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Sunday, August 24, 2014

THE BENEFITS OF BEING BORED

I remember when I was a kid, my mother used to say to me, "You're never really bored, are you?" I'd shrug, the concept of boredom being completely foreign to me. After all, there was always something to do. Play with the other kids on our street, the obligatory homework assignments, phone chats with friends, and of course TV - which as in most households was on pretty much constantly on weekends, summers, and during the school week from 4 until bedtime.

And this was before the Internet. I didn't get my first PC till senior year of college, and I was the first student to bring my laptop to UCLA. My how things have changed. The influence of TV is still pervasive, but other devices, whether smartphone, iPad iPod or other gadget, exert an additive effect. Estimates are now that children spend 8 hours a day logged on to technology. It is not unusual to see a group of "friends" walking down the block together, completely ignoring one another in favor of their handheld devices. Which leads sociologist Sherry Turkle to observe that for the first time in the history of our species, we are never alone and never bored.

Is this a good thing? According to a recent interview, our constant connectivity may have robbed us of something fundamental about being human.

I myself have struggled with the wave of technology, joining Facebook and Twitter for several stints only to deactivate my accounts out of a feeling that time was being sucked from me (along with my soul, if that's possible). I've resisted the temptation to own a smartphone, even when my father on numerous occasions has offered to give me his old one (he currently owns 2 or 3 different models). My current phone is a 10-year-old Blackberry without email capacity, and my plan is a pay as you go variety that charges me per text and minute used. Living in the hills where no cell phone service is available, the last time I even checked my phone was sometime last month. I am a dinosaur in this regard, and a dying breed. Of course I check email several times a day and am on the Internet or computer as many hours. I'm only human, and this is how the 21st century human is defined: wired.

I cannot help but notice how when I get together with family or friends, more than one of us is ignoring the others, totally engrossed in the social technology he has going on literally under the table. Turkle says we are still in a romance with our devices. The love affair is young and sweet. But are bitter days to come? This "always on, always on you" technology threatens to undermine some basic human strengths that we need to thrive. People are developing a tremendous lack of tolerance for being alone. Give a person a minute - whether in line, or driving, or in bed - and they're doing something with their phone. Because the average person's capacity to be alone is disappearing, we as a species are losing the precious ability to daydream or cast an eye inward (a favorite pastime of mine as you know). Instead the attention is ever focused outward, at the transient realm of the senses, be it sitcom, site, or Sega game.


Just how valuable is daydreaming? Consider one of the world's most brilliant scientists. Albert Einstein used to while away hours dreaming up concepts. When he was 16, he imagined chasing after a beam of light, a thought experiment that played a memorable role in his development of special relativity. And what use is turning attention inward? Consider one of the world's most celebrated spiritual leaders, the Buddha, who after sitting in meditation attained nirvana or spiritual enlightenment, a feat much less likely for a person who spends every waking hour staring at a screen.

And what about children, our future generation? They especially need solitude, notes Turkle. Aloneness is a precondition for having a conversation with yourself, a bedrock of development. In today's world children are given technology from the youngest age, distracting them and making it harder to form true relationships. Have you noticed that people hardly pay attention to what you say, so distracted are they by what's in their hand? How can you have a relationship with a person who is hardly even present? Conversations involve lulls, and nowadays the tendency is to fill those precious gaps with information or activity. There are long-term problems to the addiction to document your life and seek approval from "friends" via "likes" and "shares." If you put everything up for a vote, how can you feel competent to handle major decisions on your own, which is so important in a responsible relationship.

Now one could argue that life is a game, that we should enjoy our time on Earth, and if spending hours upon hours online is "fun," then go ahead and rock it. But there is a fine line between so-called diversion and addiction. Take online gaming, which has spiraled out of control in America, not to mention tech-savvy countries like China, where cafes are devoted to games. I had my first experience with it on New Years, 2002, playing Grand Theft Auto at a friend's place.
I stayed up all night and played until my fingers went raw and my wrists cramped and my eyes went dry, maniacally fondling the controller. I felt like I was on crack. I was so frustrated I couldn't get past a certain level I vowed never to play again, a resolve I have honored ever since. I am not the only one who has gotten burned by the allure.

Consider that in May 2013, the Americal Psychiatrist Association (APA) added video game addiction to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and accepted it as a disorder that was included in the Conditions for Further Study section as "Internet Gaming Disorder". The Chinese government is among those now operating several clinics to treat those suffering from overuse of online games, chatting and web surfing - treating this addiction similar to related conditions such as alcoholism and substance abuse. And for good reason. It is estimated that the average young person will have spent 10,000 hours gaming by the time they are 21. If it takes so many hours to make an expert, they'll be so many experts walking around, sitting is more like it. Experts at nothing. And gaming has serious risks. A recent study found that chronic gamers exhibit reductions in the size of a part of the brain known as the hippocampus, which can increase the risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimers.

People are now choosing computers as chums, as was so expertly depicted in the movie Her. And I've seen more than one person with a strange obsession for Siri who I must admit has a voice that grows on you. But seeming to be understood by another (robot) is not the same thing as being understood (by a person). But in order to understand someone, you have to listen to them, and we are learning more and more that this means putting down that device and opening your ears which is something that fewer and fewer are willing to do.

Really, it is not so much a privilege to be always available to others via text and email. The etiquette is such that if you don't get back in 24 hours or less, friends get worried about you, or mad you haven't replied. This constant access is really only a ball and a chain that you're paying a monthly usage fee for.

Technology is not good or bad in itself; it's how we use it that makes it such.  Make certain places sacred, like the dinner table, car, even bedroom. See constant connectivity for what it is - a lot of work to update pages and feed your profile, work that for most doesn't pay the bills. You don't have to give up your gadgets (although you certainly can) but you can choose to use them rather than allowing them to use you. Which I know is what you already do.

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