In a recent clip from the Conan O’Brien show, comic Louis C.K. ranted about why he won’t let his kids use “toxic” smartphones, and how hi-tech addictions cancel out the benefits of boredom.
“The thing is, you need an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something — that’s what the phones are taking away. It’s the ability to just sit there like this,” he said, tapping his fingers on Conan’s guest couch. “That’s being a person, right?”
If you were born anytime before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, you probably remember a certain brand of tech-free boredom. In the years before gadgets hijacked lazy afternoons and weekend mornings, there were fewer entertainment options. If today’s media menu is like a smorgasbord on a five-star cruise line, yesterday’s was like a roadside cafe in a dry county, with a thin gruel from network television and a few dozen newsstand magazines. But it wasn’t a complete desert. On the near horizon were brick-and-mortar temples devoted to music, film, and books.
My teenage friends and I warded off the black dog of boredom (we called it ‘Suburbia’) with wisecracks, sports, and boneheaded stunts. We did stupid things in person, without avatars. By the time we were old enough to drive, cassette players were standard features in automobiles, putting George Harrison’s dictum — “The Beatles saved the world from boredom” — in motion. There were enough media options to keep my adolescence from feeling completely Soviet, although most of it was more than a click away. Canadian AM radio was as big a wasteland as television, and it took some legwork to track down obscure bands and performers. In contrast, I don’t see much chance of serendipity for the over-scheduled, over-stimulated, over-connected kids of today — or opportunity for boredom for that matter.
As someone from Louis C.K.’s demographic, I’m not about to romanticize the long stretches of tedium in my youth. I love the wealth of information and entertainment I can now access instantly. But when I think back to when play was mostly interactive — in the outdoors sense of blue skies and scraped knees — I wonder about the cultural tradeoff, for children and adults alike.
“Sometimes when things clear away, you’re in your car and you go, oh no, here it comes that I’m alone. Like it starts to visit on you, just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad just by being in it,” Louis C.K. observed. A Bruce Springsteen song on the car radio recently set him into a momentary funk, he confessed to Conan. He felt the impulse “get the phone and write hi to 50 people,” but chose instead to let Springsteen’s blue-collar wail hit him “like a truck.”
“I let it come …and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much and it was beautiful. It was like this beautiful — it was just this — sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.”
There is a word for what the comic experienced: “mindfulness,” a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s what meditation is all about. Westerners are still much more about becoming than being; when the first wave of Buddhist teachers arrived in North America, they encountered a culture unfamiliar with sitting still for extended periods of time. Students learning to quiet their minds discovered how much negative thought informed their inner dialogues — a first stage in awakening.
Mindfulness doesn’t go well with fractured attention spans, and as consumer technology merges and morphs with our bodies and brains, it’s anyone’s guess whether this will end as a Huxleyan delirium or an Orwellian nightmare. Will our descendents be attention-shattered cyborgs, fully networked into the hive-mind but lacking the lachrymal source code to cry?
As the Swiss psychoanalyst C.G. Jung once observed, “Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” I suspect technology will both aid and hinder looking inside, in different ways under different circumstances. In any case, it seems we are in the midst of a vast, uncontrolled experiment, using our own kids as raw material.
The only one thing we can say with confidence about the future is that it won’t be boring.
The Vancouver Courier, Oct. 2