I’m Boooooored! (Thank Heaven)

Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Walt D...
I have to wait to be happy? Really????? Image via Wikipedia

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, a recent conference was designed to be dull:

Boring 2010 is the handiwork of James Ward, 29 years old, who works for a DVD distribution and production company. In his other life, as the envoy of ennui, Mr. Ward edits a blog called “I Like Boring Things.” He is also co-founder of the Stationery Club, whose 45 members meet occasionally to discuss pens, paper clips and Post-it Notes.

For another of his projects, Mr. Ward over the past 18 months has visited 160 London convenience stores and made careful notes about a popular chocolate bar called Twirl, including the product’s availability, price and storage conditions. He publishes the details online.

Boredom has become a serious subject for scientific inquiry. For example, a 25-year study of British civil servants published earlier this year found that some people really can be bored to death: People who complain about “high levels” of boredom in their lives are at double the risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease, the study concluded.

The “Boring Institute,” in South Orange, N.J., started as a spoof. Its website says it now plays a more serious role describing “the dangers that are associated with too much boredom and offers advice on how to avoid it.”

Contrast this European lassitude with the go-go-gotta-keep-’em-happy machinations at Disney World, as reported in The New York Times:

To handle over 30 million annual visitors — many of them during this busiest time of year for the megaresort — Disney World long ago turned the art of crowd control into a science. But the putative Happiest Place on Earth has decided it must figure out how to quicken the pace even more. A cultural shift toward impatience — fed by video games and smartphones — is demanding it, park managers say. To stay relevant to the entertain-me-right-this-second generation, Disney must evolve.

And so it has spent the last year outfitting an underground, nerve center to address that most low-tech of problems, the wait. Located under Cinderella Castle, the new center uses video cameras, computer programs, digital park maps and other whiz-bang tools to spot gridlock before it forms and deploy countermeasures in real time.

Give. Me. A. Break.

Seriously. Once you have passed the age of, say, five or maybe seven, it’s not the world’s job to entertain us 24/7. No, really, it’s not!

I do not have children so have been blessedly spared the arms race to keep the little ones perpetually stimulated with DVDs in the car, in their laps, anywhere they might actually have to sit still, alone, in silence for a while. Horrors!

I grew up an only child and, like many of my ilk, learned very young to play on my own, to amuse myself without technology or TV or the endless distractions of other people’s attention and interaction.

This is a Very Good Thing.

I feel nothing but pity now for anyone at any level of the educational system who must cope with children, and the adults they grow into, who are now chronically incapable of silence, solitude, patience and unaided thought.

Ideas come when we have the time, space and — yes — boredom — to think, to ruminate, to reflect and make connections.

One of my favorite recent books is this one, “Distracted” by Maggie Jackson. She makes, I think, a cogent and compelling argument against hyperactivity, multi-tasking and CPA, the scourge of our age. Continuous Partial Attention was named back in 1998, long before life meant all-interaction-all-the-time.

I love allowing myself to get bored.

When I say “I’m bored” it almost always really means I’m frustrated. Then I go figure out why.

How about you?

The Ghost In The Machine…Is Us

Two women with a spirit
Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

I remember the day I first owned a piece of technology so advanced we couldn’t quite believe its possibilities — the SONY Walkman. It was about the size and weight of a small paperback book, played cassettes and allowed us, for the first time, to listen to music anytime anywhere. Magic! It was introduced to the world on June 22, 1979 and I bought mine in the summer of 1982. I sat at the corner of Madison Avenue and 49th. in the bright sunshine, instantly sequestered inside my own head in the midst of one of the city’s busiest corners in one of the world’s most frenzied metropolises.

Equally revolutionary, this new machine allowed us to shut people out. I’m now beginning to wonder if this is really such a great idea.

Last week, we attended a fantastic concert by Joan Osborne, her ecstatic fans shrieking out requests. The guy behind me kept hollering out the title of one of my favorite songs and, finally, she played it. I turned around to this stranger, exultant, both spontaneously combusting with joy. That, to me, is the point of a concert, shared pleasure.

Yet dozens of others sat there, the whole time, staring into their Blackberries or Iphones, their faces lit up with that selfish, annoyingly bright glow, oblivious to the fact there was a real human being performing on the stage in the same room and hundreds of us had paid to witness it, not to have other people’s  little private mechanical lights glaring into our faces.

What is going on here?

I attended another concert last night in Manhattan by the Del Sol Quartet, from San Francisco, who played some difficult music written by Polish, Mexican and Cuban composers. Some people left early, unamused or bored. Others closed their eyes, the better to focus on the sound. At a restaurant afterward, three people sat alone at three tables near us, each of them intently focused on their Iphones, one of them a woman who’d sat right beside us at the concert. Forgive my naive fantasy, but imagine if we’d actually — conversed. I would have loved to hear her thoughts on the music we had just heard, but how do you “interrupt” someone so intently focused on their small piece of machinery in a relationship that now seems so intimate?

Yet it’s still normal in many countries outside of North America to share tables, and much less physical public space, whether or not that’s your preference. It’s one way to remind us we are sharing space and time.

A European project is trying to teach robots emotion by interacting with human beings, which these days seems a little quixotic to me, as we retreat further and further into our portable escape mechanisms. Author Maggie Jackson makes a passionate and persuasive argument in her book “Distracted” that constant attachment to, and participation with, electronic devices impairs our ability to think deeply and to make crucial connections between ideas.

I clearly value technology, since I’m using it to write and send this. I rely on it for my livelihood and appreciate its beauty and utility.

But when 24/7 attachment to it, physically and emotionally, fragments us into smaller and smaller pieces of private, enclosed, hermetically sealed individuality, what’s the point?

Are we all just here to ignore one another?