Is Boredom Good?

Even boredom was better in the old days. The ability to stare at a phone and be updated with news or gossip via social media or reading emails while waiting for a bus. How about killing time by browsing endless images on Pinterest or selfies on instagram. We have the technology to fight boredom. Or rather we have the technology to ensure that our brains never really begin to get bored and space out.

So what? Boredom is bad, so using technology to prevent it must be good? But could there be an element that is lost along with the boredom of the pre-smartphone age? Is there something that happens to our minds when we are bored? Could it possibly be that by not filling our minds with quasi news or semi-personal connections that we may gain something?

At times I think that being bored allows our minds to wander, and from this point we may develop interesting new ideas. Was it this that Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own, chapter 2) referred to when she wrote:

Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, That the submerged truth Sometimes Comes To the top.

Giving your brain time to process, bubble, draw connections, and finally present new ideas, thoughts and imaginative creations. Creativity requires boredom. Requires time where nothing happens, where everything is still.

I like the way Graham Lineham puts it

“I go up to my office and sit down in front of my computer and turn on the internet and then I don’t work – that’s the end of work for the day”. He laughs. “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

Technology is a huge help, but it also must be overcome with discipline.

But there is also a problem when we mythologize our own childhood boredom as a fantastic learning experience. I would like to point out that most of us pre-Internet children did not go on to become creative geniuses. We were bored, we got over it. It didn’t make us great. In an article helpfully entitled Being bored at work can make us more creative; Dr Mann says: “Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity.

Or maybe boredom will just make us unhappy.


Technology: older than we think

Technology is always older than we think. Recently XKCD published a wonderful series of quotes on how we perceive the changes technology brings on the pace of everyday life.

Then today I came across Mark Twain’s excellent use of the camera in King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule published in 1905.

The kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy that has confronted us, indeed… Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible kodak — and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe… Then that trivial little kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb!

Man against the machine

In 1996 the computer Deep Blue played its first match against the chess Grand Master and reigning world champion Kasparov and won. This prompted a flurry of articles about man against the machine and set the concern that the machine would eventually win in most endeavors and challenges against man.

Today’s cartoon from XKCD continues this trend (albeit tongue very firmly in cheek):

Progeny by XKCD

However, there is an easily overlooked flaw in this argumentation. The machine is not an independent being. The machine has no will. The machine is a representation of the intelligence and thought of a large group of programmers and developers. It was not the machine Deep Blue that beat Kasparov – it was the whole team of developers.

This is not a criticism of the machine but rather a criticism against the over-enthusiasm of the ability of the potential of the machine and the dream/nightmare of the technological singularity – the point where the age of human dominance will come to an end. This concept has been popularized by Vernor Vinge in his 1993 article The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era which contains the black vision that: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

This is all very cool if you are thinking about entertaining science fiction but to make it work in reality, it requires that we ignore the teams of developers and handlers which make the technology work. As an antidote to the black vision I highly recommend Jaron Lanier’s (2010) book You Are Not a Gadget when expands and criticizes the ideas of collective intelligence.

XKCD on Creative Commons

As both a fan of Creative Commons and XKCD the combination is almost impossible to resist. Right now XKCD t-shirts “doing science” t-shirts are available at the Creative Commons store. This is from the CC blog:

The icing on the cake is the most recent addition to our CC Store: this super-cool science-themed CC shirt, for which the world-famous XKCD was gracious enough to let us re-use a variation on a classic cartoon. Many of you may already read and enjoy the delightful webcomic of “romance, sarcasm, math, and language” which is under a CC BY-NC license. Now you can show your love for Creative Commons and science at the same time by buying one of these t-shirts, available for $20 over at the CC store.

Huge thanks to XKCD for being such a wonderful and creative member of the CC community, and for freely sharing that creativity with the world.

Science@creativecommons by Creative Commons / CC BY

Mediated dialogues

Using technology in communication is probably the norm for most of us. For some of us it is even preferable to face2face (what an ugly term for meeting people!) When you have bad news do you meet physically, use the phone, text or tweet? As usual XKCD sums up our reliance on technology mediated dialogues beautifully