Thursday, June 17, 2010

The iPad and our craving for distraction

There's an interesting piece by Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review called "Why I Returned My iPad". He loved it as a piece of technology but found it was occupying too much of his time, particularly that portion of his time that he usually spent staring out of the window, doing nothing in particular, just letting his mental wheels spin. This is true. Devices that are allegedly labour-saving simply make room for the introduction of further labour-saving devices.

This may be an early sign of the rehabilitation of that most underrated of human experiences. Boredom is due a comeback, I feel. I'm thinking particularly of that distinctively British variety of boredom celebrated in films like "It Always Rains On Sunday" and Hancock's "Sunday Afternoon At Home". It's that yawning prairie of time with nothing to do and nothing on the TV. The tedium of growing up in the 50s and 60s is what fired the Beatles and nearly everyone else worth hearing in British pop. For some people boredom is a powerful engine of motivation. Well now, thanks to the efforts of the entertainment industry, boredom has been banished.

Watching my own children growing up I've concluded that young people are rarely bored in the way I used to be bored at their age. This is because there's generally a button they can push that will provide something they can look at, listen to or play with, something that will stave off that boredom long before it sets in. This is good in some ways. In other ways it can result in a fidgety state of permanent distraction, an inability to just stare out of the window or go for a walk. In the near future this may become a social problem ever bit as alarming as drugs and drink.

However, I should make one thing clear. I still want an iPad.


  1. I'm doing my level best to make sure my children have an understanding of what boredom is.
    I achieve this largely by being distracted by a shiny piece of technology myself, such as a marathon Angry Birds session on my Iphone, or by looking at other people's photos on Facebook. Therefore they have to make their own entertainment.

  2. When there is nothing to read on my iPad I stare out the window (and there is quite frequently nothing on the net to read surprisingly)

  3. GPWM David
    I encourage some of my folks at work to actively disengage from Instant Messaging/EMail/Internal Blogs/Danny Baker clips (Ok that's me) and go somewhere with no stimulae and just think.
    They quite often come up with good ideas to add even more profit to our oil burning pig of an American Megacorp.
    I, on the other hand, get to know more about Baker than is healthy.

  4. There was a very interesting podcast on how multitasking affects us on NPR Public Radio a couple of days ago ( Long and the short: not only boredom, but the ability to focus on one thing seems to be being lost.

  5. Is there a unique kind of contemporary guilt kicking in here too? Back in the day, it was other people's fault that we were bored - the broadcasters, our parents, the parish council that hadn't built a youth club - but now, it's our own bloody fault, we feel, if we can't find something engaging on the immensity of the world wide web...

  6. One of the great things about smoking, especially now that smokers are banished outdoors to engage in the noble art, is that for a few minutes, at various times of the day, you're just standing around doing nothing but thinking. And smoking obviously.
    My dad used to always trot out this joke, spoken in a "West Country peasant" accent, probably something from 50s radio:
    "sometimes I just sits and thinks: and sometimes I just sits".

  7. I was going to mention smoking, I get most of my best ideas when I'm standing outside the office having a puff. Then I have to stub the fag out and rush back inside before I forget the brilliant idea. Maybe I should bring a pad and pen with me.

    A lot of this World Cup should remind the young 'uns what boredom feels like.

  8. Recently at lunchtime I have been leaving my place of work, taking off my id badge, and walking 15 minutes down to the A127. It’s the main route in and out of Southend. The part that I walk to has a residential street running parallel to it. A hedge partially screens off the traffic, and the giant Tesco supermarket opposite, from the houses. For some reason there is a bench here. I sit down on it and listen to the wash of the passing traffic. After about half-an-hour has passed I get up and walk back.

    I used to take a book with me but I never read it.

  9. Can I point out the massive difference between being a child/teenager and being an adult. If you are bored as a child, staring out of the window or going for a walk is, well, the same thing as being bored. No one over the age of six and under the age of 20 has ever knowingly gone for a walk for pleasure. And what's staring out of the window going to do? Help you come up with the new Facebook? Young minds don't work like that. I can vividly remember the awful boredom of a Sunday in the early 70s. Now I can't imagine what it would be like to be bored. I haven't been bored since 1981. It's called growing up.