some hobby or regular activity, or just relaxing.
But more frequently, thanks to the ever-present smart-phone and its infinite content, a lot of us – too many if I must be honest – never get around to the other more fulfilling stuff -because the algorithm is constantly encouraging us to hit “refresh” and keep scrolling. We’ll sit there, phone in hand, and tell ourselves “just lemme look this one thing up” and the next thing we know hours have passed. Even when we put the phone down and go back to the movie or TV we were watching we feel it calling to us; not literally, but the chemistry of our brains is telling us it wants another hit of that sweet, sweet dopamine that we’ve become addicted to.
I see this on afternoon pickup, when I trek to my son’s school, passing the middle-schoolers on their way home, nearly all of them walking with heads stooped as they stare at their phones. Same as the high school students who once gathered outside and huddled in groups as they smoked cigarettes; now they congregate and huddle over their phones, trading one addiction for another, and both of them equally damaging for different reasons. But it’s not just “the youts” as Joe Pesci called them in My Cousin Vinny; I see it in the parents waiting outside for their kids, noses buried in their phones. I see it in people much older gathered for dinner at a restaurant, all of them staring at their phones in lieu of conversation. I see it in traffic when the light has changed to green and the driver of the car ahead of me doesn’t move because I can see his or her head in that downward tilt that communicates they’re texting or fiddling with a handheld device.
And while I get that Pandora’s Technology Box is never being closed, I think we as a people and a society are ruining much of what makes life special and unique and interesting; being bored. Allowing our minds to empty of thoughts and just be. That constant access to bright lights and information that never stops filling the void has killed our attention spans in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
We truly have no idea how bad this still new technology is for our brain; it is simply not evolved enough to ingest everything it provides us, but that tech has permeated our society so much that it’s virtually impossible to divorce ourselves for it. I don’t think we should necessarily divorce it completely, but boy oh boy we are living in some wild times; and I’m just talking about the internet, I won’t dilute the point by mentioning all sorts of other major issues we are facing these days.
It’s just as alarming to see how wholeheartedly everyone seems to have embraced this new normal. We’re encouraged to “download the app” to make our experience dining and shopping and living so much “easier”. Restaurants have started to do away with paper menus in favor of a QR code to provide the menu (and allow them to raise the prices on appetizers and entrees during peak dining times without having to print new menus), doctors’ offices want you to download the app that allows you constant access to your medical file (while allowing the same app to harvest your data, from the exercise trackers you use to the number of times you order fast food through another app).
It’s not all bad. Some of my favorite apps come through my local library; Hoopla (the e-book, audio-book, comic book reader app), the Kanopy streaming service, and Libby for e-borrows. I still prefer to do my reading on paper though; with a physical book in hand I’m less prone to pause my reading to see who just emailed. The tablet is powered down and shoved into the desk drawer, not to be unearthed until the following morning. From five in the evening to seven in the morning it stays there; my free time must truly be free for me to actually enjoy it. And if that means being bored, all the better.
I was lucky enough to grow up being bored. When I was bored I hopped on my bike and rode through the neighborhood looking for friends. Better yet was when I’d hear that knock at my door or ring of the doorbell and open the door to see some pals standing there asking if we just wanted to go hang out. When I was older with nothing to do I hopped in my car, threw twenty bucks into the tank, and cruised the streets of my town looking for someone or something to cross my path. Now it’s all done online; the invites, the evites, the rest of it. We are connected 24/7, but that constant connection is what’s driving us further apart.
Getting back to 2000 and the entire point of this essay. It was late in January and I was on a GO bus heading south from Barrie to Toronto after a birthday celebration. As the bus rumbled down Highway 400 we hit a pretty swift blizzard as is common in that part of the province; the “snow belt” they call it, though snow doesn’t fall as heavy or frequent as it did back then. So picture it; me in my seat in the darkened vehicle staring out the window into the night, seeing the snow, feeling the shudder and sway of the bus as it powered through. I had nothing to read, I had no smartphone to distract me because in those days the internet was a place you had to visit through a home computer or internet café. You didn’t carry it with you. It was like TV; another distraction, but one with an “off” switch.
So there I was, staring out the window, and my mind was wandering. The trek reminded me of the trips I used to take on the VIA train between Toronto and Brockville. I started thinking about trains, and suddenly an image popped into my head; two figures atop a train hurtling through a blizzard, fighting for their dear lives. The wind is howling; the snow is blinding. I continued to free-associate and ask questions. Who were they? Why were they fighting?
And my brain provided the answers; one was a big-game hunter in the Alan Quartermain mode. The other … was a vampire. A bloodsucking member of the un-dead. And they were not just fighting atop any old train; they’re fighting atop The Orient Express as it hurtled along ice-covered tracks through the Austrian Alps. The year was 1901, and this Great White Hunter was member of a team of Vampire Killers, dispatched to the wilds of Transylvania to locate a member of their organization who has gone missing ; a man named Abraham Van Helsing, foil of the legendary Count Dracula.
By the time I made it home I had the entire story in my head. I raced to my room, grabbed one of the big yellow legal-size notepads I always used (and still do) when sketching out a new idea, and drafted a three-page outline for a story I would first come to title The Fearless Vampire Slayers, then World War V, before settling on The Gentleman’s Guide to Hunting the Undead. I would spend the remainder of 2000 drafting that outline into a screenplay that while has never been produced was probably responsible for me landing more paying jobs than anything I’ve written before or since. It was one of those great, in some circles legendary, spec screenplays that opened doors and set me before many producers, all of whom requested to meet with me because they read that screenplay and said “this guy has talent”. It was as much a showcase for what I could do as a piece of evidence I still return to now as proof that I’m a good writer. I’m talking tens of thousands of dollars worth of work just because of that screenplay, brainstormed as I sat on a darkened bus, stating out a window into the snow, with nothing other than my thoughts to distract me.
Now picture the same set of circumstances. Bus. Snow. Night. And a smartphone. Had smartphones been around back in those days and were I in possession of one, would I have still cooked up that idea? It’s possible, but I am doubtful. I think The Gentleman’s Guide came about solely because of those circumstances of the bus ride; the time of year, the weather, and the fact my brain was seeking something to fill it and finding nothing but my own imagination to fill it.
Here’s my controversial take; social media, smart phones, and the age of infinite content are bad for us and particularly for creative types; I would go further and say that you can’t truly be a great writer, painter, musician, sculptor, dancer, or actor if you allow these outside influences to dominate your day-to-day. So much of art and creation relies on you being in that physical or metaphoric room with the door closed. It relies on you making your creative decisions in a vacuum of your own understanding, your singular perspectives. When you’re doom-scrolling Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or X or whatever it’s called these days you’re letting other voices in to spoil the soup, so to speak. To create something certifiably you, you need to do it without influence or outside noise.
Let me be clear; I’m not talking about promotion and advertising your wares; that’s all a necessary part of the job assuming you want being an artist to be your job. But on the creative side, infinite content can become the death of that creativity. It’s art by algorithm; those invisible yet present forces that guide you by showing you want you want while also inflaming you by putting the things you dislike front and center to keep you captive to those algorithms. It connects in part to the current controversy over Chat-GPT and AI art; the end-result of a sort of Vampire Capitalism where everything must be monetized as cheaply and quickly as managed; a fatted calf for its exploiters to sink in its fangs and drain it dry.
Artists are needy people. We crave attention, preferably positive, but sometimes negative will do. We want to be acknowledged, we want to perceive ourselves and our voices to be important and respected. We crave that audience. But when the audience begins to guide our decisions as a creator pretty soon we’re creating for them, not for ourselves.
There is a very current analog to this belief of mine that sprung up over the release of Martin Scorsese’s quite masterful three and a half hour epic Killers of the Flower Moon. “Too long, too boring, needed an intermission” people complained. Speaking as someone who was able to sit through Schindler’s List, The Return of the King, Oppenheimer, Magnolia, Avatar: The Way of Water, Seven Samurai, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly without need of a bathroom break or to get up and stretch my legs, these criticisms of Flower Moon smack more of shortened attention spans than anything else. The people who can’t go more than thirty minutes without hitting pause at home to scroll through their phones (or who scroll absentmindedly through the movie) and act offended when you suggest they may have a mild tech addiction.
Increasingly though I am not the only one who seems to be feeling this wariness. Many people I know in real life and online have begun to step away from this constant connectivity. They’re deactivating accounts, they’re deleting apps, they’re downgrading to more simple flip-phones that offer basic connectivity, texting, and no social media whatsoever. Some people have disappeared from online spaces entirely; people I had pleasant interactions with for many years who are now gone from my life. I don’t know where they are or how they’re doing, but I do wish them well anyway.
“There is a crack in everything; that’s where the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen sings in his song “Anthem”. And so my challenge to anyone reading this as we head into 2024 is the next time you need to go somewhere, either on a walk, a bike ride, or a trip to the grocery store or to go pick your kid up at school, leave the phone at home.
Going to a movie? A museum? A bar? Leave the device off. Engage directly with the world around you and you may be surprised to see people just out and about living their lives, and being much happier than the internet algorithm will try to tell you they actually are. See a remarkable sunset or cherry blossoms falling from a tree, or some remarkable cloud formation? Don’t fumble for your phone to snap a photo of it to share; see it, catalogue it, and file it away in your memories to crop up now and then without aid of a grainy photo that will never, ever be able to capture that moment. Be in that moment because those moments do not last, believe me.
If you’re a creative like me; resolve to create with the door closed, be it physical, metaphorical, or technological. You will find magic where you thought none existed, and you may just create something remarkable that you didn’t realize you were capable of.
Do all of this. Because it would be a tragedy to be at the end of your life looking back and seeing your memories of youth, of health, of love and being loved, all filtered through a smart-phone’s screen. This life only comes around once and to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.