John's World: Let Me (Not) Entertain You

September 30, 2011 01:42 PM

John PhippsI testify today in praise of boredom. We may seem to be at cross-purposes here, inasmuch as you are presumably reading this as a last resort to battle boredom. But this feature of human existence is threatened with obsolescence, or transformation to an entirely different emotional state.

We have, via electronic interconnection, pushed our culture, and perhaps even our species, to become a Borg-like collective where we are never free from the thoughts of others and, sadly, don’t get to hang out with Seven of Nine. (Many of you may have been bored by the last sentence because you failed to watch the regrettable Star Trek: Voyager series).

I digress. Try this exercise. Imagine living in the Dawn of Time—about 1960 or so. Here is just a short, partial list of some of the boring events that you could be faced with on any given day:

  • Waiting in a dentist’s office with nothing to read but three-year-old copies of Redbook and Highlights for Children magazine.
  • Cultivating corn or beans. (For the tragically young, it’s a way of mechanically removing weeds in the field by driving carefully between rows for months on end. You’re right, it is madness.)
  • The 17 hours between 2:30 p.m. and school getting out at 3:30 p.m. Or anytime "social studies" is involved.
  • A car trip with no radio, DVD, iPod or even a book because "you’ll ruin your eyes reading while moving." Oh, and you’re sitting between two older sisters whose lives revolve around clandestinely irritating you.
  • Grinding livestock feed at about a bushel per fortnight with a tractor that has the same horsepower as your present lawn mower.
  • Doing social studies homework.
  • Piano practice. Or listening to it.

I could go on, but I will cap this list with the most boring activity ever in the universe: WALKING BEANS. This may seem like an overstatement, but I maintain it was the single most crucial reason so many of us left the farm with no thought of voluntarily returning. Roundup may have controlled more weeds than anything since the hoe, but it also eliminated more boredom in rural lives than anything since "pull my finger."

Close connection? So it is that today we have entertainment at our fingertips, in our ear canal and in some corner of our vision. Competing for our attention with increasingly compelling images and sounds, we swim in currents of stimulation without those pauses we mistook for wasted time.

In the process, we have tossed aside and indeed forgotten the skills we previously used to hold boredom at bay, such as conversation. It is hard to wrap your mind around, but people used to be the antidote to boredom. Not images of, but the actual physical presence of humans drove away the monotony of existence simply by providing hopefully unpredictable input.

If you attend family reunions and wonder how your weird old uncles, for example, ever got along, remember that weird was distraction. We did not just suffer the screwballs, we actually depended on them for conversation fodder to fill the silence, not unlike the way Lady Gaga and Rep. Weiner provide the weirdness for today’s chats.

A mildly capable storyteller was a proto-DVD of boredom relief, despite questionable veracity or over-repetition. Even acknowledged liars had some value. Neighbors came to visit not out of the goodness of their natures, but in a desperate outreach for liberation from tedium.

It is from those endless hours of stifling boredom that has come much of today’s innovation. Few people have piercing insights while playing Angry Birds, I would assert. Would Isaac Newton have noticed the apple had he been texting Tiffany Smythe-Fotherington? We would still be puzzled by why the Australians don’t fall off the globe.

Meanwhile, bored-out-of-their-skulls kids tinker with computer code to hack missile controls, while executives trapped on a trans-Pacific flight suddenly envision a merger that will make millions and lay off thousands. Hard to argue with progress like that.

If nothing else, a few eons of boredom would provide those kids with a charming backstory for their future biography and an abiding appreciation for amusement of even modest dimensions. Indeed, it may not be the Tiger Moms and Helicopter Parents who will shape the breakthrough thinkers, so much as the Hands-off Unschedulers who reply to a bratty whine of "I’m booooored" with "You’re welcome."

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