The death of boredom, the doom of creativity, and the fall of Western Civilization.

Do you know what America’s problem is?

No, it’s not the economy. It’s not even the politicians. No, it’s something worse.

It’s your iPhone/Android. And your iPad. And your Kindle. And every other gadget that’s keeping you from getting bored. According to Scott Adams, America’s problem isn’t the economy: it’s that we don’t get bored, anymore. As a result, we just don’t have the time to be creative, to innovate, or the mind numbing boredom that inspires creation and innovation.

That’s right. I just said that boredom inspires creativity. If I ever write something that sounds more like Orwellian doublespeak, I’ll buy the first person to point it out lunch. (Offer good for one time only…)

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Adams–who you know better by his syndicated comic “Dilbert” and his protagonist’s perpetually upturned tie–argues that creativity has taken a beating due to the perpetuation of gadgets and gizmos that allows us to keep ourselves constantly occupied. He harks back to another day (one that I remember), when kids made guns out of sticks, monsters out of decapitated Barbies, and spent hours outside. On bicycles. Playing.

We didn’t have many toys by modern standards. But I discovered that if you have a blob of clay and some Lincoln Logs, you can make your own toy rifle. You can use those same materials to create a FrankenBarbie doll with body-image issues and a G.I. Joe that looks like an angry starfish with snow shoes. I’d take turns shooting at both of them, sometimes using the Lincoln Log rifle and sometimes the handgun that I whittled out of a block of wood. I blame society for all of that.

When I wasn’t making something inappropriate out of nothing, I would stare out the window into the frosty tundra and watch birds freeze to death in midflight. In the summers I rode my bike for hours every day, imagining fantastic worlds in which ice cream was free and farm dogs didn’t attack kids on bicycles just because biting is fun.

Weird.

And yet, maybe not so much. I remember those days myself. I grew up on on five acres on a plateau just east of the Rockies (and by “just east” I mean, I was two miles down a dirt road from the first slopes). I spent summers making forts from fallen branches  and winters making sled trails through the gullies and ravines that ran behind the house. There was stream just large enough to encourage beavers, and I spent entire afternoons watching to see the dam builders show their head above the water, just for a few seconds.  My first Nintendo didn’t make a showing in the house until I was old enough to take drivers ed, and by then I had far more interesting things to spend my time on, namely, girls.

In short, I had a lot of time to be bored.

Today, however, I am constantly carrying my phone, a device that’s powerful enough to be a computer,  a jukebox of thousands of songs, a high quality camera or camcorder, or, in a pinch, act as a phone. My biggest worry is not what it can do, but that the battery will run out. It can do everything.

That’s the problem, says Adams (not the battery, but that it can do everything). We always have something to do.

Lately I’ve started worrying that I’m not getting enough boredom in my life. If I’m watching TV, I can fast-forward through commercials. If I’m standing in line at the store, I can check email or play “Angry Birds.” When I run on the treadmill, I listen to my iPod while reading the closed captions on the TV. I’ve eliminated boredom from my life.

But why is that a problem? What does it look like when we don’t have time to be bored? Downtime, if you will.

What might such a world, a world lacking in sufficient boredom look like?

For starters, you might see people acting more dogmatic than usual. If you don’t have the option of thinking creatively, the easiest path is to adopt the default position of your political party, religion or culture. Yup, we see that.

You might see more movies that seem derivative or are sequels. Check.

You might see more reality shows and fewer scripted shows. Right.

You might see the best-seller lists dominated by fiction “factories” in which ghostwriters churn out familiar-feeling work under the brands of famous authors. Got it.

You might see the economy flat-line for lack of industry-changing innovation. Uh-oh.

You might see the headlines start to repeat, like the movie “Groundhog Day,” with nothing but the names changed. We’re there.

You might find that bloggers are spending most of their energy writing about other bloggers. OK, maybe I do that. Shut up.

You might find that people seem almost incapable of even understanding new ideas. Yes.

Bloggers writing about other bloggers? Ouch! Guilty, as charged.

But to the point– Well, he has made the point. We’re so busy surfing, Facebooking, downloading, uploading, and, heck, maybe even reading [gasp!] that maybe there isn’t enough free time, as in free time for our brains, to wonder, day-dream, and, yes, create.

Reminds me of something I once read that Albert Einstein said: “Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

Hmmm…

Do you take time to be bored?

I know I don’t. But I’m going to try it. I’m going to find an hour, and I’m going to turn it off. The iPod, the phone, the laptop, the tv, and the myriad of other devices. All of it. And just be bored.

Maybe I will go for a hike while I am bored. I hear it’s quiet out there. Maybe I can get my kids to come, and, as we hike,  I can tell them what it was like “back in the day” before boredom died and creativity still flourished in those quiet moments when we had nothing else to do.

Go read Scott Adams’ full column “The Heady Thrill of Having Nothing to Do.” It’s witty, insightful, and fun, and, really, an interesting perspective on what why we less time on our devices and more time in our own heads.

[WSJ]

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3 responses to “The death of boredom, the doom of creativity, and the fall of Western Civilization.

  1. If you do get bored, you can learn to play guitar like Joe Satriani, like you said the other day! Then you can write awesome songs in your bored time.

    I like the post. I don’t think kids have this problem as much as adults. My kids are outside with all the other neighborhood kids about as much as I was. But as our kids start getting their own phones and ipods, I’m sure that changes. I may just be lucky mine haven’t discovered those things yet!

    I’m enjoying your blog these days! Keep up the great posts.

    • Thanks, Stirfryiv. I hope you are right. I certainly see a lot of kids whose parents seem to think that a Disney movie is an adequate replacement for real interaction or time outside. As cool as Maximus of Tangled fame is, he just isn’t any replacement for good time outside.

  2. i was at an eye appointment a few months ago waiting for the doctor and the assistant doctor asked if I had a phone with games on that I could play while waiting. I seriously couldn’t believe he asked me that; after all, the wait was to only be 10 minutes.

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