Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface
(McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019)
The Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell begins each of the four sections of Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface with a mood report. For Part One, the reported dominant mood is: “eerie, restless, frustrated.” Kingwell’s reports on moods recollect Langston Hughes’s “The Big-Timer,” where THE POEM is juxtaposed with THE MOOD, the latter a kind of vertical status update that relays the state of mind relevant to each stanza. Wish I Were Here and “The Big-Timer” share more than formal ingenuity in common. Like “The Big-Timer,” Wish I Were Here concerns our sense of self across time. Kingwell: “The question is not so much, How is it that I come to be bored, and what does it mean that I am? The real question is, rather, Who is this ‘I’ imagined to be the subject of boredom, and how did its existence come to be presumed in just this way?” (“The Big-Timer”: Who am I? / It ain’t so deep: / I’m the guy the home folks call—/ The Black Sheep.”) Kingwell zeroes in on boredom and our relationship to it in late-capitalist life. He then examines what facilitates and exploits our boredom, namely, “the Interface.”
But what is boredom? Kingwell identifies five main types. First, he draws on the insights of distinguished philosophers—including Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger—who suggest “that the subjectively unpleasant experience of boredom is philosophically revelatory.” Boredom, like a stone in our shoe, prompts us to stop. Our journey is now stalled. Being stalled—which is a feature of boredom (Kingwell: “We are stalled in time…”)—offers an opportunity for reflection. What am I doing (or not doing) anyway? Kingwell argues that other forms of boredom aim to neuter “boredom as philosophically originary,” to deprive it of its vigor and force—and, yes, Kingwell insists that boredom can be life giving.
A second form of boredom is psychoanalytic, pertaining to “‘tangles of desires’—when desires conflict or do not align between first and second orders, when specific desire is numbingly absent, and so on.” For example, I want to want to write a short story, yet I lack the second-order desire to do so (I lack the desire for the desire to write a story). Or I want to want something. In this case, I am short of a specific desire. In either case, I am bored.
Both as a function of the gig economy and of steadier forms of work, boredom is political. In the gig economy, we have “the boredom of ceaseless striving in a rigged competition.” The reader is reminded of a 2017 New York Times article “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons”:
Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists, Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and non-cash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder—and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them.
In more traditional forms of work, we suffer the boredom associated with “bullshit jobs,” along with the concomitant meaningless therein.
Creative boredom is treated as irritating to the individual but potentially generative. Creative boredom undergirds the poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Wasting Time on the Internet” course at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Goldsmith’s syllabus, “To bolster our practice, we’ll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time wasting through critical texts. Distraction, multitasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.” Although Kingwell does not cite Goldsmith, the former’s commentary is an incisive reply: “By repositioning its presumptively negative features as opportunities for creative thought, boredom is effectively redefined (and defanged) as daydreaming, wool-gathering, brainstorming, and other ‘outside the box’ or ‘lateral thinking’ tactics. […] So-called creative boredom can take boredom only half-seriously.”
Neoliberal boredom is the main focus of Wish I Were Here. It hinges on a kind of cannibalistic pointlessness, whereby we produce and consume ourselves at a cost of our own satisfaction by design. Because if we were satisfied—by scrolling, via swiping, through posting—our engagement with these respective platforms would end (at least temporarily), which would not be in the interest of their makers, of their shareholders, who, in this attention economy, covet our eyes, our thumbs, our clicks for all time.
Neoliberal boredom is promoted and harnessed by “the Interface”—the Interface being “fluid space that joins and allows interaction among platform, content, and user,” which, to be clear, is not limited to technology; rather, this fluid space also encompasses social and political influence that enables technology. An increasingly ubiquitous example of what Kingwell means by the Interface is the swiping mechanism of the dating application Tinder, by which one user “likes” or “dislikes” another user. Our engagement with this mechanism and how we experience ourselves through “this restless ‘choosing’” is the Interface. Neoliberal boredom, then, with the aid of the Interface, consists in “the ever-renewable condition of no longer seeking a specific desire at all.” As opposed to an absence of desire stalling my ability to, say, write a story—and consequently being bored—I am now simply stalled due to my enmeshment in a platform. The motion of swiping now consumes me. As Kingwell says: “Neoliberal boredom means not just the peculiar boredom of the Interface consumed in place of the content, but the distinct experience of subjective emplacement associated with that consumption—a species of imprisonment and lurking addiction in what turns out to be, indeed, rabid self-consumption.”
In “The Big-Timer,” the speaker says: “I turn on the radio, / Mix up a drink, / Make lots o’ noise, / Then I don’t have to think.” (THE MOOD: “Baring his inner heartaches and loneliness to the ironic gaiety of the music.”) The Interface has a similar effect on our subjectivity. Whereas noise and drink supply the big-timer with means to sidestep capacities of being human—such as the ability to reflect—the Interface likewise performs its own en-/inthralling substitution tricks. Yes, the Interface both mesmerizes us and causes us to lose our autonomy. Indeed, Kingwell, in Part Three: The Crisis (Mood Report: Despair), discusses the futility and immorality in blaming the addict, the user of the Interface. Kingwell draws our focus instead to the responsibility of the designers of these products. “These harms can be addressed by more conscious menu design, allowing greater freedom of choice—and hence possible goods that do not threaten autonomy—even as a public database of menus, choices, and outcomes could be compiled to track the evidence.” Allow the user to be better informed before she clicks, thereby enabling her to decide whether a choice to engage with an application is in harmony with her better desires. (Kingwell discusses Plato’s hierarchical, tripartite theory of the soul, as well as the Interface’s flair for psychic destabilization.)
In addition to advocating on behalf of ethical design, Kingwell proposes “scaffolding” as a means to counter the pernicious influence of the Interface. “Interface-specific anti-addiction scaffolds might include strict schedules of media fasting, meditation and exercise regimes, and techniques for shifting neoliberal boredom, with its in-built tendencies to send us after endless stimulus, towards philosophical reflection” (i.e., towards philosophically originary boredom). If such measures sound as though they would encroach on our liberties, well, it is worth noting, as Kingwell does, that “the Interface is itself a form of scaffolding, since it nudges—or perhaps shoves—human behavior in particular directions, especially those that reinforce the capitalist interests of those companies that dominate the media-sphere.” Just as “the free market” is not truly free, the Interface is not either. There is a cost to signing up for “free” accounts on Gmail, on Twitter, on Instagram, etc. To demand that these services be regulated is to counter interests with interests. Despite its veneer—Google Doodle be damned!—the Interface is not benign.
One response to Kingwell’s argument is to deny that we are not seeking a specific desire when, for instance, we scroll. What if the reason I scroll through Yelp results in search of the best restaurant despite the fact that I am not hungry—to offer a personal example—is because I desire scrolling qua scrolling? As opposed to viewing it as a manifestation of restlessness, scrolling is deemed to be satisfying in itself. The means has superseded the end.
I’m unconvinced. Yes, I scroll. But I do not say to myself, I want to scroll. This is one way in which Interface desire distinguishes itself from, say, the desires of the big-timer. When the big-timer turns on the radio or makes himself a drink, presumably he is saying to himself, I want to hear jazz. I want to drink a Manhattan. On a first-order level of desire, he experiences satisfaction—albeit, satisfaction that he might later regret. In the case of the Interface, satisfaction is postponed. Monotonous stimuli take its place.
Wish I Were Here is a kind of philosophical collage. Myriad source materials are culled from diverse fields: academic, literary, pop-cultural. Pictures of colorful “boring” postcards animate the book. Kingwell constructs a vibrant argument with deep stakes. If we do not address our neoliberal boredom, including through regulating the Interface, we risk forfeiting selfhood and our sense of purpose. “We can truly find ourselves again in boredom,” Kingwell writes. “We can discover what we temporarily lost, that is, knowing what to do with ourselves.” As the speaker in the “Big-Timer” continues to retell his life story, his materialist bravado yields to his human condition. The speaker, by the poem’s end, is bored with himself. He has experienced the meaningless of his identity as a big-timer: “That’s…all…I…am.”