Mark Kingwell, A Response to Comments on Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface [2019 C4eJ 31] (Book Forum)

[☛ watch the video & author’s introduction | read the rest of the book symposium

Mark Kingwell*

Any writer must count him- or herself lucky when someone not only understands what a given text is trying to do, but also adds new perspectives that illuminate and extend the work. I sincerely thank my three readers, all colleagues I have known for some time, for their expansive remarks on this slim volume about boredom and technology. They light up the discourse, and help me as the author see the work in sharper relief. Who could ask for anything better than that?

I will take the comments in turn and offer some responses. As of this writing, Molly Sauter’s written version of her comments is not present, so I will reply based on my notes from the live ‘author meets critics’ event at the Centre for Ethics in June 2019. In all cases, my responses are in the way of conversational replies more than anything else.

Lauren Bialystok

Lauren’s comments highlight two issues that I think are crucial. Before I get to those, I want to note that she is among those – not always common – who appreciate the difference between someone who is a Luddite, or neo-Luddite, and someone who is technophobe.

Any phobic condition denotes an irrational fear, such that one cannot control one’s emotional and physical reaction to, say, open spaces, spiders, closed spaces, cats, heights, flying, blood, or what have you. A phobia is a genuine psychic condition that should not be taken lightly. It also should not be confused with a rational skepticism about something.

So: I am not a technophobe, but I certainly am some kind of critical Luddite. Proponents of current technology, especially social media, would have the world believe that anyone who expresses skepticism or suspicion about current technological conditions is phobic. Such people suffer from a fear they cannot control. Not so. Some of us simply prefer to guard our privacy, such as it remains in the current arrangement, and do not wish to participate in large-scale data-gathering programs that rob us of agency and individualism.

It is remarkable, but not surprising, how often responses to criticism of technology are prefaced by noting the critic’s age, sad social-media status (ah, almost no followers, loser-man), or some other marker of ‘illegitimacy’ in respect of the topic. This is a reflexive combination of ageism, nerd superiority, and sheer Trump-style deligitimization of any opponent.

Case in point: one recent review of Wish I Were Here ‘identified’ me as “a professor of philosophy and declared social-media non-user.” This kind of faux-clever rhetorical move should always be exposed as the ad hominem nonsense that it is. ‘Nonsense’ is the polite word, for the record.

So yes, I am a Luddite, or neo-Luddite, as I happen to think all sane people should be; but I am not at all phobic. Insofar as anyone can claim the same, I think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to technology. Martin Heidegger was over 60 years of age when he wrote “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954), perhaps the twentieth-century’s most essential text on the issues that now confront us about interfaces and daily life.

Was he dismissable because he wrote before there was an Internet, let alone before Twitter or Facebook?  Note to critics of Luddites everywhere: don’t say another word about technology until you’ve read this text, plus maybe some Jacques Ellul and Marshall McLuhan. Knowledge and reflection are where genuine legitimacy in the discourse comes from. Stop pretending to be smart when you are actually ignorant!

Okay, end of mini-rant. I said Lauren made two penetrating points and I want to address them in turn. Both concern ways to counter what I call, in my book, neo-liberal boredom, by which I mean the semi-addictive condition of perpetual distraction interfaces – continuous feeds, swipe functions, constant updates – typical of daily media ingestion.

I contrast that with philosophical boredom, where there is a kind of existential dwelling in the condition of absent desire, such that the nature and structure of desire, and hence perhaps the meaning of life, are painfully revealed to us. (Sidenote: insight often hurts; distraction usually does not – that’s the point of all drugs: they make us feel better. Duh.)

Lauren suggest, first, that randomness might be an effective parry to the daily onslaughts of media demands for attention, and, especially, the data-gathering algorithms that gather up your shopping preferences and posting habits and reduce you to them.

I really like this idea, but it is conditioned and constrained by technology itself. The algorithms can crunch data a lot faster and with greater effect than we can elude them (assuming we are supply data in the first place, which most people are). So randomness becomes another tech arms race. I evade, but the program counters. I zig when it expects me to zag, but next time it knows I might make that move, and it has a counter.

We haven’t reached the Singularity yet – as far as I know! – but it just is the case that algorithmic power is more robust that any single human brain. Those targeted ads you see on the website you visit? Your phone or your Alexa or Siri are sending data to Amazon, not just your actual purchases. Even your television or refrigerator might be gathering data points…

The second issue Lauren highlights is the idea of mindfulness, which is to say, the practice of learning how to be fully present in a given moment. Of course I couldn’t agree more. The old adage was “Be Here Now,” and the title of my book is at once a play on the standard message of old boring postcards (the Instagram medium of their day) and this New-Agey imperative. Mindfulness is a discipline as much as an attitude. You have to work at it, maybe more now than ever.

It strikes me that presentness is almost a form mysticism. Maybe it always was. This is, by the way, distinct from the presentism identified by my colleague and friend Douglas Rushkoff, which a species of distraction rooted in the 24-hour news cycle and constant churning of media stimulation.

I confess I am only partially successful in following the advice to be present in a wholesome manner. This is, in part, a matter of simple difficulty. A colleague of mine told me about a message he had seen on the Berlin U-Bahn: “Boredom is the origin of philosophizing.” Yes, possibly. But that doesn’t mean it will be fun.

Ira Wells

Ira and I are both fans of the English novelist Kingsley Amis, and indeed of his son Martin Amis. Amis Senior was eulogized brilliantly by the late Christopher Hitchens, a close friend of Amis Junior, as a writer with a profound hatred of boredom. It is a theme any reader can find revisited often in Kingsley’s many novels, not least in his first, Lucky Jim (1954 – the same year as Heidegger’s technology essay!).

This scathing satire of life at a provincial university in the years after the Second World War features many hilarious scenes in which the protagonist, Jim, is forced to undergo punishing faculty parties and musical evenings in order to (maybe) advance his career, when he’d really rather just be down at the pub.

What Amis shows us, in this and other works, is that boredom is often a social conditional, not a psychological one. And the context is crucial. When there is no internet, no smartphones, no online games or pornography, life feels very different. Amis’s characters are not immiserated, but they are deprived. They exist in a scarcity economy, an austerity world in fact, in which any stimulation is a welcome relief from tedium. One can be literally bored to death.

So that is another face of boredom, where it is dehumanizing and miserable, not philosophical. Boredom now seems, against this backdrop (and worse ones), a kind of First-World luxury good, an indulgence of the well off. Ira nails this point among others. Both he and Lauren discuss some philosophers of boredom that I perhaps underplay in my book. I focus on Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger – the Big Three on the topic – but my colleagues’ comments remind us of Sartre and Barthes as other deep thinkers who have addressed the topic.

Barthes is especially acute on the subject in A Lover’s Discourse (1977), when he talks about the experience of waiting for a friend to arrive for a dinner date. His phenomenological account of this everyday event will send chills through the body of anyone who recalls a pre-text age of social life. At one point he writes, of the tardy date, “I decide to take it badly” – a sentence that lives in my memory.

It is a neat alignment that Kingsley Amis voiced a similar sentiment when he noted, I forget where, that the worst thing about waiting for someone late to a restaurant was that you couldn’t do anything else. Maybe phones have changed all this, but I doubt it. A series of texts saying, “I’m running a little late” is worse than no message at all.

I think, too, as I often do, of the Situationist Guy Debord, who suggested in Society of the Spectacle (1967) that the key discipline of our age was “savoire-attendre” – learning how to wait. I will let Ira’s comments speak for themselves on what he calls the weaponization of boredom (excellent!) and the way a simultaneous erosion in trust, or interest, in expert opinion has at once highlighted and depressed those of concerned with the politics of boredom.

One final thought here, though. Ira notes my use, in the book, of ‘mood reports’ before every chapter. This was suggested by my amazing editor, Khadija Coxon at McGill-Queen’s UP, who felt she could detect shifts of tone and emphasis within the manuscript. Of course! One doesn’t write a book in a single day, or in a single frame of mind. The smoothed-over voice of third-person authority, so typical of philosophy, is as fictional as anything in the children’s section of the bookshop – probably much more so.

So Ira calls me out in the nicest possible way when he notes that my final mood report reads as “gnostic, ironic, reflective, and dreamy” and he suggests it should rather be “passionate, outraged, sincere, energetic, and alive.” May we all try to live up to that kind of duality

Molly Sauter

As noted, Molly has not sent a written version of her comments, in large part because she is moving her whole life back to the United States even as I write this. Her comments at the C4E event will be the basis of these brief replies.

To my mind, the most salient point Molly raised was the issue of how boredom is experienced physically, as an actual somatic affliction. This strikes me as very true, and an issue I did not highlight sufficiently in my book. The bored teenager is in a kind of agony. It may be a luxury-good agony, but the suffering is real enough for all that. This is an excellent insight.

Molly also notes how isolating boredom can be, trapping a person inside their own mind – something the standard philosophers always note – also within their own body and environment. This point sharpens the main issue, noted by me and all three interlocutors, that the real problem of boredom is tangled desire.  The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips defined boredom as “the paradoxical wish for a desire.” I want to want something, but I can’t fix my baseline desires on anything in particular.

This double structure is precisely boredom is akin to procrastination and also, with the desire levels flipped, addiction. A happy person has reliable first-order desires, plus strong second-order desires approving of the former. (Alas, this means that a willing addict is a happy person, if not a healthy one.)

So: the physicality of boredom is operative, because desire is physical.

Molly likewise noted something I discuss in the book, which the paradox of under-stimulation versus over-stimulation. In a way, this has come up already. There is of course the boredom of deprivation, when there is nothing to do, nobody to see, nowhere to go. But that very same feeling may be aroused by a surfeit of possible stimulations. The fridge (watching you!) is full of food, but there is ‘nothing to eat’. It is a wonderful day outside, but where the hell would I walk, and why? I could meet someone for coffee, but who, and for what reason?

Once again, deprivation and surfeit arise together, like a Janus-faced coin.

I will conclude these responses in the following way. Some people say, rather proudly, that they are “easily bored” – as if this wre a kind of contemporary virtue, a badge of honour. It is probably clear that I consider this attitude deluded, unhelpful, and probably arrogant to boot. Boredom is, after its fashion, a kind of gift. Yes, it is certainly a psychic affliction, and when it cannot be escaped, a kind of torture. But the luxury economy of constant evasion and fleeing of boredom is philosophically, and maybe politically, disastrous. We do need to be here now, if now is going to mean anything.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, now and then prone to somewhat mystical pronouncements, said in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), “Eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” It is the only eternity we can know.

I wish you were here! I wish I were here! Every minute of the day…

* Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto.