Boredom Might be More Exciting than You Think

March 25, 2014

Can you write an exciting book about boredom? I claim to have done so! Yes, boredom is surprisingly interesting, and if you stop and think about it, boredom must be a key topic in philosophy of mind, as it relates to artificial intelligence. In my forthcoming science fiction novel, I argue that boredom will be an extremely serious threat for conscious machines, a matter of life and death.

Green metal panel with scratches - Dec. 31, 2013

Green metal panel with scratches, in Kinuta Park – Dec. 31, 2013 (Enlarge) This magnificent artwork was created inadvertently, I’m sure, by a worker scraping off old advertising posters. You can see another metal panel here. It’s in the same park just a few meters away from the green one

See, boredom might be a mere annoyance for most human beings, but what if your brain worked a million times faster? You’d get bored that much sooner, and you’d have to find a million more things to occupy you. Rampant boredom would tear through a machine mind causing short circuits and overheating. It would be catastrophic.

Well, wait a minute. What is boredom anyway? If you read the philosophical literature, you’ll find dozens of playfully poetic attempts to define boredom but nothing systematic or serious. I get the feeling these philosophers are just trying to alleviate their own boredom by talking endlessly about it!

Maybe there are really two different kinds of boredom, or two different things that we call by the same name of “boredom,” as follows:

  1. Wanting to do something different than what you’re doing (which you consider a static condition)
  2. Existential ennui – not wanting anything at all

Yes, I think human boredom can generally be defined in terms of wanting to do something other than what you are doing. For example, suppose you are driving your car down the highway hour after hour. You might feel bored because you wish you could already be at your destination. This is type 1 boredom – wishing you were doing something else.

Consider another example – a stereotypical teenage kid who mopes around the house and complains about being bored. When you ask him what he wants to do, he says, “I don’t know.”

  1. Maybe the kid really does know some things he’d like to do, but those things are not practical at the moment. For example, maybe the kid is stuck at home in Nebraska over the summer without even a car, whereas he’d rather be back in New York City with his college friends. This is again the type 1 boredom.
  2. Or maybe the kid really doesn’t know what he’d like to do. Maybe nothing in the whole world excites him, and he doesn’t see any meaning in life. This is the existential ennui.

I think people mostly tend to have the first kind of boredom, because people in general are full of desires – and full of energy that they are trying to channel toward fulfillment of their desires. But they don’t always find useful outlets for their energy. It’s boring to have a lot of energy with nothing to do.

See, people find happiness when they sense they are making progress toward the root goal. Boredom is a static situation in which you have no sense of progress. That’s why boredom feels bad.

Let’s also distinguish between something boring and something that’s just bad. After all, it’s not boring when you are dying of thirst. That’s more excitement than most people want! Suppose you were in the middle of the Sahara Desert. That might be boring with just sand all around and nothing else in sight. But then you might start to get thirsty, and you might worry about dying of thirst. Suddenly you’re not bored anymore! You’re in the middle of an exciting struggle for survival.

Both boredom and disaster are regrettable situations that one wishes to escape, but boredom is seen as static, while disaster is seen as retrogressive. In other words, boredom suggests lack of progress, while disaster suggests actually moving backwards and losing the good things one previously had. Needless to say, disaster is not boring. It’s regrettable, but not boring.