Lauren Bialystok, Randomness, Mindfulness, and the Games People Play [2019 C4eJ 29] (Book Forum)

RANDOMNESS, MINDFULNESS, AND THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
[☛ watch the video | read the rest of the book symposium]

Lauren Bialystok*

Every time I absent-mindedly start another game of Scrabble against the computer on my phone – which is pretty much any time I am in an elevator, on a subway platform, waiting for a child to finish getting dressed, or have any miniscule amount of time to kill – I feel just a little self-righteous about my highly selective and cognitively stimulating use of the Smart Phone. No Candy Crush for me!  Nor Reddit, or Facebook, or Instagram. And yet, inevitably, while I am arranging tiny virtual letters into profitable little crosswords, presumably so as to ward off some minor boredom or emptiness that would confront me in the absence of my phone, I think, “This is stupid.  I hate this.  I’m bored.

This experience is one of many uniquely contemporary phenomena that Kingwell renders vivid in his wide-ranging analysis of our lives and times.  Chock-full of relatable examples, literary quotes, and riffs on current events, Wish I Were Here makes you reflect on your version of the Scrabble paradox and how your affective experience of boredom has been reshaped in recent years. For boredom, and the philosophical interest it may or may not provoke, is not an inert feature of human existence, but rather a condition through which we see refracted the pathologies of our time and culture.

It used to be that boredom was correlated with a lack of entertainment, stimulation, or freedom. As Kingwell recounts, Heidegger’s idea of boredom is epitomized by the image of waiting in a train station after missing one’s train. A more enduring state of boredom is the condition of someone too unfree or uneducated to be meaningfully stimulated (Kingwell mentions prisoners, repetitive laborers), or conversely, the luxury of someone who has been liberated from menial concerns, such as philosophers.

But there is a new, nefarious form of boredom in town, which Kingwell calls Neoliberal Boredom. Today we hardly suffer from absence of stimulation. But it turns out that boredom can reside in a glut of stimuli clamoring for our attention.  Competition for and manipulation of our attention, through technologies that lull us into believing we are free and privileged, masks the experience of boredom even as it is perpetuated.  The metaphor is no longer being caught off-guard in a train station with nothing to do but more like being caught in a satellite dish with thousands of channels where our viewing choices are data-mined and sold back to us at a premium.  Either way, there is no escape from the forced, dissatisfying engagement with the world. This is what Kingwell means by the Interface.

Selfhood and boredom

As the title of the book emphasizes, selfhood is implicated in boredom in philosophically significant ways.  Pre-millennial forms of boredom may have provoked a confrontation with the self, producing both the discomfort of the condition as well as its philosophical fruits.  Neoliberal boredom, which is predicated on leveraging our attention capital, provides an impetus to curate the self, even as the possibility of a real confrontation is made more remote.

Social media is the obvious case in point.  Kingwell observes: “Facebook is Exhibit A in a networked system of Interface influence.  It uses our desires and fears against us….this is the production and consumption of selfhood being actively abetted by the political and economic system as such…in which many participate blithely, glibly, happily.”  (108)

There are statistical outliers who do not participate in Facebook, but this is not to say that we don’t participate in the economy he describes.  I define – nay, market – myself as a Person Who’s Not on Social Media.  I have no choice but to interface, even if through the pathetic mechanism of passing over certain iterations of the Interface.  Conferring or withholding my attention from particular platforms is just another way of discerning and expressing my identity. At least, I think it’s my identity.

Kingwell asks, “Who is this ‘I’ imagined to be the subject of boredom?” (42) Another way of posing the question is to ask, Who is this ‘I’ who has attention to confer or withhold?  The Interface, once exposed, shows the “I” in its very fragility, revealing the collision of the liberal model of the self with late capitalism.  The liberal “I” is presumed to be a rational chooser, able to fulfill its desires given enough freedom.  It is presumed to know what it wants and avoid what it doesn’t.  But Google algorithms make quick work of such a modernist conceit.  A fleeting confrontation with our psychological weakness is just further motivation to take refuge in Scrabble, or whatever self-confirming, unchallenging use of the Interface makes us feel like subjects who are in control again.

What passes for rebellion against the Interface only turns up the same ontological conundrum. It assumes there is some “real” self that we should protect from all this nonsense.  If this were the case, unplugging would be independently desirable.  Judging by the cottage industry in incentives to unplug, it’s far from that simple.  Coherent selves who are in control of their attention don’t need lessons on how to do a “phone detox,” apps like “Freedom” (seriously) that let you impose screen time limits on yourself, or the deliciously ironic Twitter hashtag, #DeleteFacebook.

To the extent that we have selves, therefore, the Interface reveals them to be incoherent:  our desires are at odds with one another, our self-consciousness incomplete.  This explains the difficulty of navigating our way out of the boredom trap.  As Kingwell incisively puts it, “boredom is, crucially, the demon we wish to exorcise, the affliction we need to salve – and yet our usual methods for seeking relief do nothing except spread the inner blight of a soul at war with itself” (7). This seems like an instance par excellence of what Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” when “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.”[1]

I want to briefly explore two other forms of potential rebellion that are not covered in the book, if only to illustrate the pervasiveness of the condition Kingwell describes. The two proposed antidotes or modes of resistance (both to neoliberal boredom and to the dark aspects of the Interface) are randomness and mindfulness.

Randomness

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker describes his attempt to outpace the algorithms that were rapidly overtaking his own self-understanding.  He writes:

What I was trying to do, then, was stop Facebook from doing what it is inherently good at, and hack it to give me the reverse: serendipity, surprise, heterophily. Soon I started to wonder: Were there other, better ways to do this?

Throwing the algorithm off my scent got easier when I enlisted the help of other algorithms. I did this with a tool called Noisify, which populates one’s Facebook search bar with random words. Cathy Deng, a programmer in San Francisco, built Noisify after the 2016 election, when people she knew seemed obsessed with political “filter bubbles.”[2]

Like Kingwell, Pinsker identifies the self-annihilating potential of the Interface, and specifically, its anti-democratic horizons.  Boredom is produced not only through undesired repetition, but also through over-confirmation and desired repetition of the wrong type.  Boredom in 2019 isn’t nothingness that afflicts a desiring subject; it’s obliterating the self in a maze of the supposedly “desired,” until eventually what we find novel and satisfying is predicted with near-scientific precision by artificial intelligence. So the remedy involves challenging ourselves and surprising our lazily responsive attention.

Jean-Paul Sartre, informed by some of the earlier existentialists who had so much to say about boredom, happily abandons the liberal model of the rational self that precedes and survives its choices.  For Sartre, existence is just the freedom to be, and there is no fact about who we are prior to, or other than, what we choose. Hence the majority of us live in “bad faith,” trying to avoid the weighty responsibility of freedom. Neoliberal boredom arguably epitomizes the nightmare of Sartrean freedom: recursive, endless, choosing, with no end or purpose in sight. But for Sartre and for the Interface, there has to be someone – a person, or maybe just a will – behind the choices.  Who adjudicates whether to keep viewing the cats doing backflips or to read another article about agricultural technology in Cambodia?

This is my worry with Pinsker’s solution.  If we are being bombarded with unpredictable stimuli, with the expectation that some of it will stick and some will be a one-off, we still rely on a notion of a self that has preferences on the basis of which it chooses, or interfaces.  Noisify provides exposure to novelty, not relief from the chimera of an integrated autonomous self.  After letting randomness choose the channels for a while, we inevitably we fall back into something comfortable, which the Interface will consume again and reflect back to us in unsolicited advertisements.

Mindfulness

A second, and much more obvious, type of response takes the form of “mindfulness,” that collection of ancient Eastern wisdom now widely appropriated for easy Western consumption, exhorting us to be present with the experience of consciousness itself.  Serious practitioners of mindfulness techniques (notably meditation) describe the benefits of making one’s attention the object of one’s attention.  To the extent that this skill can be learned, it seems like a perfect antidote to the neoliberal condition of having our attention relentlessly co-opted.  Moreover, learning to dwell on the fleeting nature of consciousness itself could be a tonic for the ennui of constantly dashed expectations, the never-enoughness cultivated by capitalism. There is no boredom if you can be happy being alone with your thoughts.

But Kingwell’s concerns quickly envelop the emancipatory prospect of mindfulness under neoliberal conditions as well.  Derided by some as “McMindfulness,” the ubiquitous commodification of this idea shows how the corporate Interface robs us even of our interiority. Mindfulness has been dumbed down and repackaged as yet another lifestyle project to capitalize on individuals’ pursuit of self-improvement. The Interface is the ideal delivery mechanism for neoliberal mindfulness, like LuluLemon for the mind. Download this handy meditation app!  Tell all your friends on Facebook how long you meditated today!  Proffered as an escape from the excesses of Western culture and neurosis, mindfulness becomes just another item on the endless menu of capitalist junk promising to make you complete. And it doesn’t stop there.  Mindfulness is taught in schools to help young people cope with the stress of high-stakes testing, wild wealth inequality, and the burning planet they will inherit.[3]  It is equally trotted out in corporate workplaces to produce more productive, less anxious workers. [4] The Times even reported earlier this year that it’s being leveraged in the military to help soldiers shoot better.[5]

The point here is not to disparage the potential of mindfulness to rehabilitate a frantic soul – quite the opposite. I am delighted that my kids are learning some version of mindfulness in their elementary school, and yoga to boot.  It is precisely because such healthy ways of relating to oneself and the world can be so easily appropriated – or, to borrow a word from Kingwell, cannibalized – by the Interface that we know we’re in serious trouble.  Resistance has to think bigger.

No Exit

I have played so many games of digital Scrabble against a non-sentient opponent that if someone could produce a tally of my games, I would either enter the Guinness Book of World Records or die of embarrassment.  I literally don’t remember the time – barely a decade ago – when I could take three steps without my phone, with “nothing” to do. My relationship to the contents of my own mind and my sense of myself as an agent have all been perturbed as Kingwell describes, leaving the imaginary flight from boredom as the perpetually renewed goal.  And when I get bored of Scrabble?  There’s always Boggle.

* Assistant Professor, Department of Social Justice Education, OISE, University of Toronto.

[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/facebook-news-feed-hack/588043/

[3] https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2019/3/29/18264703/mindfulness-meditation-buddhism-david-forbes

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/16/how-capitalism-captured-the-mindfulness-industry

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/05/health/military-mindfulness-training.html