Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lacking Imagination

As a school kid, I was introduced to the world of books by my father. I used to go with him to the library and started reading. I was an avid reader of fiction. I had a fascination for novels and I enjoyed novels of Frederick Forsyth and Jeffrey Archer. The reading habit continued till my college days. I remember going to book stores in malls and staring at the collection of so many books, disappointed only by the price stickers. I imagined how I will be able to buy as many as I wish, once I got a job and started earning. All this was about 7-8 years back. Today, my habits have changed. I must have read less than 10 novels in the last 5 years. As of now, I have two unread novels lying in my house for more than 3 months. When I pick up a book, I am not sure anymore if I can complete the novel. There is a very good library near my house, with a fantastic collection of books. Yet, all the time, I go there just to pick up DVDs. I spend all my free time in front of the laptop or TV or on my wife's iPhone.

Why did all this change happen? When I think of it, I don’t think I am the only one experiencing this. I think this is a general change in human behaviour in the past decade or so. Newspapers and magazines around the world are seeing falling sales. Everyone is moving to the digital media. One can hardly see a few libraries these days – at least in India. Whatever is left, are government sponsored ones.

If you look at the list of the highest selling books of all time, there is only one book among the top 20 best sellers, which was published within the last 20 years. (source: Wikipedia) In case you were curious, that book is ‘The Da Vinci Code’. All other top sellers were published more than 20 years ago. Do these figures mean that we do not have good writers today, as compared to yesteryears? I don’t think so. What we do not have today, are good readers.

I believe the reason for this drastic drop in readership is the reducing ability of the average human mind to imagine and visualize. Digital media has taken over our senses. At first it was TV and movies. Today we are surrounded by PlayStation, Youtube, Smartphones and a variety of other digital devices. Our lives have become much more ‘visual’. These have taken over our senses and has reduced our mind’s ability to picture something on its own. Part of how someone enjoys a book is the way we can visualize the scenes described in the pages. As compared to 10 years ago, my mind today finds it more difficult to do these visualizations. My sub conscience signals me to instead insert a DVD and watch a movie, because the visualization is already there for me to consume and ingest.

Future generations of children will not be taught with text books. They will have a much reduced ability to visualize what they read in books. Everything will be taught through digital media. I know its already happening in many schools, but this will soon be mainstream.

The long term effect can be that future human species will have lesser imagination and creativity. But we may not be able to recognize it. Take for instance, today's popular Indian musicians like AR Rahman and Harris Jayaraj. Almost every song they compose is a hit. I remember in my childhood days (1990's), in an average movie, out of 5 or 6 songs, there will be 2 very good songs that become big hits. The rest will be mediocre. Today, I see that most songs in most movies sound good. There aren't many instances of a drastic drop in quality. Is it because today's music composers are better? No. Today's musicians can leverage technology to mix and reuse older compositions to 'create' new music which will please the ears. In software industry, we emphasize a lot on reusability of knowledge assets to improve productivity. Our musicians of today have mastered the art of reusing creative output. This probably sounds paradoxical, but this is what is happening.

Coming back to my point, I believe the human species will evolve into a less creative race in the future, say 200 yrs from now. This itself will not hurt us, because we'll have enough historical data (reusable components) that can be leveraged by our scientists, industrialists, politicians and artists to keep evolving. But what happens if a small subset of our population is forced to suddenly relocate to a different planet? Or if our planet experiences a catastrophe that destroys our historical records? Something like what we see in sci fi movies. Can we survive from such a setback with a mind that is half as creative as compared to the generations of Newton, Einstein, Picasso and Lincoln?

P.S.: Looking back at my post, especially the last 2 paras, I am happy that I still have some creativity left in me :)