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[music]
[applause]
Genevieve Bell: What a pleasure to be here and what fun to get to talk about boredom
in a place where one hopes there won't be a great deal. I was thinking about what it
was I wanted to talk about today and struck by what it is that I think TED brings to bear
and why it is that it's such an exciting thing to participate in. But I was also really struck
by the fact that one of the things that we never do in events like this is actually have
any downtime.
So what I wanted to do today instead was actually make you an offer about what I hope you do
when you leave here today, which is to have a brief moment of being bored. I'm really
struck by the work I do about the fact that there is so much technology in our lives,
a promise of constant connectivity, a promise of devices and experiences, and with all of
that comes the fact that none of us ever switch off, log off or spend down time anymore.
I've been thinking about what the perils of that are, and why it is we might need to be
bored, and what it might bring to bring a little bit of boredom back into our lives.
It did strike me that I should probably say who it was that I was to tell you that boredom
was important. I am indeed Australian, trained in the United States. I'm also the daughter
of an anthropologist, so I spent most of my childhood knocking around Central and Northern
Australia killing things for my supper.
In the context of boredom, you should think that this either means I've led a charmed
existence where I was never bored, or perhaps more likely, I've been bored in a great many
places in this world.
In my job at Intel, I think of my task as bringing people into a conversation about
technology, whether that means I spend my time in people's houses all over the world
talking to them, getting a sense about what makes them tick, what they care about, what's
important to them and then feeding that information back into the company. That means I spend
a lot of time talking to engineers and trying to get them to understand what life is like
outside the building.
And about two years ago, the engineers with whom I work said, "OK, Genevieve, we get it,
this whole real people thing. We're really on board." And here they are. [laughter]
And I looked at this image and I thought, "Who are the people that you think you've
found?" If you're in the real world, which many of us are, I'm willing to bet you don't
have small children and white furniture, just practically speaking. It's unclear looking
at this image what it is that George Bush Sr. is doing making print ads. Global financial
crisis much worse in America then they're letting on.
There's something about the profound like of clutter in this room that suggests this
is deeply unreal. There is, for me, as a social scientist, some nagging worry about where
on the planet you find three generations of white people enjoying the same content happily.
[laughter]
Normally when I'm speaking to American audience I suggest that means they're found Canadians.
Perhaps in this context, we'd say Kiwis. Oh, I know. Not nice. Bad.
And then as one of the engineers did actually point out to me as I started critiquing this
image for him, in what universe does she get the remote control? And I remember looking
at this image and thinking you have not only found the wrong people, but this is such a
seductive image if you're an engineer or a technology developer because it suggests there
are people sitting around happily waiting for you to bring stuff to you.
And so we came back and said, "Listen, mate, this is really what the world looks like."
[laughter] It is some schlub on a fake leather sofa in an apartment in Hong Kong where there
is so much stuff in this room, it is amazing to think how you could produce anything else
that would break through the noise. There are seven remote controls here. There is an
automatic foot massage machine, an air conditioner, a fax and photocopying machine, one television,
two VCRs, a DVD player and enough content this bloke is never going to need to leave
his room again.
But this is also a room in which one could be bored. And for me, it turns out boredom
is a really important thing, because when you spend time with real people, they're not
always constantly happily sitting on sofas all enjoying the same content blissfully in
their white clean pristine rooms. They're actually living lives where there's a whole
lot of other things going on.
So part of my job then is not only to tell the stories about real people, but to actually
think about what our relationships are with, through, and around new technologies. And
one of the things I'm really struck by, and I was particularly struck by watching David
earlier as he held his mobile phone in his hand, is that mobile phones aren't really
about communication anymore. It's not a device for making phone calls.
The soul, in some ways, purpose of every mobile device all of you have somewhere in your hands
or your pockets is the promise that you'll never be bored again. You'll never have to
be anywhere without something to do, without a game, a map, an ability to text someone
and say, "Where are you and what are you doing?"
And that is an extraordinary promise because it erases some really interesting things,
and it got me thinking about boredom and the nature of boredom. And it turns out boredom's
actually really interesting. How ironic is that?
Really interesting, but also comparatively new. Boredom as a word doesn't actually enter
the English language until 1852 in a kind of irony of all ironies, boredom enters the
English language in Dickens in the book "Bleak House." Does it get anymore ironic than that?
Where the protagonist, as many of you will remember, a woman who is at the kind of beginning
edge of the industrial age. She doesn't have to work. She is of the leisure class, and
she spends this entire book basically complaining about the fact that she's bored.
She has too many choices, too many things to do. It's all a little bit overwhelming
and there's this really interesting sense of the linking of the notion of boredom to
the notion of choice and the fact that the word boredom doesn't come into the English
language until the Industrial Revolution tells you something about what it is that boredom
is linked to.
Because frankly, before the Industrial Revolution, you didn't have the opportunity to be bored.
You were merely idle. And idle and boredom are two very different things.
As boredom arrives in English, it very quickly gets links to things like a morality that
says being bored is bad and not something you should admit to. We promptly then go a
whole set of theorizing of boredom and starting to think about how you define it.
Here's just a list of some of the words that get used to think about boredom. It's a lot.
What's interesting if you go through all of the different sorts of academic literature--philosophy,
sociology, psychology--all of them turn on a couple of things here. One is that boredom
is clearly a state of tedium, a repetitious set of activities, a moment of being disengaged
by one's surroundings.
What's fascinating, however, is that moment of disengagement actually your brain lights
up. We may think of being bored as being a time of your brain being completely inactive.
It turns out one's brain is almost as active when bored as when not bored. And it turns
out the pieces of one's brain that light up when you're bored are very different than
the ones that light up when you're engaged.
It turns out from both a psychological and a physical perspective being bored is actually
a moment where your brain gets to reset itself and where, to take David's point, your consciousness
gets to reset itself, too.
Interesting, right? Very different notion about what bored might be then. So if we were
to go looking for boredom, where might we find it?
Unfortunately for me, talking about boredom meant I had to go read Heidegger. It's a bit
like having to read Dickens. Heidegger is a man who deeply obsessed with boredom in
the 1920s, theorizes it, has this lovely passage here about sitting in a railway station basically
bored out of his skull.
I won't read this for you, but suffice it to say in reading it, this should suddenly
feel really familiar. Without wanting to get overly nostalgic, this is the boredom of all
of our childhoods. This is the boredom of being kicked out of the back door by your
mother every summer and told to come home when it gets dark.
And when the exchange would go, "Mom, I'm bored," and your mother will say, "You could
go mow the lawn then." And the response is, "I'm not that bored," and off we went and
found things to do.
And many of us spent out childhoods knocking around backyards and creek beds and ovals
and generally not necessarily being delinquents or setting fire to rabbit hatches, but certainly
engaging in a set of fairly unstructured activities.
Mostly we don't do boredom the same way as adults, and I think frankly we probably don't
let many of our children have boredom the way we once had it.
Interestingly for philosophers, and particularly for Heidegger, he argues that being bored
is actually a fundamental state of being a human being, and that in fact we should spend
less of our time forestalling boredom and trying to take it away and more of our time
actively waking it up.
So thinking about how it is we might embrace boredom then is a really interesting challenge,
because we have some problems here, right? Heidegger could be bored on a train platform
in 1929. It's pretty hard to be bored on a train platform in 2011. It's hard to be bored
in an airport. It's hard to be bored almost anywhere.
Because in the nearly 100 years that have passed since Heidegger was first writing about
boredom, we have introduced a whole lot of devices that prevent us from ever being bored.
Four billion cell phones in circulation, a billion PCs, over a billion Internet users,
2.5 billion televisions. That's a lot of stuff to stop us being bored.
And every physical space we might go is now jammed to the rafters with things demanding
our attention: screens, shops, all sorts of activity. Some of them in our own hands; some
of them in others.
I think you can also make the case, and it's certainly true from the research we've done
recently, that we might've traded in boredom for suddenly being overloaded. I do wonder
in a kind of slightly cheeky way if one should read a billion downloads on the app store
as actually a billion reasons not to be bored and that what in fact we're doing with all
of these devices and all of these objects is warding off boredom.
They're like talismans, a little tiny moment of protecting us from being bored. Because
it turns out these devices demand our attention constantly. I interviewed a woman recently
in China and she said to me of this constellation of stuff in her life that all of these devices
were like a backpack of baby birds--great image, right?--with their mouths open screaming,
"Feed me, feed me, feed me!"
She said, "Sometimes I just want to zip up the backpack and throw it in the river," which
was in and of itself a kind of stifling moment and I thought it's not good that we've got
to the point where the demands of our devices exceed our ability to meet them and thinking
about what it means to imagine resting control back with such a violent act there. It was
really kind of stunning.
So I guess my plea to all of you, the thing I wish we could work out how to do, is bring
boredom back, because really if you thought about it and you were honest, when was the
last time you genuinely let yourself be bored?
I'm willing to bet most of us roll out of bed first thing in the morning and pick up
something--any sort of digital device, because some of us sleep with it in their hands apparently,
and moving forward, we will do more of this.
The data suggests one of the very first things most of us do in Australia, and in the United
States, and a lot of other places around the world is pick up our mobile phones, pick up
our iPads, pick up our tablets, log on, check Twitter, check Facebook, check our email.
First thing we do, we do it all day long. I'm willing to bet most of us haven't sat
still somewhere and done nothing. I'm willing to be most of us haven't done the moral equivalent
of walking out the door and not coming back until it's dark or you're hungry with no set
of structured activities.
And what might it mean to actually think about doing that? I think there's a couple of things
we could do that might work. I think number one is what would it be like to actually hang
up and log off and what would that take?
How many of us in the room are willing to imagine an hour without our devices? And I'm
as guilty as many of the rest of you here in this regard. This is a hard prescription
for me to fill for myself.
But I'm willing to bet that it becomes a really interesting thing to imagine, and the point
at which the pages of the newspapers and the technology magazines and indeed, women's magazines,
too, are now full of prescriptions about how to raise your children with Internet-free
weekends.
I saw some lovely advice columns recently about how to negotiate with your husband about
not bringing the Blackberry into the bedroom. Fascinating. What it might mean to think about
carving out time that wasn't about being logged on, that wasn't about being connected and
actually letting that be starts to challenge some of the things that we hear in the work
we do.
I had someone recently tell me that she killed herself on Facebook. Again, a graphic image.
What does that mean? She's like, "I had to get off Facebook, so I had a Facebook suicide."
The point at which one has to imagine metaphorically killing oneself to disengage from something
is kind of a moment that suggests maybe we need to rewrite our relationships with these
devices, because after all, as someone who is in the technology business, one of the
things I can tell you is that every one of those devices in your hands, in your backpacks,
by your bedside, they work better when they're constantly connected--constantly connected
to power, constantly connected to the network, constantly connected to content.
But the thing about human beings, and it's been true for thousands of years, human beings
work better when we're intimately disconnected. Think of every major world system. Think of
every major system that says we take the Sabbath and we have a different kind of relationship
to time and space. We pray, we meditate, we fast. There's a whole lot of ways we imagine
structurally being disconnected and how we map that back to this technology is, for me,
I think both a personal and a professional challenge. I think number one prescription
for how we might get back to bored, hang up and log off and do it more than once.
The second thing is we might have to actually work out how to make spaces to be bored. I
see some beginnings of this. Anyone who's been in the U.K. recently, or indeed in the
United States, public transportation now provides train carriages that are phone-free called
quiet carriages. I'm not really sure they're supposed to be bored. In fact, they're supposed
to encourage you to work, but the interesting thing about hanging up your mobile devices
may be that you could be bored.
This sign comes from a church in Korea where I did field work not so long ago and it reads,
"It would be a blessing if you turned off your phone." The sign next to it says, "Turn
off your phone and listen for the call of God." And the third sign says, "We have a
cell [unintelligible 14:25] so none of it's going to work anyway."
What's fascinating about this--I don't mean to suggest churches are places we are bored,
but they are places where we can imagine a different kind of relationship to time and
space. And how you start to carve out spaces that aren't about constant connectively is
an interesting challenge.
And failing all else, we can always be bored together. The data firmly suggests that teenage
kids when asked about what it is that they like to do say, "Well, we're all a bit bored."
Well, what's better than being bored? Better than being bored is better than being bored
together. And frankly, when you listen to the ways some of us talk about using Facebook,
"I went on onto Facebook because I was bored," suggests that at least we know how to imagine
being bored in groups, if not by ourselves.
So I guess my plea to all of us here, in the words of Heidegger, is to spend less of our
time putting boredom to sleep, less of our time being connected, and more of our time
thinking about how it is we would wake boredom up. Thank you.
[applause]
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【TEDx】TEDxSydney - Genevieve Bell - The Value of Boredom

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阿多賓 2014 年 3 月 7 日 に公開
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