My Digital Divide

Every so often, I remember that I’m no longer creative in computer science or even in programming.  I’m now far from the source of creativity in computer science, by which I mean that I’m no longer at the cutting edge.  Lack of creativity in that domain makes good sense for me at this point in time.  But I could still be a programmer; one doesn’t even need a formal computer science education for that. (This is not to downplay the difficulty of programming.  It’s just not necessary to major in computer science to be a programmer, just as you don’t need an art degree to be an artist.)

After I left graduate school, I didn’t program for years.  This was primarily because I was very busy with other stuff (medical school, residency, and everything associated with and that followed those years).  When I wasn’t busy, I was distracted.  I did have spurts of interest in web programming (Rails, HTML/CSS, etc.) and “fun” languages (Haskell, Ruby, Python, etc.), but nothing really stuck with me.  I became dismayed by the fact that so much is incompatible with so much else, and that pretty much everything becomes obsolete after a few years.

Good algorithms/ideas are forever.  Unfortunately, software itself is ephemeral; hardware is also ephemeral, and vulnerable while it exists.  The open-source movement hasn’t been as prominent as for-profit companies have been, with their proprietary software and hardware that often disable customers from taking their data elsewhere. I do invest casually in my blog, but that’s mostly writing and pictures that can be stored as hardcopy.

Much of the programming code I wrote in college, for a large variety of interesting and often fun projects, is probably no longer accessible because it was backed up to CD-Rs that are almost certainly corrupted. (I’ve confirmed that some of my old CD-Rs from my college days are corrupt now.)  When they first came out, CD-Rs were touted as a storage technology that would last at least a century.  That turned out not to be the case.

A simple, inexpensive pen or pencil can be used to write or draw on paper produced by other manufacturers, or to write on many other materials. Paint produced by one manufacturer can be blended with paint made by others, and the range of colors produced by mixing paint at home is infinite. You can even create your own pigments (some artists do this). If you learn to play guitar on one brand of guitar, you can play on any brand.

Today’s digital creator, on the other hand, is at the mercy of manufacturers, programmers, and hackers.*  The relevance of any computer-based product is short-lived. Tech culture, as it is in 2016 (it doesn’t have to be this way), is largely different from the culture of, say, art or music or literature, in which there are pieces extant from thousands of years ago that are still relevant.**

*Imagine if Apple and Google sold paint, you bought a tube of it from each company, and they blended incorrectly because of proprietary formulations requiring you to stick with one company or the other.  This rarely happens with actual paint.

**For example, there are paintings (such as the “remarkably evocative renderings of animals and some humans that employ a complex mix of naturalism and abstraction” on cave walls at Lascaux, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, and elsewhere from tens of thousands of years ago that we can still appreciate), pieces of music (such as “White Snow in Early Spring” from ~552 BC, attributed to Shi Kuang, that is still played live), and well-known poetry and literature from ancient cultures that people still read and admire.

Draw or Paint to Become More Emotionally Resilient?

A good friend shared this with me today:  How Art Changes Your Brain.

It’s a fascinating study that suggests that the production of visual art in adulthood–as compared with art appreciation–leads to greater emotional resilience.  This conclusion rings true with me, especially with respect to drawing.

Drawing has always felt like meditation.  When I draw, I lose sense of time.  It’s a strangely soothing activity.  Especially during internal medicine residency, I felt that drawing provided a perfect counterpoint to harried workdays filled with often-stressful interactions with what seemed like a hundred or more people.

Many others who get into drawing feel similarly about it.

Today, after work, I went to the MFAH‘s First Thursday Sketching event for the first time.  It was fun.  A kid came up to me and asked if I would teach him how to draw.  I sketched an art school graduate and also sketched this skull in colored pencil:

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To Be or Not to Be Creative: a Meditation

In one of her books about writing poetry, Mary Oliver tells the would-be poet that danger is always lurking somewhere.  The would-be poet’s dread about sitting down and writing, when he could be bread-winning to avoid some imagined impending disaster, isn’t a good excuse to skip out on practice sessions.  She’s right, of course, to a reasonable extent.

I bring this up because creative activities are often seen, by would-be creatives, as too risky:  their return on investment is not worth the cost in time, energy, and money.  However, as a great friend pointed out, if you stop watching TV, and if you don’t currently have or take care of kids, then, unless your life is otherwise extremely demanding, you have enough free time, energy, and money for a few serious creative activities.  (If you have kids, you probably still have time to be creative; you can even involve them in your creative activities, which could give them an early start to something amazing later on!)  The choice between being “practical” or creative now reduces to how important and stimulating those creative activities are for you:  if they give you a sense of fulfillment, then you might as well dive in.

Additionally, the successful creative habit (e.g., regular drawing, painting, music-making, etc.) is self-reinforcing.  Any activity that does not somehow reinforce its continued practice will soon extinguish itself.  So, for example, if you are a busy physician constantly managing other people’s problems, and drawing provides a meditative/soothing counterpoint to your day, then drawing may be self-reinforcing for you.

Creativity doesn’t have much to do with external validation.  (See Vincent van Gogh.)  The person who creates for external validation is the person who, if he somehow even manages to establish a creative habit, will stop as soon as that validation (such as sufficient “return on investment”) diminishes or disappears.

Your life is like a sailboat adrift on the ocean: you direct your sailboat, as well as you can, toward your goals, but have little control over the storms and threatening waves that come your way.  Sooner or later, you will die.  You, like everyone else, are biodegradable.  So, while you’re still around, you might as well create something we can remember you by.