Today’s post is based on an answer I gave to an assignment in Professor Youngman’s online course “Understanding Media by Understanding Google.” The question had to do with a person who “instinctively and repeatedly picks up a mobile device to consume media (or conduct Google searches) while engaged in another activity”. Is this person using the mobile device to enhance/deepen the first activity, or be distracted from it?
I claim that the person is bored, and seeking to escape from the first activity.
My argument is structured in two parts.
The first part deals with the mobile (smart) phone (or tablet) as the device of the escape.
The second part deals with the rationalization of the escape.
As Nicholas Carr (citation 1) points out, the smart phone is a boredom-eradication device. The person has an objective, and the device to achieve this objective. This works in two ways. Many a times, having the device, makes you adopt relevant objectives. One day I was hanging some pictures on the walls, and had to use a hammer. Once I finished with the pictures, I kept the hammer in my hand, and started going around looking for things to do aith a hammer. All of a sudden, the world had been transformed to nail-like objects and other-objects. Device is the result of technology. People were bored also in medieval times. They had to use other devices. Technology makes a difference. In this sense, technology also creates (and destroys) civilizations. I say this, because the right to be bored and remain bored for a while, is part of what I consider civilization. Bored results in innovation, in poetry, in drama, and so on. If I am right, the mobile phone is a massive killer of contributors to our civilization.
Having dealt with the device, and its inexorable power, I proceed to the second part of my argument, which has to do with the rationalization of the escape. This rationalization rests on the premise of “available information”. A rationalization is needed whenever the actor of the escape claims that he/she is doing something worthwhile. A person playing games has no reason for rationalization. Likewise for a person watching a cartoon clip. These persons escape boredom, by having raw unadulterated fun. But rationalization is a necessary premise for people who escape and seek to present this escape as an act of “doing something worthwhile”. This being information. I am searching for something, I am watching a documentary on something, I am reading something. All this happens at a fraction of the time the same actions were taken thirty years ago. Here is where the second citation becomes relevant. Information overload, instantly available information, overload, spreading everything thin, is not just a rationalization. It also creates a new way of conceiving of reality, of information, of life. And in this sense it radically changes life.
As many have pointed out, one thing that networked computers are supremely good at is preventing their users from experiencing boredom. A smartphone is the most perfect boredom-eradication device ever created. (Some might argue that smartphones don’t so much eradicate boredom as lend to boredom an illusion of excitement, but that’s probably just semantics.)
Nicholas Carr, “A post on the occasion of Facebook’s billionth member”
I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”
Playwright Richard Foreman, quoted in Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”