Question 107 of 365: Are we occupying or transforming our idle time?

My brothers played hockey. Smelly, cold, and rough and tumble. They had early ice times and late night games. They played from mighty mites on up through peewees and then in high school too. Hockey made sense to them in a way that it never did for me.

I used to stay home during their practices, that is once I had done enough time in the ice rink arcade. For years I faked playing video games in there, living vicariously through people who seemingly had quarters coming out of their ears. But when I was old enough to stay home, I did. I knew that there was only so much locker room stench I really needed in my life, and once I had reached my limit, I said no more.

So, I stayed home and had marathon sessions of Saved by the Bell. I should have been doing homework, so I would try to turn off the TV from time to time, but I never was able to resist one more episode. Because of this I can go head to head with anyone who believes they know more about Zac Morris than I do, unfortunately it isn’t something that comes up all that often. I wanted to escape from my responsibilities into a world that was made for the protagonist, where the affects of doing whatever you wanted were never felt for very long (see the episode where Zac scores extremely high on SATs without doing any work in school). I just couldn’t turn away, at least not when the alternative was math worksheets or projects that had been dreamed up decades before.

It was when I was left alone like this that I understood just how idle my life was. Without the presence of interesting goals or progress toward something of value, I was just looking for something to distract me until my parents came home. That was when I first noticed how much time I really had to do “nothing,” but it certainly wasn’t the last. Before I could reflect upon it, I had lived some of the most insignificant moments of my life in front of the television and computer. Before I knew that Collaboration would engage my mind, I saw that entertainment could distract it. Before I understood that creation would bolster my confidence, I saw that consumption would provide escape.

And yet, I did figure out what would truly bring about my happiness and let me transform my idle time by controlling the ratio of input to output. I realized this as a function of being bored. I starting to write on a daily basis. It was becoming engaged in poetry and the conversations that it held that allowed me to finally turn off Saved by the Bell and find something more worthy of my time than Zac Attack (the fictional band that Zac Morris created in a dream episode). Unfortunately, I don’t think it can be writing that does it for everyone. I also think that we are distracting ourselves more easily than we ever have before.

Netflix on Demand, DVRs and similar services are creating a culture of entertainment that feels more like creation. Because we can play, pause and fast forward all of our content (even print, audio and images), it seems as though we are doing something. There is no longer the sense that other people are going to create a marathon of episodes for us. We are creating that marathon for ourselves. We are now active participants in our own idleness. Before it was being pumped at us, but now we are choosing to turn on the fire hose and leaving it on because it feels like we are moving from the pressure.

We can no longer accept that boredom and idleness are the same, mostly because we are no longer bored when we are idle. We don’t give ourselves the chance to be bored. We must always be engaged by the content at our fingertips. We must always be searching YouTube for the next viral video or be reading up on the next Apple rumor. In that way, we are occupying our idle time in self-made distraction. We are crafting the environment that occupied my time for years while my brothers were off playing hockey. And yet we are feeling transformed in this environment, and that is what I am most worried about.

It is the fact that our idleness has become so interactive that is disguising our preoccupation with it. We are no longer able to simply be bored and to let that run its course. Because inevitably, boredom leads to invention, at least it did for me. I wrote in the quietest of times and spaces. I wrote when there was nothing to occupy me. But there aren’t those times now, and that is a turn for the worse. While I am not going to make an argument that certain devices, like the iPad, are turning our culture in one of consumers rather than social creators, rather I would like to state that it is the way in which we are consuming our content that allows us to confuse idleness with participation.

In one last analogy, I believe that our instinct to create playlists of music has been compared to the mix tape or cd of just a few years ago. Unfortunately, I do not buy it. Now, our playlists are made up by Pandora or iTunes Genius technology rather than by people. We share them far and wide through project playlist and other such sites. There are no hand crafted covers or agonizing over tracks. While I do not wish to bemoan the past, I think that believing that the playlist and the carefully crafted mix are the same is one more way in which we are confusing a mere occupation of our idle time with a transformation of it.

If I can be so bold as to suggest:

We need more boredom. We need more mix tapes. We need more writing.

We need less false interaction. We need less occupied minds. We need less playlists.

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