On Boredom

Another of Louis C.K.'s hilarious talk-show interview diatribes is being widely circulated on the web and Twitter right now - this time about smartphones, and why he won't let his children have one. It's well worth a watch, but his argument essentially boils down to the observation that smartphones provide a constant stream of distraction that removes the condition, boredom, that is arguably necessary for healthy self-reflection.

Humour aside, I think he's really onto something here. Speaking personally, boredom, at least how I understood the term pre-Internet, has essentially disappeared from my life. Very few of my waking hours are spent without mental stimulation of one form or another. If I'm waiting in a lineup, on public transport, unable to sleep, or killing time in an airport - out comes my phone, and the usual suspects Tweetbot or Instapaper will occupy me for the duration of that transitory event. Even when I'm cooking, cycling, exercising, or walking the dog, I'm spared from any possible exposure to boredom through a now-years-old tendency to listen to podcasts1 or audiobooks whenever my hands are occupied.

As a technophile and enthusiast-for-non-boredom, it's hard for me to know how I should feel about this state of affairs. It's fairly easy to reason that since happiness may only exist in a world with sadness, then perhaps excitement and boredom share a similar, inextricable, symbiosis? I certainly don't currently feel like my life: work, personal or otherwise, lacks excitement - far from it. But this is 2013 - what about 2033 when we have {insert your favourite prediction about technology two decades out2}?

Kids born in the recent past seem to be genuinely puzzled when they encounter a display which is not touch-sensitive, and I find it likely that this will be their response at the very notion of boredom as a concept in the years to come. I feel privileged to have grown up during that big epoch-defining3 transition from pre-Internet to our now permanent state of connectedness. I have vivid memories of what it was like to have only four TV channels and a few toys and books as the sole available vehicles for entertainment; and still more vivid memories of the initial realizations that I now had the power to answer virtually any question I could conceive of with just a few keystrokes.

I don't think the significance of this shift has been truly internalized by many people yet. Other than Louis C.K., of course.

  1. I love podcasts, but my subscriptions have grown well beyond the point of my ability to actually listen to them all. 

  2. Visible screens inscribed on contact lenses? 

  3. I am convinced that historians will have a well-defined name for this period in decades/centuries to come.