Boredom blues, in all its hues

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Who’s the bored here?

All and sundry; yours truly included.

Why?

Because we all have become prisoners to what some sociologists call the tyranny of routine. And our understanding of evolutionary biology tells us that if we have the same routine every day we get restless and, obviously, bored.

But isn’t the pretty obvious.

Well, a new book — Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface (McGill-Queen’s University Press) — by Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell says there’s more to it. Just last week, he published an essay in The Walrus, arguing that understanding the origins and meanings of human boredom holds the key to a more functioning and philosophically meaningful life, especially in the digital age. And the best way to start is by asking some very basic questions.

Such as?

“Is boredom a function of leisure? Does boredom tangle desire or personal conditions, or both?” These questions are important today — unlike in the past when people were not spoilt with choices of activities — when, thanks to the rapid growth in technology and income levels, people face situations where they will be staring at a full refrigerator and (still) feel there is nothing to eat, or when they find nothing to watch even after scanning hundreds of channels on the TV.

Who is to blame for this?

The villain is technology and the over-stimulation it has introduced us to. In this era of multiple screens and hyperactive schedules, we are consuming ourselves “as a function of the attention we bestow”, says Kingwell. Which, according to him, means we live in an ‘attention economy’ where social media and other online mechanisms act to harvest our attention. In this system, we as consumers are under a process of “self-commodification”. We become the products. If you have used Google or Facebook you’re already in the club. You are the digital equivalent of Doctor Faustus; you have sold your soul (data).

What happens then?

So when we do these acts — like surfing the Web, or posting on social media or sending and receiving instant messages on chat platforms — we are actually doing the attention economy’s work, according to Kingwell’s book. But it is not the specific platform or medium that lies at the root of this “eerie economy”. Rather, it is the interface.

Interface?

Indeed. Kingwell says this is where everything meets and merges: individuality, longing, technology and structural interests. The ‘interface’ is complex and invisible and are linked to people and their desires. This tech-powered system makes us consume more of us, faster and more furiously. So we post more, chat more, watch screens more, raising the levels of self-commodification higher and higher. In fact, we become labourers (bound by routines) of this particular economy. And, here’s the catch, this system also makes us “serial sufferers of boredom”. Which means we are too often addicted to means that falsely “promise alleviation and bring only repetition”.

That’s sounding boring but important.

Hear me out. Kingwell says this constant immersion in technology (the Interface) and its vital and perilous components such as screen addiction or the “lure of online outrage” are creating hollow creatures out of us, who are disconnected from the world outside. We scroll, surf, swipe, send and click. And soon, we get bored because “repeated flicks of the finger” provide merely the “shadow of meaning”, by reducing us to scattered data fragments. We become “Twitter feeds, Instagram posts, shopping preferences, and text trends captured by algorithms.” So, the key is to cut oneself off (occasionally) and look for some real-world boredom than getting consumed by the Interface.

Fair enough, I’m suitably bored. Give me something interesting to read.

Well, why don’t you do nothing for a while. Or, as a better choice, why don’t you pick up a copy of In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell?

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions



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