Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell examines the idea of boredom and our digital devices
New book Wish I Were Here is totally *not* boring
Originally published on May 3, 2019.
Do you get bored? Of course you do. Maybe you're waiting for the bus. Or waiting for a call. Or on a long flight.
It happens to all of us.
But what do you do when you're bored?
Most of us, these days, pull out our phones and start to swipe, scroll, and halfheartedly read our social-media feeds, or maybe Tinder dating profiles.
Philosopher Mark Kingwell says that ubiquitous, reflexive response robs us of an opportunity to think. Which is a shame.
In his new book, Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface, Kingwell offers a plain-English philosophical assessment of our perpetual engagement with digital devices.
He came by the Spark studio to speak with host Nora Young. Here is part of their conversation.
So, what is boredom?
The most important distinction, I think, is between the boredom of restless engagement — mostly with technology or with modern life — and philosophical boredom, which is this interesting tradition that runs at least from [Arthur] Schopenhauer and [Martin] Heidegger through [Søren] Kirkegaard. But you could even trace it back to Aristotle where philosophers want us to reflect on the conditions of life when we feel like our desires are stalled. Stalled desire: that's what boredom is.
One of the things that you touch on early on in the book is a question that we've hovered around a little bit on Spark, which is whether our constant stimulation via digital technologies is getting in the way of our ability to do things, like let your mind wander and just sort of gaze off into the distance, and the insights that can come out of that. What do you think?
Well, I do think that's true. One of the sections in the book is called, "Swipe left," and I always think about this very funny ad for the TV show called Man Seeking Woman where the main character is shown being flipped through walls and cubicles and into a bathroom, and then it cuts to these two women who are looking at his (presumably) Tinder profile. And so for them it's just kind of funny; they're laughing. It's just a way to pass the time. For him it's his life and he's trying to find connection.
It's an obvious point in some ways, but social media, endless engagement with Twitter feeds, Facebook scrolls, all the things that we know so well, I think they do have this function of exacerbating what I call neo-liberal boredom — not just because it's contemporary but because it's profitable.
We're not participants; we're lab rats and the advertisers are gathering our data, and they're feeding it back to us in forms like triangulation of desire. They are treating us as resources and they don't care about you as an individual. They care about your data and about your preferences. So yes I do think that all kind of feeds back.
So when you talk about this idea of neo-liberal boredom there's a point where you write — I'm roughly paraphrasing here — it's an extension of the unease of the economic sphere, "exacerbated by upgrade imperatives ... and a constant generation of envy for something that always seems to be elsewhere." Which is basically a fear of missing out as a kind of economic model?
Yeah, I think that's exactly right. So the "upgrade anxiety" has been around for a long time. I think you can actually trace it back to the post-Second-World-War period where people wanted to constantly have the next best thing. That anxiety is now comprehensive for many people and it's very hard to resist.
So what is "the interface?" Because it's kind of a difficult thing to explain.
So I think this is probably going to be the sticking point for some people with the book. We all know the notion of the interface, but most people think it just means the platform or the program. And what I wanted to do was expand our thinking about what an interface is.
So yes, it's a platform or a program, but that's just the beginning. Any interface — in my definition of it — is something that mediates between me and the rest of the world.
And so an interface could be something like a highway or a railway station or a book. And if we can expand our notion of the interface beyond just the kind of narrowly technological, like an app or program, I think it helps us clarify our thoughts about the ways that life is developing.
Because you make the point that in some ways when we're engaging in all this scrolling and swiping, in some ways that's the actual content of what we're doing. And everyone has experienced that; 25 minutes just went by and I don't even know what I read. Or I left my phone at home and I keep reaching for the phantom thing because I have an itch to scroll.
That's another aspect of the interface, which is that the content very quickly becomes less important than the interaction: swiping, scrolling, looking.
I mean, people don't stop to read things much. I have friends who get lots of emails every day and they don't read them. They just kind of look at them in this kind of gestalt way. And maybe they see a word that's a keyword and then they go onto the next one. And so it's like moving through your inbox is another kind of interface, just like your Twitter feed or your Facebook scroll.
So I know that you don't want to put it all on the individual, because there's this whole transnational techno-capitalism on the other side of that equation. But what would you suggest that an individual can do?
I guess the next time you feel bored, think about why you're bored and what it means. And don't don't flee it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.
Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface is published by McGill-Queen's University Press and is available now.