Following on the somewhat silly Times cover piece on how distracted we all are, itself in opposition to Steven Pinker’s brilliant Times Op-Ed today, Walter Kirn’s contribution to The Atlantic’s Ideas issue is simple, elegant, and hard to argue: boredom is dead. On train rides, on holidays, on really boring blind dates, we will always have recourse to new, cool tools (and they only continue to get cooler). The antidote to boredom is, There is no boredom anymore.
“Creativity, just maybe,” is as far as Kirn goes when considering what’s felled by the “i” toys/social networking revolution. Yet is it possible that creativity killed by cool tools is simply the corollary to creativity inspired by them? Why not propose this: in addition to affording superficial—if seemingly necessary—escape in dead moments (checking Knicks scores, etc.), new tools afford an option to tune out the dumb and drop into the smart, enhancing our chances of being creative? Pinker says there’s no science to back claims of technology dumbing us down, so we can check that fear off the list. Phew.
It’s possible: novels might be written in low moments of bad dates, novels in new forms only now gaining traction. And deep thinkers won’t lose the tools to think deeply. Writers will still sit in rooms and read books and be inspired, or not.
Ironically, Up in the Air, Kirn’s novel, took place largely in the place often known as boredom’s hometown: airports. If not for George Clooney’s gorgeousness (not boring), the film adaptation might have caused us to question not only the soullessness of consultants but also the absence of creative options when living that life. Party, sex, work, check-in, take-off, land. Repeat. It's the anticipation of Repeat which drives us to Prozac—or to Twitter. And therein, Kirn’s End of Boredom concept, because the boredom, as Sam Beckett knew, was the essence of what makes life unbearable. Boredom is the lightness of being.
Perhaps the next generation will find it their right to put down the cool tools when leaving the house, or at least when communing with other human beings. Think happy thoughts: more Tolstoy than Us on airplanes—via Kindle or iPad—because it is easy to press a button for Anna Karenina. More revolutionary discovery, given the ease of access to research. Optimism helps mitigate the ugly onslaught of instantaneous pleasure texts and Facebook rumors. And optimism, Pinker points out, is backed by data. Ultimately, to avoid a life lived online, we require what we’ve used as a hedge against drugs and donuts for centuries: discipline, discretion, and taste.