Bored to Life

Finding ourselves in zeros and ones

Sometimes I, a millennial college prof, sit in meetings and listen quietly, attentively, to complaints about how millennial students are too distracted, too bored, until I start to think that my entire generation must have leapt from the pages of an Isherwood or Waugh novel, and was not in fact scraped fully formed from Instagram’s databases, as everyone knows. On such occasions, I often think of the boredom chronicler and British child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s reminder that “the best thing we can learn from children is how to lose interest.” The young — like social media users, millennials, and their junior compatriots Generation Nobody-­Knows-What-to-Call-Them — are not necessarily mired in boredom, but they are rather good at losing interest when it’s time to learn something new or at acting bored when it seems expedient.

Beset as we are by the relentlessly proceeding logic of computation, it seems worthwhile to return now and then to the very human state of boredom, to celebrate the gawky sovereignty of its adolescent habits. Several new books — a ­philosopher’s take on digital boredom, two memoirs by programmers, and a mathematician’s account of algorithms — offer fresh views of what it means to be both bored and human alongside computers. Together they reveal boredom as a mirror that shows us how our machines do not, in fact, resemble us.

The idea of boredom presents a series of divisions, between being bored and not bored, and, occasionally, between young and old. Like its counterpart, spare time, boredom is often the luxury of the young and privileged, while, as every generation ages, there comes a moment when its bores decide the young are too bored and tell them so. In Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface, University of Toronto philosopher and declared social media non-­user Mark Kingwell has penned the latest in this genre. Kingwell gathers previously published material with a delicate if not tenuous line of argument about boredom as a philosophical condition that presides over digital portals. At times he adulates boredom and investigates it as “philosophically interesting,” a state that can generate choice, creativity, sense of self, and indeed philosophy itself; at other moments, he decries what he sees as the boredom of media saturation. He is persuasive in arguing the first point but comes off as digitally prudish in making the second, when he counterintuitively tries to locate boredom at the heart of a certain twenty-­first-­century malaise of the overstimulated.

Technology, Kingwell likes to say, is an environment, a formulation that slides rather quickly over the actual machines now holding up the world. Those who expect from his subtitle that he will illuminate digital user interfaces will be frustrated by how he uses the term. He is not really trying to write about computer interfaces; rather he uses the word as a metaphorical amalgam of a broad range of practices by which people live with technology. In his lengthy effort to define his idea of “the Interface,” he claims that it encompasses interstitial places, as well as actual digital interfaces, users, swiping, the “social, political, and economic factors that are all in play in late-­capitalist life,” and a few other things, too. I think what he is saying here is that his so-­called Interface means whatever he wants, and, capitalized, it becomes a personified bogeyman standing in for whatever he thinks is wrong with the world today. Indeed, the book frequently evinces a digital paranoia that I have come to associate with baby boomers: for example, he gives a rather panicked account of how some people listen to podcasts on accelerated speed settings (gasp!), though this practice is hardly different than flipping through a book.

Reading Kingwell when he does engage with digital media is to hear Marianne Moore read the opening lines of her poem on poetry: “I, too, dislike it.” Nose-­thumbing is often the descriptor that comes to mind for Kingwell’s writing, especially in his stance toward other authors and critics, alas. He occasionally proceeds by alternately trashing and rehashing New Yorker articles: his animosity toward Malcolm Gladwell, infamous ever since their strange 2008 debate on TVO’s Big Ideas, resurfaces here, while an extended section cribs an Elizabeth Kolbert New Yorker piece on facts.

Kingwell is at his best when he offers a philosophical and cultural account of boredom itself, setting the fashionability of French ennui against the ever-­present British risk of being thought a bore, and exposing the pretenses of intellectual aspirants who claim to get bored easily, as though that were a good thing. Most compelling is his encounter with Adam Phillips’s idea of boredom as a contradictory “wish for a desire.” As Kingwell puts it, “We can truly find ourselves again in boredom. We can discover what we temporarily lost, that is, knowing what to do with ourselves.”

This productive, even beneficial aspect of philosophical boredom fades in the boredom he describes in online life, which inheres in a sense of stasis provoked by having too much rather than too little to think about:

There is tremendous loneliness and desolation in the political life of our time and the lifebuoy of truth has disappeared beneath the waves. The boredom generated by such isolation is distinct from other modalities. . . . Its sufferers are over-­stimulated, not under-­stimulated. They do not know what to do with their ­feelings, and, as so often, thwarted anger descends into depression.

I do not know who Kingwell is talking about in this and other similarly generalizing passages, but I suspect he might mean anyone who uses the Interface, which is to say, all of us. Despite apparently infecting everyone with this new kind of angry and inarticulate boredom, his Interface is also too interesting. There is endless incident online, beginning and ending with the provocative recurring question of whether to like or repost something. This drama of banal choice, he suggests, is driven by neoliberal forces and hides the real boredom of digital life. “The Interface thrives on decisions,” he writes, “even if they are empty, addictive, or harmful. That is the essence of its relation to boredom. We are never bored when we are making decisions.” While Kingwell suggests that digital engagement defers productive boredom, he also analogizes it to boredom as entrapment: “We are stuck in the Interface, beguiled by our own device-­imprisonment.” Internet users, for him, are both ineluctably bored, and not bored enough to be able to find themselves.

I find Kingwell’s desire to have it both ways less frustrating than his assumption that he can speak in the first-­person plural about what is inevitably a mind-­blowingly diverse array of ways different people use digital media. And indeed he vacillates between speaking about how “we” all use our devices and offering up aloof descriptions that claim a kind of anthropological distance from his topic. In a part of Wish I Were Here that was first published in this magazine, Kingwell imagines “the most vivid portrait of boredom from our own day” as a group of people flicking their screens together in a now-­familiar scene of modern companionship. “These people are not in that moment bored,” he writes, “or at least they would likely deny being so if asked. The point is rather that this behaviour is intended to ward off any lurking boredom.” He continues: “What we observe here, in short, is a quietly desperate attempt, always doomed to fail, to stave off any encounter between the self and its desires.” Boredom, he writes, “haunts the whole scene.”

I wonder to whom Kingwell thinks he’s giving this othering description of this little group of phone-­flickers. He certainly does not include himself among them. One suspects he’s too old to find himself in such a scene. I’m not much of a social media user myself, but I think it’s patronizing, especially for declared non-­users like Kingwell, to suggest that those who do seek out such digital pleasures are bound in some kind of inescapable boredom — addicted to numbing their minds in pursuit of a false enjoyment. Most seem to find a great deal of genuine diversion in the habit. So do I. Too much, in fact, to pursue it regularly. Kingwell isn’t trying to write about millennials or younger people in general, but the negative pall of his argument about the boredom of digital life can’t help but implicate them. Claims that life online is in some way bad often have such undertones of generational division, since the young now can’t really fathom an entirely offline world. (I’m thirty-­five, and I remember life before the internet. That makes me officially old. I’m fine with that.) We millennials are accustomed to this sort of disdain for our habits, but Kingwell’s complaints make me feel for all those other happy users out there — Facebook grandmas and Twitter dads — who are less frequently called vapid. I guess we’re all millennials now.

The bumf on the back cover suggests that Kingwell is not engaged in moralizing, but this seems to be precisely what he risks. There is a generational divide between those who, like Kingwell, were educated in the last gasp of a purely analogue public arena and those who came next, who went through grad school with Facebook open in another tab. Yes, yes, yes, we know, we know, social media is officially bad, it’s distracting, it’s meaningless — and yet: reducing it, from a distance, to a constant drain on the lives of those who both like it and rely on it for personal, professional, and political well-­being is a mistake, as is failing to engage with the specifics of the technologies that make it possible, captivating, and treacherous.

If technology creates an inhabitable environment, it is one made up of a host of historically specific tools that may be even more thoroughly entwined with boredom than Kingwell proposes, which is why, despite misgivings about his argument in general, I am glad to have taken his invitation to think about boredom and technology together. For example, viewing human boredom as the root of automation might be useful. When something is too boring to do myself, I write a program or algorithm — literally a set of steps or rules that tell a computer how to automate a task. In this sense, human boredom is where computer code begins. We can think of the boredom of trying to read large data sets, or pity the search algorithms fated to spend eternity reading not just some but all of the most boring pages of the internet. This isn’t Kingwell’s domain, but other recent books on the relationship between human beings and computation do help us to think through where boredom might fit in a concept of technology that is not purely cultural but also a realm of machines and their (boring) tasks.

Memoirs by programmers have a way of bringing us closer to machineland. In Bitwise: A Life in Code, the American programmer David Auerbach writes about teaching Google’s algorithm how to lose interest in useless results and notes the inflexibility of computers, which are very good at ­calcifying rules and abiding by them, in comparison with our relative eagerness to shift and change, either by error or by evolution in intent — or by getting bored. “Computers,” he points out, “thrive on tedium.” Auerbach’s primary interest is in “translation” between realms of computing and literature, an objective he pursues via dense and lofty explorations of computer science alongside memoir. His effort to compare human thought and algorithms leads him to personality tests and a personal account of falling through the cracks of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In both cases, he shows the weakness of letting constructed systems of order — codes — classify us.

In Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms, the British mathematician Hannah Fry argues that algorithms are simply tools and should be seen as such. Her itemization of their work in a variety of fields, including law, medicine, and art, occasionally offers more recounting than original reflection. What is refreshing about her take, though, is her clear-­eyed encounter with programming. Fry shows how algorithms are often seen as forms of magical authority and deftly explains how inappropriate it is to bestow such a semblance of power and invincibility upon rickety human structures.

More than any of these authors, the programmer and novelist Ellen Ullman, also an American, has a mesmerizing ability to speak about the dramas of humans and machines at once. Her memoir Life in Code is a collection of chronological essays that make up her own Bildungsroman as a programmer, a history that runs alongside the growth of the internet. One moving essay analogizes human and computer memory; another on the process of writing her 2012 novel, By Blood, overlaps her experience writing software with her life as a writer. In a turn that echoes Saint Augustine’s famous experience of conversion as an exhortation to tolle lege, to take up the Bible and read, she writes of hunting for a bug in a program: “I sat down — and read the code. It was relaxing, a leaning-­back experience, like all reading.”

Travelling with Ullman down these circuits restores a sense of the humanity in code, which, she says, always returns her to a “state of not-­knowing” and a “re-­encounter with bafflement.” She’s able to “feel again the wonder of a great algorithm’s logical beauty, its elegance of thought, the sheer intelligence and creativity it reflects.” Wonder and boredom, these places at the end and beginning of logic, are essential human feelings that spur our thinking, that prompt both algorithms and literature. Translation is unnecessary, as the language is the same.

Though Ullman traces how the tech industry tried for years to downplay the importance of bodies by celebrating virtual life and the potential of artificial intelligence, she, like all women who code and anyone who has had their skills questioned because of how they look, knows that bodies are not so easy to get around as all that. (Just try breastfeeding and typing at the same time.) Her view, running sometimes contrary to notions in tech, is that computers are human objects: made by people, frail and flawed like people, and — importantly, enduringly — subject to people. Rather than taking seriously Ray Kurzweil’s notion that the time of human control over computers is running out, Ullman, like Fry and Auerbach, comes down firmly on the side of the secret sauce of being human and not a machine. We can’t be controlled by machines because we don’t think like computers. We do not simply proceed in the either/or logic of computation; we are more. The machine’s ultimate failure, she contends, is that it doesn’t eat and shit. Without a body, artificial intelligence can’t live the desires that drive our real, intuitive, creative, emotional, and non-­linear thinking, that give us the power known as being human — and that permit us to get bored.

“Thanks,” Ullman told the founders of Google when they offered her a job in 1999, “but I’m tired of programming.” She presents this retort as a regrettable product of twenty years of misfit immersion in the bro culture of tech, of not owning her skills in the moment, of taking the fearful way out, of letting a sexist culture diminish her confidence. Nevertheless, the idea of moving on from programming at Google’s very feet confers a certain status, a thrill, and one suspects there was also some strong truth in the line. To be tired of programming — to be able to get bored of it — may be the clearest display of how powerful human beings remain in the face of machines.

If Kingwell’s philosophical take asks us to consider where the mind wanders online, Ullman, Auerbach, and Fry expose the machines carrying it along. Their books temper Kingwell’s sometimes spongy view of technology with a reassuringly practical materialism. Kingwell seems to assume that because his encounters with the Interface are passive, they are that way for everyone. But while he may be right that a certain quotient of digital activity involves an inoculating flow of insignificant choice, many of us, maybe especially the young, take a more active view — whether by posting videos, photos, or pithy hot takes, or by writing programs — of what it means to live in a networked world. I think of my students, an often shocking number of whom each year have achieved a level of social media celebrity by the time they arrive in college that would dwarf the modest aspirations of most Twitter-­obsessed Canadian media types. These young people may be immersed in (and even sometimes bored by) online communities — but they are also creating them, building them, and participating in a world of life and, indeed, meaningful action that we old bores can’t always entirely fathom. I give them enough credit to believe that they know what they are about.

In considering what Kingwell suggests is a fuzzy border between being bored and not bored in digital arenas, therefore, why not take a cue from the lived experience of programmers, like Ullman and Auerbach, who dwell closer to the actual technologies enabling these environments, and shift the divide at play from one of generations, or of digital and non-­digital habits, to one of kind, between human and machine. If boredom is vital to the wandering and wondering thought that underpins curiosity, creativity, and learning itself, let us hope that machined simulations of our thinking account for and incorporate it in meaningful ways. Such a smart algorithm might churn away for a while on some calculable dilemma but then lose interest, rove off to gnaw on some tidbits of personal information, roll its eyes at the mundane predictability of the data set and all hundred billion of its points, and spider on to read a novel or Wikipedia or (let’s be honest, this algorithm is a millennial) watch Netflix. In short, as we feel more threatened, more eclipsed by the finer points of our devices, we might cling to some worthwhile sense of self by seeing our bored human frailty as a superpower and by learning from the young how best and when, at the perfect moment in a fruitless pursuit, to lose interest.