Boredom

by James Somers, February 23, 2011

I don’t seem to get bored anymore. I mean that I no longer get the feeling that I want to do something, but not any of the things I can think of doing. Of course I still get bored of individual activities.

What happened?

I think that the biggest change as I’ve gotten older is that I now see activities at a higher grain. Where I used to survey my options as “reading,” “watching TV,” “playing a video game,” or “running around outside,” I now break each of these into lots of sub-options: “reading the newspaper,” “reading the Economist,” “reading Reader posts,” “reading Cryptonomicon,” “reading Le Ton Beau de Marot,” etc.

Since boredom is the feeling of not having an outlet for my energy—of not liking my options—and since I now seem to have more options, I have a smaller chance of getting bored. I can always think of something to do because my mind has matured to be stimulable by—and capable of—more and more things.

It’s the old idea of “seeing the world in a grain of sand”: the closer you zoom into something, the richer it gets. And what have I been doing in my intellectual life over the past eight or nine years? Zooming in.

* * *

With that in mind, I can now see what might threaten my newfound unborability: anything that forces me, or encourages me, to zoom out.

The trouble is that these kinds of things are proliferating. Most of what I read on the web, for instance, is trying to summarize something for me. And most of the web sites I visit summarize those summaries.

What seems to be happening is what I described in a post called “Wandering the Web Stacks“: I cultivate a few feeds, aggregations of abstractions of ideas, and when I’m done walking through them, I feel as though there’s nothing left to read online.

* * *

These feeds aren’t always pernicious. Sometimes they draw me down a rabbit hole, down a few levels of abstraction, until suddenly I’m consuming huge volumes on a single topic. That topic then becomes one of the options I can cash in to fend off boredom.

I think it’s worth reminding myself that drawing me down rabbit holes is what those feeds are for.