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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Boredom vs technology

Michael Jennings quotes Douglas Adams speculating that curing all disease will leave us bored.

…total cures had a lot of unpleasant side effects. Boredom, listlessness…

A typical response to any suggestion of labour saving devices or increased automation or robots in factories is that this will lead to people being bored and not having enough to do.

Related, I think, to this, is the worry that if longevity technology works then the planet will be overpopulated and anyway who would want to live forever? Surely one would get bored. This is exactly what happened in the comments to a Gizmodo article about research into making stem cells from normal blood cells.

Live forever and do what? Continue to work six days a week to pay for your life-extension medical plan? That doesn’t seem worth it.

I propose that people will not get bored so easily. The removal of one set of problems simply makes the next set of problems more urgent. Humans are infinitely imaginative at finding problems to solve. There will always be challenges. I present as evidence Paul Miller who has taken a year off the Internet. He uses computers but does not send emails or read Twitter or surf the web. He writes articles for the Verge by giving them to his editor on a USB stick. He does not read the comments to his articles. People think he is mad and wonder how he copes. He makes interesting observations.

Without the internet, everything seemed new to me. Every untweeted observation of daily life was more sacred. Every conversation was face to face or a phone call, and filled with a hundred fresh nuances. The air smelled better. My sentences seemed less convoluted. I lost a bit of weight.


But now that not having internet is no longer new, just normal, the zen calm is gone. I don’t wake with the sunrise while chirping birds pull back the covers. I still have a job. I feel pressure and stress and frustration. I get lonely and bored. My articles aren’t always submitted on time. Sometimes my sentences aren’t good.

I’m just stock Paul Miller. No more Not-Using-The-Internet custom skin; I’m just myself. And it’s not all sunshine and epiphanies.


But I’m still Paul.

“I just wasn’t made for these times,” sing The Beach Boys. “Sometimes I feel very sad,” goes the refrain, and sometimes I do, indeed, feel very sad. But after switching myself to a pre-internet era, I can assure you “these times” don’t have much to do with it. It’s just, you know, life.

Not having the Internet has not changed Paul. He does the same things; some are easier and some are harder. This means that in the reverse, gaining the Internet will not change Paul either. His challenges will be different in some ways and the same in others. I think the same would be true of any other technology. There may be net changes in productivity but increased productivity does not lead to boredom.

I suspect the mistake made by those who fear solving too many problems is an assumption that nothing else will change either. If we are all perfectly healthy we will attempt the same feats that we attempt now but find them too easy. Of course this is ludicrous; we will attempt more challenging feats. If we can build everything we need today with robots at the push of a button we will get bored. Of course not, we will build more stuff.

If we can live for 10,000 years we will overpopulate the planet and run out of things to do. Of course not. We will probably only have children every few hundred years (plenty of time to develop hydroponics and colonise space) and in the meantime we can lead as many different lives as we like.

22 comments to Boredom vs technology

  • The Sage

    It seems to me that much of the “unpleasant side effects. Boredom, listlessness…” is just a defensive sour grapes reaction in the face of the seemingly unattainable good result. In the face of my own continually growing backlog of TODOs, I don’t see myself running out of stuff to do ever.

  • Stonyground

    I think that Douglas Adams was often writing tongue-in cheek. He did quite a lot of exploring those ‘what if’ scenarios. I think that in this case you are right and he was probably wrong, the story of Wowbagger the infinitely prolonged is a bit more plausible.

    He really hit the nail on the head with the government made up of lizards though. Everyone is dissatisfied with the lizards but no-one knows what to put in their place. As long as those who really want rid of the lizards remain a minority, nothing can change.

  • Alisa

    Actually, some people will get bored – as a matter of fact, these are probably the types that are bored as it is. They are welcome to choose not to prolong their lives, and let the rest of us get on with ours.

  • Dale

    This segues into one of my pet peeves. It seems that artistic types really are not meant for long lives. They cannot conceive of the centuries or millenia of happy adventures of others because to them life is just one long descent into boredom.

    If you doubt that, please come up with a list of books and in particular movies, in which the immortals are happy, well balanced people who are just plain enjoying the years. Other than Robert Heinlein and Pohl Anderson, I have trouble thinking of many in literature, let alone in movies… unless they happen to be supernatural magical beings who are in some basic fashion not human as we know it.

  • Greg Egan writes happy immortals but he’s special.

  • Dave Walker

    I wonder what a hugely extended lifespan would do to perceptions of risk.

    Accidents (including fatal ones) are a fact of life, and adventure usually involves increased risk of them (and other misfortunes not involving disease). I wonder whether, while I’m still optimistic enough to consider the human colonisation of space pretty much inevitable, it would happen more quickly or more slowly in the event if highly increased longevity.

    People may well be less willing to put their lives at risk, when there’s a lot more life to be risking…

  • I think that Douglas Adams was often writing tongue-in cheek.

    On the other hand, Douglas Adams was also someone who died much too young, and would love to still be around, I tend to think. He was one of those people who got depressed, but who was never bored.

    That particular quote is Adams throwing half a dozen not necessarily consistent or compatible ideas at the listener at the same time. The entire second radio series of Hitchhikers is like this. It’s funny, it’s clever, but it isn’t very focused, which is why so much of it got rewritten when it was adapted to book form. (The first book is a very straightforward adaptation of the first gour episodes of the first radio series. The second book is a very loose adaptation of the six episodes of the second radio series followed by a very straightforward adaptation of the final two episodes of the first radio series, and may well be the best book in the series. It had a complicated gestation, though).

  • the other rob

    Rob’s juxtaposition of those two types of technology (automation/labour saving tech and anti-senescence tech) raises some very interesting (to me, at least) observations.

    On the one hand, the two technologies might be said to be in opposition to each other. Absent longevity technology, labour saving technology becomes vital as enables maximum use to be made of a precious and very finite resource – one’s lifetime. With effective near-immortality, however, one might expect certain forms of automation to be disdained. When one has all the time in the world, why not take a few months to hand-craft the perfect wotsit?

    On the other hand, the arguments of the nay-sayers are in perfect alignment. They are the arguments of a self-appointed elite, disdaining the common man, who they believe will become bored and troublesome if not held with his nose to the grindstone for the duration of a life that must be nasty, brutish and short. After all, it’s all he’s fitted for.

    On the gripping hand, it seems clear that when we get viable and significant longevity tech, it will come because labour saving tech freed up the time needed for its inventors to invent it. Indeed, that is already happening.

  • The other rob, especially that third paragraph, hits several nails that this rob missed.

  • bobby b

    “If we can live for 10,000 years we will overpopulate the planet and run out of things to do.”
    – – – –

    I doubt that overpopulation will be a problem.

    A high percentage of new births arise out of long-term relationships.

    It can be tough just looking at your spouse in real-life nakedity after fifteen or twenty or thirty years of marriage/partnership/unionization, much less willing up the urge and resolve to initiate and consummate some physical intertwining.

    Imagine trying to fake an interest after 3700 years.

    As long as procreation continues to involve sex and sexual urges and inhibitions, I foresee a dwindling population.

  • What, Bobby B, even with a perpetually ” bronzed, healthy, clean-limbed” 19-year-old body?

  • Alisa

    ‘A high percentage of new
    births arise out of long-
    term relationships.’

    That may change if we live long enough – in fact, this may already be happening.

  • bloke in spain

    This Paul Miller guy seems to be some seriously sad individual. “Every untweeted observation of daily life was more sacred” WTFIATA? If I even considered using Twitter I’d be considering sucking on a shot gun, simultaneously. Do cnuts like this guy really exist outside of the imagination of newspaper columnists?

    Eternal life? Any chance of getting an extension on that?

  • I have no idea how long I would like to live for, if I could choose it. I think at least a thousand years, but beyond that I’m really not sure.

    I would like to be able to choose it, though.

  • As an alternative to looking forward, there might be things to be considered in looking back.

    Five hundred years ago, Henry VIII had been king for 3 years. It would be 7 years before the start of the first successful circumnavigation of the Earth. That took 20 months; now we can get half way in less than a day.

    What would those who lived then think about how we live today. Not having to work most of the year to have enough to eat. For it to be quite unusual not to have all one’s offspring survive oneself. To be able to travel overland in an hour, what then took days (even if one had the best form of transport going). To be able to converse with someone the other side of the world; send them a ‘letter’ and get a reply back within the hour. To fight a battle countries away where the outcome would be known by the kings/rulers of both sides by the end of the last day’s fighting.

    If we had lived then, would we say the risk of boredom in today’s world would be very high?

    With the benefit of hindsight, I think most of us would not. So why should we expect a future world to be full of boredom?

    Something, though, will have to be done to improve education!

    Best regards

  • the other rob

    Thank you, Rob. In homage to Messrs Niven and Pournelle, might I suggest that there’s room for a third rob here, as long as he doesn’t mind being known as “the gripping rob”.

    Michael Jennings’ observation sparks another thought. If “immortality” were invented tomorrow, most of us here would, of course, be unable to afford it.

    There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. The normal course of events is that new technologies are invented, are sold for very great amounts of money to the rich and, as the development costs are recouped, become available for less money, first to the middle classes and, eventually, to the poor.

    I do wonder, though, whether immortality tech might be different. If the early adopters have no “sunset clause” to look forward to, might it ever propagate downward? Or am I making a straw man argument? How much difference is there between an immortal oligarch and a dynasty of oligarchs?

  • Dishman

    the other rob wrote:
    If “immortality” were invented tomorrow, most of us here would, of course, be unable to afford it.

    You seem more certain of this than I am.

    Consider it as a financial transaction on one’s retirement account. If the cost is less than (Years extended)*((Retirement return) + (annual retirement contribution)), then it’s “affordable”. It doesn’t take very many years for that to be a fairly significant number.

  • Alisa

    To me Michael’s remark raises a different issue, and that is the extent of the control of such technology that will be given to the individual – both to extend his life or to end it – by the PTB.

  • manuel II paleologos

    Groundhog Day. My desert island movie, and about someone learning that exact lesson.

    I think the most pernicious example of The Boredom Myth is the endless repetition of the idea that children spend their school summer holidays complaining of being bored. This is to justify the squeezing of summer holidays to suit working parents’ child care needs – summer barely extends to the whole of August in many UK schools now.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    If some people really do get bored with long lives, then I’ve got just the concept for them- The Elite hunting club! We, who are not bored, will either hunt and kill them in painful ways or frighten them to death! (Or they’ll suddenly think that life, including their owm, is not so boring after all!)

  • Nuke, Chasm City by Alasdair Reynolds has assassins hired by rich people who take out contracts on themselves to make life more interesting.

    Manuel: summer holidays are getting shorter? It was 6 weeks when I was a lad and I was rarely bored.

  • I think Dan Simmons had the right idea.
    His posthumans ended up inventing time travel, travelling back in time and becoming the Greek Pantheon.
    Harder challenges indeed!