Meetings of the Bored
How does our intimacy with technology change us?
By Tony Gorry & Bob Westbrook
In every age, leaders of businesses have encountered
obstacles on their paths to success. Often changing
circumstances have thwarted previously prepared
plans. Then, the work of the mind took precedence
over that of the hand. New ways were needed to
prosper in changing competitive environments.
Sometimes a single, grand conception restored a
company to prosperity; other times, it was a number
of lesser ideas knitted together fortuitously. Hope
for such innovations rested largely on the creativity
A prominently placed "suggestion box" acknowledged
that good ideas might come from workers whose job
descriptions said nothing about innovation. Indeed,
two decades ago, when the concept of intellectual
capital first entered the management literature,
Stewart took it as the "sum of everything everybody
in your company knows that gives you a competitive
edge in the market place."  In this view, what a
company knows emerges not just from its leaders,
but as well from the experiences, insights and
intuitions of a wide range of employees. Everyone is
a potential source of innovation.
So in recent years, businesses have launched
comprehensive programs to tap the collective
brainpower of their employees. Attention is paid
to the insights of the worker on the shop floor,
the customer representative, the logistic team,
which had for long escaped recording and
cataloging.  Networks linking workers and
processes across different companies undergird
many recent increases in productivity, rewarding
businesses that know what they know — and
know it right away.
That we are attached to information technology is
readily apparent to even the most casual observer.
It permeates our lives and shapes much of our
experience of the world. Less apparent are ways
in which our intimacy with these machines is
We might expect, for example, that our growing
intimacy with digital machines will swell an
electronic suggestion box to foster innovation and
promote organizational growth. Perhaps, but we
have our doubts.
Wander the hallways of
a large business.
Look for contributors to our imagined suggestion box. Here's a
meeting in the executive suite. See heads bowed as though in
contemplation. Perhaps they're pondering strategic challenges
facing the company. More likely, they're eyeing their personal
digital assistants, checking email, the latest news, Facebook
or Twitter. Some may think they're concealing their dalliances
in the virtual world. Others, avid users themselves, know
what's going on. Their attempts to hide their distractions are
On the floor below, we pass several employees unwrapping
sandwiches for a quick lunch. They plan to review progress on a
task force report. Again, heads are bowed. Are they saying grace
over their food? More likely, like the executives above, they're
turning to smart devices for engagement, tuning out colleagues.
Walking on, we ask our host about the company's recent
activities. While she gives us an overview, she too checks her
smart phone, almost as if she needed a script for her answers.
She seems distracted. Maybe she's already devoted enough
time to us and needs to get on to more important matters.
Sherry Turkle says "talking to each other is perceived as
exhausting, and we happily retreat into worlds where
we communicate only with machines."  Maybe we're
At times, everyone has wished for escape from the here
and now. Doodling, gazing out the window, empty-headed
nodding or long, pregnant pauses: all are ways to check out
of dull, uninspiring encounters. Digital technology, however,
has greatly expanded the opportunities for flight. Throughout
the organization, as in social life generally, its widespread use
has altered the rules of civility. Device at the ready, we put
our colleagues and family members firmly on notice that we
won't tolerate boredom to the degree that was once expected
Boredom is a cloud to be banished as quickly as possible. Our
mobile devices stand ready to suppress even its most wispy
beginnings. In lines, at street crossings and in waiting rooms,
wherever there might be a break in life's action, shorter and
shorter intervals of time now demand filling. Something may
have just happened to someone, somewhere. We check and
check again. We flee our own thoughts to entertainments
fashioned by others. But a flight from boredom can be a flight
from creativity, because it is from boredom that new ideas
and connections emerge, in the executive suite and on the
What of our imagined suggestion box? Its value depends
on contribution, assessment and dissemination. First,
managers and workers need to volunteer insights regarding
their jobs and improving the performance of the business.
Next, from those contributions must be selected knowledge
and practices that most promise benefits, grand or small.
Finally, the chosen innovations must be shared and
improvements must be anchored in the ways of the company.
Failure in any of these steps locks creativity within one part
of the organization, unrecognized and unexploited by others.
Too often then, errors will be repeated; opportunities, lost;
and innovations, unrealized. Even strategic opportunities
may be foregone.
What of those we've just seen in our walk through the
company? Their devotion to machines makes them uneasy
in life's slower moments. Those who are uncomfortable with
boredom may contribute less to the company's intellectual
capital. When we tap the suggestion box, we may find its
contents have dwindled.
Although boredom has been a concern of philosophers and
scientists for ages, its nature and cause remain elusive.
Boredom may arise from an existential perception that life
is empty. Psychologists and social scientists have found that
commonly and less dramatically, we are bored when we
judge an activity unworthy of our attention. Tasks that are
too simple allow attention to wander, creating dissatisfaction
with the job at hand. For ages, meditative teachings have
countered such boredom by avoiding judgment of the worth
of activities. For most of us, however, parental advice ran in
a different direction: "Find something to do!" But finding too
much to do may also induce boredom, because attention is
pulled in too many directions. Then we need to step aside, to
do less, to reflect.
In the 1800s, Charles Baudelaire confronted a new Paris
thrust up in the midst of the old by commercialism. Most
startling were the throngs in the streets, the plentitude of the
marketplace and the new architecture of the city. How should
a thoughtful person manage interactions with such a myriad
of people and things? The crowd offered spectacles and
enticements, often quite unexpected, as Baudelaire describes
in one of his poems. A woman passing by briefly intoxicates him, but he cannot know what path either she or he would
follow into the future. She was just one of some many brief
experiences: accidental, anonymous and transitory to be
encountered in the tumult of the new Paris.
Baudelaire felt the onset of a new kind of boredom induced
by an acceleration that threatened to make life just a series of
fleeting impressions. He said that of the "squalid zoo of vices"
that plagued his time, boredom "is even uglier and fouler than
the rest." It would gladly swallow all creation in a yawn.  In
the face of restless activity and frightening anonymity, the
wanderer was always on the lookout for novelty of experience or
observation that would penetrate the fog of the teeming crowd
and restore him to life. But each new event or encounter, which
promised so much, proved just as empty as its predecessors.
Much the same could be said of today, although we more
often wander electronic byways rather than cobbled streets.
In the burgeoning crowd of cyberspace, we are dissatisfied
with our situation and wish to be elsewhere, doing something
different. We could turn away from the distractions of our
bustling electronic byways, but such a departure seems to
demand more energy than we can muster. Even when we
take such a break, we may find we've forgotten how to be
comfortable with ourselves. Something deep within urges us
to rejoin the crowd.
Today's world of tweets bears vestiges of the long trek our
ancient ancestors took to become human. Along the way,
emotional sensitivity to others was joined by strong curiosity
about them, a desire to know what they were thinking,
feeling and scheming. Once we became capable of creative
reflection, we no longer had to satisfy this desire in actual
social situations; we could find pleasure in imagined activities
and interactions. In today's fluid electronic arenas for
gossip, preening, and posturing, users "strut their stuff" with embellished self-descriptions and accumulations of "friends"
from far and wide. Scores and stars announce prowess. These
designations would mean little, had evolution not made us
so drawn to groups, so sensitive to trappings of rank, and so
irresistibly drawn to judge and categorize others. Our brains
hunger for participation and status, and our smartphones
and tablets stand ever at the ready to feed them. We love these
devices, because we were born to love them.
In an old vaudeville act, a man set plates spinning atop a row
of poles. Back and forth he hustled from one pole to another,
giving each just enough spin to keep its plate from falling. As he
attended to one plate, others teetered precariously. Too much
attention to one meant disaster for others. Not enough meant
that this one would fall. Success depended on giving to each
pole just enough attention to keep its plate aloft. As he went, an
assistant added new poles and plates, demanding even more
speed from him. He had to conduct the remainder of his act on
the dead run.
Our plates and poles today are digital messages. Work, home,
social networks all clamor for our attention. Proud of our
ability to sustain the pace of life in the digital age, we race from
email to cell phone to computer screen, spending enough time
on each task only to keep it spinning. We even add new poles
as we race along.
The two of us, who have been around for a while, no longer
make good vaudevillians of the plate spinning kind. The pace
has become too swift. We need some proverbial peace and quiet.
But what of the many others, who are unnerved when life
slows and not much seems to be happening? It isn't crashing
plates they fear. It's spending too much time on one thing when
something else might be happening.
They take boredom as a signal to move on, to focus attention
on something else. For many, that feeling arises ever more
quickly. Students, who once happily watched a five-minute
video in class, now get itchy after a minute or so. News stories
are compressed. Executives want complex matters reduced
to bullet points for quick consideration. Consumers choose
movies, restaurants and books on anonymously awarded
stars, because who has the time to read up on these subjects?
It's so boring.
In today's fast-paced life, we could have the time to read,
ponder, investigate and slog along. Absent the sirens of
digital technology, perhaps we might do so. Reading makes
many uncomfortable, when, for example, long sentences
with subordinate clauses run on for more than a line or two,
describing situations or putting forth arguments, which well
may be central to the subject being written about, but as they
proceed, seem to test our powers of concentration, which
have been tuned by the terse text of instant messaging where
compression of language and perhaps of thought hold sway. A
vaudevillian living in a world of hyperlinks and bullet points
reads the first of the previous sentence and mutters, "Oh, get on
with it!" and jumps to an email or text message that might be
more "interesting." We want at most the general idea, to learn
just enough, just in time.
Walter Benjamin argued that a story
claims a greater place in our memories
when the teller allows us to embellish it
for ourselves.  The more we integrate
the story into our own experiences, the
greater will be our inclination to repeat it.
In the retelling, it may assume new and
deeper meanings. This is true not just of
stories told by others, but of those we tell
ourselves. Tennessee Williams claimed
"that life is all memory, except for the
one present moment that goes by you so
quickly you hardly catch it going? It's really
all memory . . . except for each passing
moment."  Quickly we weave moments
of an experience into a story, however
brief, which embodies our memory of it. In
reminiscence, we return again and again
to inspect, edit, and embellish the story. In making plans, we
may intertwine a variant of the story with imagined acts in
and imagined history of the future. Unless we simply copy
someone else's story, we need inspiration to write our own.
But the assimilation of a story requires a state of relaxation,
which even before the Internet era was becoming rare.
Benjamin said boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation.
The self-forgetful listener who puts aside the press of life and
attends deeply to his memory prepares the nesting area for
the dream bird, Benjamin's metaphorical bringer of insight
and understanding. In quiet disengagement from the bustle
of the world, the dream bird hatches the egg of experience.
Many of us could benefit from this bird's visit, but we need
"down time" to welcome it in.
Today, however, our machines are always at our side, to fill
that quiet time. We push letters onto a Scrabble board, fight
off attacking aliens or draw pictures for another to guess.
Enticements delivered to cell phones demand attention that
once would have been devoted to the meeting agenda, the
dinner companion, the teacher or even reverie. They rustle
the leaves and drive the dream bird away.
Enthusiasm for these simple games underscores our brains'
need for engagement and status. Points or promotions, stars
or scores assure us of our skill and pats on the back keep us
going. If we don't feel competitive, there are other applications
that promise tidbits of information as tokens we can collect.
What is the current temperature in Paris, the score of the
Yankees' game, the change of a stock price from ten minutes
ago? We ask these questions, not because their answers are
important, but because they can be answered by our digital
devices. They give an immediate purpose, however small, to
idle time. Each reward is a note in a siren's song that draws
us ever deeper into technology's domain.
Digital distractions will proliferate. Many presently inert
objects will become interactive. Perhaps our cereal boxes
will challenge us to a simple guessing games at breakfast:
win points for the next trip to the market by ranking food
combinations by calories. Think of all the places that have
already been invaded by advertising. To imagine a likely
future, think of many of those sites as places for games. Idle
moments in which we could reflect on what has happened
to us, what we have done, and the interactions we have had
with others — those moments will be increasingly filled with
imaginative engagements with the virtual. The dream bird
will get chased away by a call from a cereal box.
To quarrel with technology is to quarrel with human nature.
Our intimacy with machines will increase. So what of
boredom? Inherited urges may incline our behavior, but they
need not determine it. If, fearing moments with nothing to
do, we turn to machines for constant entertainment and
engagement, we will lose time for invention. If we don't pause
between tasks to reflect on our lives, we may not know where
we are or where we are going.
Instead of fleeing seemingly empty moments, we should
welcome them in moderation. Indeed, we should create
times of solitude in which we plan to do little. Creativity is
the residue of time wasted, Albert Einstein supposedly said.
Instead of fleeing seemingly empty moments, we should
welcome them in moderation. Indeed, we should create
times of solitude in which we plan to do little. But how do we
find time for "doing nothing" in our economy of speed and
efficiency? When everyone else is working "leaner," isn't it
unwise to indulge in reflection that can't be easily monitored
or measured? Our quick answer: don't bet everything on the
hare; wager a bit on the tortoise. Put aside the machines we
love — at least for a time.
Recently, Matt Richtel reported on a rafting trip taken by
five neuroscientists in a remote area of southern Utah. They
sought to understand how intense involvement with digital
devices changes how we think and behave. Would a retreat
into nature reverse any adverse effects? 
They went off the grid, leaving laptops and cellphones
behind. As days passed, the time of the wilderness supplanted
that of the digital world. Conversations were interspersed
with periods of silence in the presence the wonders of the
surroundings. As the river flowed, says Richtel, so did ideas.
One of the travelers noted that, "the
real mental freedom in knowing no
one or nothing can interrupt you." We
suspect Einstein would have concurred.
Benjamin was no scientist, but he
would have stood well in that company.
Be quiet and wait. Be bored. The dream
bird will come.
Think of the future time as a wilderness,
and you as its steward. Of course, you'll
allocate significant parcels to industry —
to activities appropriate to your work and
home life. Some of that space, however,
should be reserved, much as the Utah
backcountry, where the ways of life are
slower and less congested. Preservation
requires vigilance and determination.
Once, for example, vacations meant time
away, time without the interruptions
of everyday life. Traveling in a car or
plane offered shorter versions of the
same. Now, like developers falling on
pristine land, smartphones and wireless
networks have colonized that time. They
have bought their way in by feeding
our brains' voracious appetites for
Writing, printing, the cinema, television
and other precursors of our inclusive
cyberspace substantially changed how
we gather and share what we know.
They disrupted long-standing social
structures and expectations of personal
behavior. While life is not determined
by technology, each of the innovations,
which now seem a part of the natural
world, exacted a price. In dealing with
our smart devices, we need to take a
stronger negotiating position.
We are paying too much to quell our
fear of boredom, too readily yielding
our refuges to the rush of the now.
We should protect segments of time,
putting smartphones and tablets aside,
leaving our desktop computers. Just
sitting, walking, gardening, talking
with friends: these are but a few ways
to enter our own personal wilderness.
When we slow down, we may at first
be bored, but soon, we are apt to find
much to do. Perhaps the dream bird
will come, bringing us a new addition
for our organization's suggestion box.
Or perhaps something just for us. Even
if it doesn't, we are likely to return to
the rush of the digital age with a better
sense of who we are — and who we
want to be.
Dr. G. Anthony Gorry is the Friedkin
Professor of Management and professor
of Computer Science at Rice University
where he is also the director of the
Center for Technology in Teaching and
Learning. He is an adjunct professor
of neuroscience at Baylor College
of Medicine and a director of the W.
M. Keck Center for Interdisciplinary
Bioscience Training, a collaborative
program of six institutions in the Greater
Houston area. Dr. Robert A. Westbrook
is the William Alexander Kirkland
Professor of Business in the Jesse H.
Jones Graduate School of Business at
Rice University. He has been a full-time
member of the marketing faculty group
in the Jones School since 1989 and is
presently the group’s area coordinator.
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Management, and Intellectual
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4. Richtel, Matt. "Outdoors
and Out of Reach, Studying
the Brain." 2010. New York
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5. Stewart, Thomas.
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6. Turkle, Sherry. "The Flight
From Conversation." The New
York Times April 12, 2012.
7. Williams, Tennessee. The
Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here
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This article is from the Fall 2014 issue of Jones Journal