On wishing for boredom

This is not a post about Steve Jobs. I read enough of them in the days and weeks af­ter his death. I read in these a lot of what I al­ready knew and learned some new stuff for sure, but one Steve quote stood out to me in Wired’s obit­u­ary:

I’m a big be­liev­er in bore­dom,” he told me. Boredom al­lows one to in­dulge in cu­rios­i­ty, he ex­plained, and “out of cu­rios­i­ty comes every­thing.”

I’m not sure if I’d head this quote from him be­fore, but it put in­to words some­thing that has been trou­bling me for some time: I haven’t been bored in years.

The first time I no­ticed this was in the mid-2000s, and  I on­ly re­al­ized part of it, and I saw it through the lens of my Internet us­age, par­tic­u­lar­ly RSS. Even to­day, as the cool kids have moved on to fol­low­ing Twitter feeds (re­al­ly, talk about a step back­wards) of web­sites and blogs they find in­ter­est­ing, I’m still a huge fan of the no-bullshit, user-in-control, de­cen­tral­ized pow­er of RSS.1

What oc­curred to me back then was that hav­ing posts pushed to me dai­ly gave me more read­ing ma­te­r­i­al than I need­ed. And since I could nev­er get all the way through the un­read glut of posts from blogs I’d sub­scribed to, my need to ever go for­ag­ing for in­ter­est­ing things to read ba­si­cal­ly dis­ap­peared. RSS gave me tons of serendip­i­ty (thank you, linkblogs!)… and at the same time, prac­ti­cal­ly none at all. I miss the old days — some would say the bad old days — when I’d get my on­line en­ter­tain­ment and ran­dom bits of en­light­en­ment by brows­ing aim­less­ly from link to link, be­ing per­son­al­ly point­ed to in­ter­est­ing things by friends on AIM, fol­low­ing lat­est links post­ed to proto-blogs like Pixelsurgeon, and… I don’t know, how­ev­er else we found cool shit back then.

The sec­ond time I felt this ef­fect of this was at some point over the last few years, but this time in a more gen­er­al sense. This time it was big­ger than RSS; this time it was about every­thing in my life.

I re­al­ized I have far too many op­tions for en­ter­tain­ment. There are two rea­sons for this: mas­sive dig­i­tal stor­age de­vices and the fact that, be­ing em­ployed gives me an ac­tu­al en­ter­tain­ment bud­get for pur­chas­ing paid me­dia and fan­cy de­vices on which to ex­pe­ri­ence it. Between a pile of un­read books and bunch of e-books; more un­watched movies, sea­sons of old TV shows and ani­me se­ries than I can name; and games ga­lore that I’ll nev­er fin­ish (thank you Nintendo Wii and DS, Android phone and a still-kickin’ Atari 2600), I’m pret­ty much set for… for­ev­er.2 Even if I don’t seek out any­thing new, it’ll be years and years be­fore I get through all of this. And it’s not like I can just ig­nore new re­leas­es and stuff I be­come aware of in the mean­time!

I might be able to en­joy this world o’ plen­ty, if I could for­get about what life was like when I was grow­ing up, be­fore we had the com­put­ing pow­er, stor­age and net­work ca­pac­i­ty to ex­pe­ri­ence all the dig­i­tal rich­es of more en­ter­tain­ment than we’ll ever need. I spent so much time be­ing bored grow­ing up, aim­less­ly think­ing and day­dream­ing and such. This was be­fore my first com­put­er; I had tons of books and had prob­a­bly read al­most all of them, made good use of the pub­lic li­brary, played with toys, ac­tion fig­ures and stuff a whole lot and still found time to be bored and day­dream be­cause it seemed like I had run out of things to do.

If you live a sim­i­lar­ly full, media-rich and em­ployed first-world life, and can still ever find your­self so lux­u­ri­ous­ly bored, how do you man­age? And can you teach me?

  1. Google Reader, please don’t die.
  2. I didn’t men­tion mu­sic here, be­cause the way I con­sume mu­sic is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. I still clear­ly have more than I “need,” but I don’t feel the same sort of pres­sure to get through it all, thanks to shuf­fle mode.

The case of the disappearing, reappearing dictionary

I was a vo­ra­cious read­er from a rather ear­ly age. I re­call hav­ing had my read­ing lev­el, in first or sec­ond grade, as­sessed at that of an eighth-grader.

My read­ing prowess could be at­trib­uted to a few things, like my par­ents read­ing to me from a young age, and of­ten en­cour­ag­ing me to read to them. More im­por­tant­ly, if I came across a word I didn’t know and asked them what it meant, they al­most al­ways made me go look it up in the dic­tio­nary. I had a children’s dic­tio­nary that I adored, but for words that didn’t ap­pear in there, I’d use their musty col­le­giate dic­tio­nary. This fos­tered an en­vi­ron­ment where lit­er­al­ly no word was be­yond my com­pre­hen­sion, an em­pow­er­ing feel­ing for a pre-geek with a single-digit age!

As I grew up, I didn’t al­ways man­age to keep read­ing with such vol­ume and tenac­i­ty, and to­day, while I read tons of bits and blogs from the Web, long-form con­tent isn’t some­thing I take in a lot of. When I do, it tends to be an e-book. (I read these, in epub for­mat, on my Android phone us­ing the ex­cel­lent open-source FBReader. Yes, read­ing off of a small back­lit screen sucks, but this is mit­i­gat­ed by a nice serif font and the knowl­edge that, as I’m of­ten read­ing in the dark, I wouldn’t re­al­ly be able to read any oth­er way.)

As I read, still I come across the oc­ca­sion­al word I don’t know. These days, my main dic­tio­nary (ei­ther Free Dictionary Org or Lexicon Lite) al­so lives in­side of my phone. FBReader doesn’t have its own built-in, and to switch to an­oth­er app is kind of a pain, so I’ve late­ly been find­ing my­self shrug­ging off un­known terms. I have be­come the sort of per­son who stopped learn­ing new words.

This both­ered me, so I de­cid­ed that, damn the in­con­ve­nience, I would start look­ing up words again. Once I tried, I learned that it ac­tu­al­ly wasn’t so hard, af­ter all.

The se­cret (if you could call it that) was to long-hold my phone’s Home but­ton. This is the equiv­a­lent to the Alt+Tab key com­bi­na­tion in Linux and Windows, which al­lows you to flip through open apps (on­ly, in Android, it’s a list of the six most re­cent­ly used apps, open or oth­er­wise). As long as the dic­tio­nary is among the last six, it’ll ap­pear in that list… as does FBReader, when it’s time to switch back. This is much more en­joy­able than go­ing back to the home screen, flip­ping open the apps draw­er, etc.

I guess that’s a pass­able not-so-new-anymore year’s res­o­lu­tion: to leave no word un-lexicized.