Life used to be so difficult, didn’t it? Obtaining a new Supergrass album as a teenager involved several weeks of saving, a trip down to Woolworths, a decision about which other CD it would displace in my ‘carrycase’ for the school bus trips. Meeting a mate in town was an operation in an altogether different league: phone call to landline once the elusive phonebook had been located (are they in? When will they be back? Will you leave them a message to call me back?), time and place to meet, waiting at the said place unsure if they had forgotten, had a better offer, lay face down in a ditch. Then there was photography. I get palpitations just thinking about the chaos. How many films shall I take on holiday? Where can I buy them out there? Then there’s waiting to get them developed, and they just look so unprofessional when they arrive. Waiting times. Slow times. Hard times.
But bad times? Sterile times? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I was interested to read an article in a magazine yesterday entitled ‘The uses of difficulty.’ [i] The author explores the conclusions of some recent research from psychologists at the University of Amsterdam which suggests that obstacles can generate greater cognitive agilitiy; “perceptual scope” is increased as a problem or difficulty forces a step back to see the big picture and work around it. The consequence of this could be a richer stream of creativity than when the flow has been smoother and uninterrupted.
He gives examples of Jack White, who deliberately arranges his instruments on stage to make the transition more irksome than it might be (mad dash across stage to reach the piano, guitars that easily lose their tuning), and Ted Hughes who believed the constraints of metre and rhyme spur creative thought.
One could argue that such obstacles act as a filtering process. Anyone can blog, but not everyone will work the hours to make it in journalism. But I can also see how some level of hardship can feed into the creative flow or enrich a good thing when it arrives. There is no doubt that as the owner of a digital SLR with some photo editing software my photos are somewhat better than they were 10 years ago. But do I enjoy them so much? While I try to listen to my own advice on vigorous deleting as I go along, there is still a noticeable photo ‘inflation:’ more and more photos of high quality diminishes individual value, and the low cost invested in them (free developing on the computer, instant viewing) enforces this.
The same is true for music. Two clicks and an album is mine. It reminds me of the time a fellow Collective comrade worked in radio and would pass on the odd free promo album- great to have, but of precious little personal value. It had cost me nothing. And is a band’s best music written in the slums of their youth or Maida Vale of middle age?
Where am I going with this? I don’t mean to sound like a ‘techno- grouch.’ Will I trade in the iPhone for a discman? No. Perhaps I just like the way this article prods and pokes at the assumption that easier = better. And with that, more money = easier =better. Somehow I am reminded of Jesus’ crazy notion that it is preferable to take a steep and narrow and risky road rather than a flat and wide and safe one. Life may be found in the uphill climbs after all.
[i] Ian Leslie. ‘The Uses of Difficulty.’ Intelligent Life Magazine November 2012 p.36-38