...my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
When Genevieve Bell, Intel’s in-house anthropologist, looks at our ubiquitous smartphones, tablets, and wearables, what she sees is a collective desire to ward off boredom. “They’re like talismans,” she says of the devices we rely on for this assurance against tedium. And that’s a striking way of putting it. One that makes it hard not to imagine that half of the people you encounter throughout the course of your day, clutching their little, glowing totems, are silently reciting to themselves: I will not be bored. I will not be bored.
Many of us, of course, are still just trying to figure out our relationship to mobile Internet. Meanwhile, other Internets are already lurking. There’s the Internet of Things—the collection and exchange of data and directives among all manner of objects: refrigerators, active wear, office buildings, bridges, Toyota Corollas, thermostats, litter boxes, and electronic outlets. If they’re not already, they will all eventually be able talk to each other—continuously sensing and noting, feeding information back into a network, an algorithm, contributing a little smartness to every “smart house,” “smart grid,” and “smart city.”
And then there’s the Internet of Animals—or as Bell more memorably calls it, the “Internet of Beings.” Pet owners can buy collars that talk to their phone, allowing them to find their feline wherever he may have roamed, monitor his heart and respiratory rates, and perform behavioral analyses. On the farm, wireless livestock devices can monitor and convey the telltale vital signs to farmers, who check their phones for the optimum time to milk and feed, and turn on the mood lighting.
This Internet of Beings is taking shape for the human variety, too. Over the course of last year, monthly sales of wearable fitness tracking devices alone increased by 200%. Which means there’s a decent chance that you, reading this, are wearing some kind of device that will later remind you that your time would have been better spent climbing stairs.
We should all understand by now that information flows two ways in every Internet-enabled device. What leaves as data tends to return, in some fashion, as tailored content; our consumption of content is itself a data point that tailors future content, and so on. Thing-Internets and Being-Internets also portend an almost unfathomable expansion in the ways of reaching people, in almost every imaginable space or context.
Beings that are one with their devices seem less and less distant, as functions of our daily lives become continuously monitored data streams, and our organs of attention gain ever more direct access to Internet content (and vice versa). Many of us can imagine the worst version of this future—just as many companies can and do imagine the best.
Herbert A. Simon, a social scientist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, offered this warning in 1971:
… in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.
If attention had an overabundance of consumers in 1971—what with those four TV channels and a phone in every house—it is hunted today by an army of predator drones. (And they’re only getting smarter.)
To the extent that our little screens engage our eyes, Bell is right to call them talismans against boredom. But what do our devices do with our attention once they’ve grabbed it? Scrolling and clicking and flipping, after a certain point, achieve their own kind of tedium. If you’ve never reached this level of numbness, of brain desolation, then you’re a better person than I am. Possibly you were made in a lab. But, ask yourself: is there something different about this kind of boredom? Or, are all boredoms created equal?
You’re concerned about dwindling boredom only if you also believe that boredom serves a purpose—that, in a twist John Berryman’s mother missed in the poem that opens this piece, boredom is the garage in which we weld together our Inner Resources. A popular theory, anyway, when it comes to critiquing the way we currently interact with the Internet.
“We turn time alone into a problem that needs to be solved with technology,” says Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science at MIT, in her recent book Reclaiming Conversation. For Turkle, the dwindling of (unmediated) downtime and true aloneness—in other words, our constant connectivity—is destroying one of our most human characteristics: meaningful conversation. “A virtuous circle links conversation to the capacity for self-reflection,” she writes. “When we are secure in ourselves, we are able to really hear what other people have to say… But we have put this virtuous circle in peril.”
She cites, as just one of many examples, a recent study in which people sat in a chair without a device or reading material, and were asked to think for six to 15 minutes. “In one experiment,” she says, “many student subjects opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts.” With our current Internet of phones and tablets, we’re never alone—and the implication, if you align with Turkle, is that we’re never really ourselves, or don’t then develop into who we might become. We’re information rich (albeit swimming in weak connections), but we’re Inner Resource poor.
In a series of combative essays with titles like “The Disconnectionists” and “Fear of Screens,” critic Nathan Jurgenson portrays Turkle’s book (and her previous title, Alone Together) as yet another entry in the “concern-and-confess genre” that emerged in the Internet age, and has grown more fervid with the rise of smartphones. In this genre, which Jurgenson believes “frames digital connection as something personally debasing, socially unnatural… an addictive toxin,” the author typically laments a powerlessness before the Internet’s siren call, then undergoes some form of “digital detox” so as to reacquaint themselves with the joy of a sunrise, the pleasure of a simple conversation, the thrill of a campfire, or the distant call of a hoot-owl.
One of Jurgenson’s strongest objections to what he sees as this pathologization of digital connection is the distinction it seems to draw between the “real self”—that offline, unmediated being Turkle feels is best developed in solitude—and the digital versions of selfhood we also all inhabit. He calls this dichotomy “digital dualism,” and he calls bullshit. Our offline selves, Jurgenson wants us to admit, are as multiple, rich, and performative as our online avatars. Thus, we shouldn’t be annoyed at the constant texter or Instagram scroller. To lament the distractions of online connectivity is, in fact, to privilege proximity over what might actually be a more meaningful human connection—at a distance.
And what’s so special about staring at a campfire? Dull is dull. “Whether we are pleasurably zoned out in front of a screen or a campfire,” says Jurgenson, “we might ‘waste’ time for wastefulness’ sake, to burn it, to put it to no future productive use.”
Turkle, however, disagrees. “Across generations,” she writes, “technology is implicated in this assault on empathy.” In which case, she urges us to use our devices more mindfully. “We can park our phones in a room and go to them every hour or two while we work on other things or talk to other people,” she says, for example.
But maybe there’s a thin line between being mindful of something and paying it too much mind—just as the wrong kind of diet might be the one that forces you to constantly think about food. “While this may seem like sensible middle ground,” Jurgenson writes of Turkle’s entreaty, “it is asking that we make our relationship to digital connection hyper-present in our lives—a constant preoccupation if not an obsession.” Your interaction with yet another data stream to monitor across the Internet of your being.
Why is this so hard to balance? Perhaps because the objects that are supposed to enable productivity and creativity, are also designed so well to aid us in avoiding these very states. As Bell has said, “The same pipes that bring us information are also enmeshed in the rest of our lives. It's where we go to make a living, manage our private relationships, find entertainment. It's hard to tease them apart.”
The status update, the ding of a new message, the instant gratification of a “like” or a heart icon are little microthrills that make up an unpredictable reward system—one that Pavlov himself could hardly have improved upon to keep us salivating. But the design of the interface mirrors the structure of its underlying economics. Apps and pages are cheap—tremendously cheap, or even free—but generate revenue only to the extent that you keep using them, keep scanning them with your eyes, as often as possible for as long as possible.
Turkle’s plea isn’t solely for personal willpower and sacred spaces. She also wants a technology “that demands that we use it with greater intention.” She wants, in other words, more humane design—imagining a smartphone that “instead of encouraging us to stay connected as long as possible, would encourage us to disengage.”
Of course, technology like this already exists. On one end of the spectrum, old-school “dumb” phones without Internet capabilities. And on the other end, elegant smartphones (like The Light Phone) that grab your attention so delicately that it’s more of a caress. In fact, there’s a whole category of technology that puts this gentle handling of our precious attention at the forefront of its design: “calm technology.”
Calm technology is closely related to the Internet of Things—both of which took root at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1980s. For PARC re-searchers Marc Weiser and John Seeley Brown, calm tech was a way to describe technology that’s designed to be sensitive to the way human attention forms a focal point and a periphery—tech that can move from the background to the center of our attention, as needed. When it’s unimportant, it almost isn’t there. Weiser believed this calmer kind of technology would need to be the salient feature for a world of “ubiquitous computing”—a terminological forerunner of the Internet of Things.
But the problem may not be one of product design, or even technology design. As the novelist Jonathan Franzen points out in his review of Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, the constraint is economic. “Since platforms that discourage engagement are less profitable,” he writes, “they would have to charge a premium that only affluent, well-educated consumers of the sort that shop at Whole Foods are likely to pay.” We can design calm technology all day—the question then be-comes, who can afford it? Who gets the privilege of calm? The luxury to disconnect?
One thing is true—we have only so much attention, and a waning tolerance for boredom in the face of our connected devices. But if everything—even animals, even ourselves—will eventually be gathering data and aiming it right back at us, we shouldn’t be as quick as Jurgenson to equate all kinds of boredom, and overlook the value of intentional, disconnected spaces. Nor should we place as much faith in willpower and beneficent design as Turkle wants to. At least not while the underlying economic model remains one that feasts on our eyes.