Inventing Ourselves to Death: When Technology Makes Us Bored

19 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

“Zits,” by Jerry Scot and Jim Borgman, appearing in the Herald Mail, Sunday, April 18, 2010.

Art imitating life.

The above comic strip was printed in Sunday’s edition of the newspaper. Despite being surrounded by a litter of iPods, CD’s, video games and DVD’s (did you notice the nod to “Flight of the Conchords?”), Jeremy’s only conclusion is one of “boredom.”

According to recent research through the Kaiser Family Foundation, young people are consuming media more than ever. According to the report:

[W]ith technology allowing nearly 24-hour media access as children and teens go about their daily lives, the amount of time young people spend with entertainment media has risen dramatically, especially among minority youth.  Today, 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week).  And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.

The ability to “multi-task” is highly valued in today’s technological economy. In the wake of this digital democracy, we are seeing young people learning to inhabit both the real and digital worlds – often simultaneously.

One writer remarks:

The child of the remote control may indeed have a ‘shorter’ attention span as defined by the behavioral psychologists of our pre-chaotic culture’s academic institutions. But this same child has has a much broader attention range. The skill to be valued in the twenty-first century is not the length of attention span, but he ability to multi-task – to do many things at once. (Douglas Rushkoff, Playing the Future: What We Can Learn from Digitial Kids, p. 50)

For others, this raises a very real concern.

According to Jeffrey M. McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University, this media saturation has had detrimental effects on young minds, not only shaping their moral views, but also shaping the very way they interact with the world.

Young people feel compelled to use and consume media as part of their lifestyle. Media overuse, however, has become a sort of cultural message, leading kids to believe they are functioning, relevant, productive and cool based largely on how much and how adept they are in media use. This media dependency creates a false sense of reality and ultimately disempowers young people. A child whose existence is dominated by media will find it hard to reach his or her full potential. When kids displace real life for a sea of media, school activities, studying, exercise and even direct contact with family and other humans are necessarily diminished.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? Having focused the breadth of our attention, we have lost something of our depth.

And that’s what this comic strip is all about. And it’s nothing new. It was Blaise Pascal, the great mathematician and philosopher, who counted among man’s problems the issue of ennui. Ennui is a French word, most readily translated as “boredom,” but in philosophical contexts it carries with it a profound sense of existential despair. Ennui is born of the lie that having more of what you don’t really need will somehow be fulfilling, and the sad thing is that today’s generations are smacking into this lie face-first.

Though the poem “Dolor” was a description of an office building, Theodore Roethke wrote of the boredom and sadness that comes from living within a system. He writes:

I have seen dust from the walls of institutions, Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica, Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium, Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

Could it be that we are now seeing the “dust” from a post-institutional age settling on the generations that follow us? Could their boredom be a symptom of a larger, spiritual desire for connection rather than the cheap substitute of connectivity?

Which means, at minimum, we should all be mindful of our own media consumption. So while I appreciate you reading my blog, it might be time to go out and play.

19 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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