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Offline: how my creativity got killed

Paul Miller Las Vegas CES 2013 stock

Last week I found myself slouched on a couch, ten feet away from a pair of $107,000 speakers. I was on the 35th floor of The Venetian hotel, which towers over the tail end of the Las Vegas strip. I was listening to an overwrought piano cover of Joni Mitchell’s immortal “A Case of You.” I was unhappy.

Moments before I’d listened to a pair of $75,000 speakers. Moments before that, I enjoyed my second demo of the best-of-show favorite Oculus Rift VR goggles. Maybe I was still nauseated from the Oculus demo, or maybe I was just a little tired, but I got to wondering, “Is this all the pleasure that a $107,000 pair of speakers can really provide?”

The thing is, CES has always been about consumption. People spend billions of dollars every year to improve their multimedia experiences, and this tradeshow, more than any other, reinforces those habits. Acres of televisions, speakers, headphones, media servers, cameras, tablets, phones, and massage chairs — all slightly better than last year’s model.

Acres of TVs, speakers, cameras, tablets, and massage chairs — all slightly better than last year’s model

And CES 2013 has been a great consumption show. I’m really looking forward to getting back to the internet to play with all this stuff. I want a Pebble, a Fitbit, a pair of Teenage Engineering OD-11s, and maybe the Nvidia Shield gaming console, or even someday a 4K TV. I’m going to be an impoverished reformed internet user.

But if there’s one thing that’s missing in this landscape, it’s opportunities for creativity and inspiration. I love convenience, and I love to be entertained, but I’m most fulfilled when I feed and exercise my imagination.

Growing up, I used to bring a pad of paper and a pencil with me on car trips of any length. I drew so obsessively that when it came time for me to learn how to drive, I had no idea how to get anywhere — I’d never looked up to see where we were going. But now that minivans have TVs built into the back of every headrest, and Apple sells a $300 pacifier called the iPod touch, I imagine a Paul Miller 2.0, a “Generation Mobile” Paul Miller, that just watches Pixar movies on loop during car trips while playing Angry Birds.

Some of my favorite moments over the last year have been moments of creation brought on by necessity and boredom. That time I started my sci-fi novel over from scratch the tenth time and liked it. That time I wrote a keyboard riff I really liked after hours of practice with my bandmate. Rapid prototyping screenplays with friends, making silly claymation movies with about cats and pizza, designing my own tactical RPG with Legos… it’s been a good year for my creative side.

Remember when we thought Microsoft was building a tablet designed for cataloging inspiration?

Nothing at a tradeshow can make you a more inherently artistic person, but I wish regular gadgets could provide more pathways for your imagination. What if “smart TVs” helped you make supercuts of Downton Abbey episodes? Or if you could use a PlayStation Move controller to draw silly hats on Spider-Man in glorious 4K. Remember when we thought Microsoft was building a tablet designed for cataloging inspiration, instead of a tablet designed to catalog your social network contacts? This year, we got Evernote on a fridge.

My primary tech expenditures, in this year without the internet, have been music production devices. I’ve spent way too much on gear — drum pads, keyboards, speakers, MIDI controllers, pedals, and even a sweet mixer with built-in effects. But I spent more hours with video games like Borderlands and Star Ocean than on all that other stuff combined. I scrape the bottom of the Redbox barrel instead of finding something worth watching. I read feel good sci-fi pulp instead of my classic book list. I’m not just avoiding creativity, I’m blunting it with the garbage entertainment I consume.

A kid can make a feature film with an iPod touch, or learn how to code apps and make a million bucks. But what’s scary is that the options for entertainment on that same iPod touch are just so compelling that… well, why bother? I’m an “adult,” and a “professional,” and I’m ashamed to admit how much time I’ve spent playing Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride for meaningless high scores.

In a living room dominated by a 100-inch projector screen, or $107,000 speakers, your options seem to narrow. Of course you’re going to Redbox for the seventh time that week. Of course you’re going to spend a few hundies on 24-bit Enya FLACs.

At some point, do I consume content, or does it consume me?

Recently I had the compulsion to put my projector and speakers in storage, and buy a crappy CRT TV with a built-in VCR. It’s not some retro affectation — I’m hoping a viewing experience that terrible would prompt me to spend more time doing other stuff.

I have a running joke with a friend about how audiophiles, past a certain dollar figure, lose all semblance of musical taste. I think it’s because it’s about consumption; you need to find the perfect “content” to show off your sound system. I guess that’s the word I hate the most: “content.” It suggests an empty terabyte on your DVR to fill, 40 hours of evening free time to consume, a distribution pipeline to monetize. At some point, do I consume content, or does it consume me? I want inspiration, not a 4K babysitter.

My younger self would be jealous of my tech paradise. But I’m a little jealous of his pad of paper, pencil, and scrappy imagination.

The Verge
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