Francis Sanzaro: Fear boredom more than the rise of machines

Automation is changing our societal DNA. Picture: Getty/iStockphoto
Automation is changing our societal DNA. Picture: Getty/iStockphoto
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The biggest threat to the health of mid-21st century western societies won’t be war, superbugs, over-population or an artificial intelligence apocalypse in which robots enslave their human underlings. It’ll be boredom.

Modern technological societies have proved again and again that they are adept at solving the big problems.

The much-hyped prophesies of global pandemics decimating half of the world’s population have not panned out. Technological advances in agriculture have kept pace with ballooning populations and, while drought isn’t political, hunger is. There is enough food – the issue is largely one of poverty. As for war, according to the psychologist Steven Pinker, we live in one of the most peaceful times in Earth’s history. Not that we need to play down all these issues, only that, thus far, we have good reason to believe the future isn’t that dramatic.

However, boredom is now structurally baked into the DNA of modern western societies. Our environments – both physical and digital – are becoming more difficult to engage with and our technologies are preventing a deepening of self-understanding because an information economy consumes attention.

Algorithms – formulae for telling computers what to do – are now matching us with our “soul mates” on dating sites, writing news articles, judging films, sending us to restaurants, filtering our music and writing poetry that poets can’t tell was done by a computer.

While the ill effects of industrial automation are well known (unemployment, less skilled work, lower wages), the deleterious effects of automating other parts of culture are mostly unknown.

For thousands of years, the building blocks of culture were stacked by human will – we created, we selected, we memorised, we judged, etc. The textures of our lives are the result of millions of daily decisions made by individuals over thousands of years.

But that’s changing, and the prevalence of algorithms in culture today is why boredom is in our societal DNA. The problem is larger than western individualism, over-stimulation or late-capitalist alienation. It has to do with the fact that we relate to the stuff of culture when we recognise ourselves in it. It is a form of cognitive bias known in commodities research as the Ikea effect, where consumers place a high (often inaccurate) value on things they create. When we reach a point where a majority of our cultural items and events are not created by us, we become bored because culture loses its value.

This is dangerous because profoundly destructive energies are then released – political institutions become unstable, addiction rates rise, we over-eat and our social lives deteriorate. We disengage, feel useless and experience a loss of impulse control, even impotence. We become isolated, quicker to anger, sad and lonely. A paper in the European Journal Of Social Psychology in 2016 reported a correlation between far-right or far-left political views and boredom, concluding people who experience frequent bouts of boredom tend to hold more extreme opinions, which are thought to salve the yearning for life’s meaning.

Governments will try to address boredom’s effects. It’s already happening. This year, the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness, and US health researchers are considering whether boredom needs to be classed as a public health threat. According to American philosophy professor Andreas Elpidorou, 326 academic papers on boredom were published in 2015, while from 1926 to 1980 there was barely one paper a year. Some business consultants now argue a worker’s job satisfaction is increased if they work harder and that automation-induced boredom is more stressful than effort. It would be nice to believe advances in algorithmic prediction will lead to creative upheavals, but the reverse is the case.

The secret tradecraft of how to write the formulae, capture the data and interpret the results will be the nuclear weapons of the future. Imagine if these tools were able to hack our brains not just to get us to watch that movie, but to motivate us at the “deepest” level of our psyches. Would that mean we are more bored than ever, or not at all?

Society Elsewhere: Why The Gravest Threat To Humanity Will Come From Within by Dr Francis Sanzaro has just been published