The End of Imagination

[The writer] does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there.” – J.G. Ballard

I’ve been on a kind of media fast since around Christmas of last year. It started accidentally; I was so busy with holiday madness and projects at work that I didn’t check in to Twitter or Facebook for about a week. Nor did I watch the Daily Show, listen to NPR, peruse my staple of blogs.

I didn’t miss it at all.

In fact, after the holidays passed and I had some free time again, I found I’d completely lost my appetite for commentary on healthcare, tea baggers, Glenn Beck, Copenhagen, the economy, the iPhone, Android, social media, Web 2.0 and pretty much everything else. I found I could only tolerate maybe an hour of TV at most per day.

Instead, I read a couple of books. Fiction. I also spent a lot of time just sitting and… not even thinking really, just sensing. Pretty soon I started to feel a familiar tingle somewhere deep in my consciousness, like an arm waking up after you’ve slept on it wrong. I began to see the hidden layers of life again.

A few times since I started this fast, I’ve tried to dip myself back into the stream of information I once bathed in, but all the things I spent so much time consuming over the last few years feel like junk food all of a sudden. Some of it was obviously junk the whole time, but a lot of it seemed kind of important once.

When you read a novel, a short story, a personal essay, a historical narrative or even a good anecdote, your mind – your imagination – has to create pictures, sounds, smells, textures. This doesn’t happen when Jon Stewart cleverly lampoons Glenn Beck’s latest ravings. Nor does it happen when you read someone’s pithy little insight about Twitter, on Twitter. Nor when you read someone’s passionate indictment of Apple’s iPhone app approval process – or the thread of vitriolic comments below it.

And then there’s television. So much TV these days leaves nothing for your mind to fill in. The dramas that unfold on Reality TV shows – by definition – were never imagined in the true sense of the word. Other shows assault us with useless information. Still others insult us by over-explaining everything and neatly wrapping up crimes, arrests and entire trials in the space of an hour.

We used to be a storytelling species. We took turns talking and listening, and when we listened, our imaginations had to do some real work. Now there is either no work for your imagination to do at all (in pithy tweets or long rants about the iPhone), or the work is done for us by professionals, via scripts (or not), actors (or not), cameras and editors.

I will admit there is also some excellent TV happening these days. Shows that rival the best written stories. I’m thinking of The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood and even seemingly lightweight shows like 30 Rock and The Office. All of these have unfolded at a pace that has allowed the characters to develop complex inner lives that we as viewers have to piece together in our own minds. Imagination again.

Anyway, none of this is to say there’s not a place in our lives for junk information and Reality TV, and I’m not sure how long this fast of mine will last; already It’s more like a diet than a fast, which will be evident if you discover this post on Twitter of Facebook.

I’m only saying that as a species, we’ve never been so connected to the outside world as we are now. But neither, perhaps, have we been less connected to ourselves.