On boredom, information systems, and the practice of good reading.

Author:Salarelli, Alberto

Introduction: The Democratization of Boredom

Saint Augustine claimed to know what time was, although he admitted that it was beyond him to define it: "What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled" (Confessions, XI, [section]14). The same thing could be said of boredom. The parallel is certainly no coincidence. Time and boredom are two closely related phenomena in that the latter is generated by a certain "quality" of the former, i.e., its ruthless infinity.

Despite the fact that boredom, under a variety of names, has been present on the earth ever since man was prone to experience it, it has emerged as a hallmark feature of modern man (Klapp, 1986; Svendsen 2005). It was recognized as an increasingly widespread experience, especially with the advent of existential philosophy, which has undertaken the particularly arduous task of trying to understanding its role in human life. It is clear, however, that rather than through their ponderings of Kierkegaard's gloomy, convoluted thoughts as set forth in Eitherl0r, or Heidegger's weighty tome, Being and time, many readers will have felt their own bored souls described vicariously in the guise of the great characters of romantic literature, such as Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Werther, and in the various classics of the twentieth century by the likes of Beckett, Camus, Hemingway, Sartre and Moravia. And, with the dawning of the new millennium, the number of writers who tend to draw inspiration by generously imbibing from the spring of tedium has grown to the point of resembling a small army. It is interesting to note that many of the latter-who frequently rather than actually describing boredom, manage to evoke it in the reader--are defined by literary critics as postmodern, despite the fact that they are dealing with a subject that is typical of and specific to modern life. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to reread Giddens who asserts that "we have not moved beyond modernity but are living precisely through a phase of its radicalisation" (Giddens, 1990: 51), thereby cautioning ourselves not to focus on seeking breaks with the past, but instead seeking to recognize an overarching continuity in terms of connections that bind us to the century that has just come to a close.

A certain availability of time is an essential factor in understanding the spread of boredom in the contemporary world. In the past only the wealthy could afford to experience an abundance of free time, thereby opening themselves to the risk of indolence and boredom (Klapp, 1986: 31); emblematic, from this point of view, are the cases of Montaigne, Leopardi and Schopenhauer who wrote: "As want is the constant scourge of the people, so ennui is that of the fashionable world. In middle-class life ennui is represented by the Sunday, and want by the six week-days" (Schopenhauer 1909: 404). Today, on the other hand, leisure time has been democratized; large doses of it are within the grasp of everyone on a daily basis. We are on the threshold of living in a society founded on leisure time. Indeed, despite the fact that the modern work week is distinguished by so-called flexibility--which means, not only precariousness in terms of safeguarding one's own job, but also an increasing difficulty when it comes to tracing a clear line of demarcation between work time and leisure time--the fact that one has more time to engage in so-called recreational activities can hardly be contested. This is demonstrated by the exponential growth in the travel industry which today represents fully 10% of the worldwide GNP as proudly reported by the WTTC (World Travel & Tourism Council); it is further corroborated (if we care to take a peek inside our own domestic precincts) by the ubiquitous use of extraordinary instruments for whiling away the hours, the electronic media. The recent success of the philosophy of "downshifting" is revealing in this regard; recovering the quality of life is necessarily achieved by reducing the pace of work and the rediscovery of those values that can only by appreciated at leisure moments, even though, as has been correctly observed (Levy 2005, 187), a simple reduction in the number of work hours is not sufficient to recover a lost sense of life. This is because having more leisure time on your hands doesn't necessarily mean knowing how to best use it. True, one may experience boredom on the job, but in that case one is obliged to finish the task at hand, to reach a certain set goals. One is not beset by the tremendous burden of deciding how to organize one's time, what goals to work toward and how best to pursue said goals, which is the true root boredom and its most profound manifestation. Only the latter, existential boredom, is actually associated with leisure time in that it assumes time for reflection, the opportunity to muster one's spiritual resources, the ability to organize one's daily schedule. If during the course of work my course of activity is determined, during my leisure time I must decide whether to embark upon a particular course or not. And, unfortunately, some people are unable to get motivated; in this case we are dealing with boredom which becomes pathological: depression (Barbalet 1999).

Boredom and Information Systems

A key phase in the democratization process of boredom is represented by the quantification of the amount of time destined for work. Based on the Marxist theory of value, in 1903 Simmel in The metropolis and mental life (Simmel 1971: 330) and later Polanyi in The great transformation (1944) reasoned that, as soon as money is used as the measure of all things--from natural resources to the value of human work-the quality of both inevitably tends to be relegated to a secondary importance relative their reciprocal value, that is, their transformation into sellable goods according to the laws of the market. As everyone knows, the modern science of information technology is based on the model developed by Claude Shannon, which allows the information that travels along a certain channel within a certain unit of time to be quantified (Shannon 1948). These two trends develop contemporaneously. The earliest theories regarding the quantification of work time were formulated by David Ricardo in 1817-21, while the first calculator was designed by Charles Babbage in 1822. And, of course, this was no coincidence. Indeed, if one manages to segment and quantify the manufacturing process that leads to...

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