Are we creating devices those trigger boredom and a society that is bored?

Boredom is such a large part of day-to-day existence the word was first seen in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House in 1852. But because of its prevalence in our day-to-day lives, thinkers and scientists had been slow to explore this. Boredom is a much bigger problem than suffering. Meta-systems and products that were designed to deal with suffering are not especially effective at dealing with boredom.

In a personal survey conducted of close family members, friends, and colleagues I found boredom appeared even more frequently in their responses than “loneliness” or “lack of fresh air,” and trailed by “lack of freedom”. Multiply that experience across billions of people, and you’ll get a sense of how much boredom the world is facing right now. Of all the difficulties and tragedies we faced it sounds absurd to say that we’re bored in a pandemic but the stress of this moment changes our ability to pay attention. Very few people recognise that we can’t solve boredom just by having the right podcasts, must-read books, blockbuster movies, puzzles, or baking sets to keep you busy. Boredom is a completely natural reaction to not being meaningfully engaged in the world.

Apart from the pandemic-induced boredom, there is boredom because life is easy. There is boredom because achievement is difficult without effort, and effort is too much trouble. We are now overstimulated — easy access to almost infinite entertainment options is feeding boredom rather than discouraging it. Boredom a form of entropy, it turns out, can be a dangerous and disruptive state of mind that damages your health — and even cuts years off your lifespan. As designers, are we creating devices those trigger boredom and a society that is bored? It’s a question worth pondering over and debating.

There are multiple opportunities to deal with boredom only if we start with a clean slate. But we should be cautious about looking for an immediate solution or an escape. Before we set out to eliminate boredom let’s ask what it is trying to tell us. Most objects that are designed and demanded simply offer instant gratification may it be a smartphone or tablet or an entertainment solution or service, which are counter-productive, the more entertained we are, the more entertainment we need to feel satisfied.

The more we fill our world with fast-moving, high-intensity time-filling devices, ever-changing stimulation, and synthetic second-hand excitement, the more we get used to that and the less tolerant we become of lower levels. We crave more time. However, when we have free time, we don’t know what to do with it. It’s like a hedonic treadmill nothing seems exciting enough to deserve our valuable time. We end up doing nothing and get bored.

Instead, it would be wiser for designers to question whether there are more serious, long-term issues that are causing us to feel disengaged. John Eastwood, director of the Boredom Lab at York University believes that boredom is a ‘crisis of meaning.’ It invites us to reflect on how we engage with the world. “Priming people to feel their lives have a greater purpose and meaning tends to make them less bored,” says Eastwood. As we enter the post-pandemic era, it would be worthwhile to re-evaluate the purpose and design approaches towards boredom-killing devices or services and to rethink what we actually mean when we say we are bored.

(This Perspective was originally published on June 5, 2021 by Shekhar Badve on LinkedIn)