In Defence of Boredom

Last week my Internet conked out.  After refreshing the Wi-Fi search 50 times, restarting the computer twice, and saying a desperate prayer to the gods of connectivity, I relinquished to defeat. I sat on the couch in silence, feeling a surge of anxiety building up: what will I do?

The blackout lasted for about 5 days, and it taught me quite a few things. For one, despite all my high-minded ranting about technology, I’m just as Internet addicted as anyone. My will to fight against the endless mini-dopamine surges to be found by clicking and swiping is no greater than a 5-year old on an 8 hour car trip.

More importantly, it helped me remember a feeling that I haven’t experienced in many years–boredom. That feeling which seeps into you on long, tired summer afternoons when there is nothing to do and your mom tells you to go outside and play. The one that tells your brain it’s a good idea to eat a whole box of Cheez-its while re-watching Lost for the 3rd time. That thing which the infinite media stream offers to cure for good–until your Wi-Fi breaks, at least.

You can define boredom in many ways, but to me it’s best described as an absence of something which leaves us feeling empty or incomplete. As a culture we tend to loath this feeling. Whenever it starts to creep up on us we gravitate to the nearest distraction that has the path of least resistance: our phones, Facebook, TV. Constant connection to devices offers the most instantaneous relief from boredom. But is this good?

As I said earlier, I’m just as media addicted as any other millennial out there. I panicked a little when I realized I would be internet and TV free for at least a few days. But as I sat on the couch for a while, a strange thing happened.

I was OK. I made a cup of tea and read a book. I played music. I genuinely enjoyed the company of others, just to talk and be together. It did take a few hours to re-adjust to being disconnected, but after that life went on as usual. There were some noticeable changes, though.

Allowing myself to feel boredom, to accept it and realize that everything was alright, was actually a profound experience. It helped me realize that I don’t have to search for an immediate distraction to fill any silence. It opened my eyes to the richness of life which had gone unnoticed. When I was connected, it took an effort to pull away from devices. I enjoyed reading, playing music, cooking my own meals, etc, but they all felt a little like a chore compared to the ease of passive entertainment. But with that entertainment not available, those things became acutely real and beautiful in a new way.

The same can be said for interactions with people. When having people over, we didn’t have Netflix or YouTube videos to fill the conversational void. Instead of fearing awkward silence or boredom, I truly enjoyed just having the company of other people. Visitors became a cause for excitement.

I do realize that I’m essentially describing Victorian life. What shall we do–read aloud from Dostoevsky? Take a turn about the grounds? Call upon Elizabeth? My point is not that we should revert to an antiquated society, but that we can enrich our lives by not having such a strong fear of boredom that we always revert to the fastest and most convenient distraction around. Once we take a step back from technology and realize that the sky won’t come crumbling down, we can start to further appreciate the things around us and can build a more meaningful life.

Back to my story, the Internet eventually turned back on. And I went back to binge watching shows, scrolling through websites, etc. It wasn’t as easy to pick up that dense novel as it was when I wasn’t connected. Maybe (I hope!) many of you are stronger than me, and don’t have the same struggles of will, but I’ve found myself at a crossroads. I do want and need to have the Internet, as it provides truly useful tools for getting information and connecting with people, but I keep becoming victim to its mindless distractions.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a perfect answer for you. Right now I’m trying to be mindful and intentional about setting limits on my connectivity, in order to make time for the things I value more. Maybe when I figure my own stuff out I can present a great, well thought out plan. For now, what is most important is that we don’t give up trying, and that we don’t forget that there is a beautiful world all around us, we just have to look up to see it.


The Cost of Self-driving Cars

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

― Jack Kerouac

The sweet feeling of freedom at age 16 with your first driver’s license. The old red pickup with 200,000 miles and a busted speedometer that you drove in high school. The bittersweet pang as you watch your clunker driven off the lot, thinking of the defining moments that happened in that car. Your first date. First kiss. Sitting in the car for 15 minutes sweating up the courage to go to a job interview. Later on, the satisfaction of buying that first car. Road trips that define friendships for a lifetime to come. The classic minivan family vacation.

No, this isn’t  product placement for GM. Cars, while being a simple utility, are engrained in our national and personal stories. They do more than just get us from point A to point B. Getting behind the wheel literally (and figuratively) puts fate in our own hands.

I last wrote in this blog one year ago, when I started (and got very distracted from) a series on new car technologies. It’s apparent that we should be talking about a single new car technology: self-driving cars.

They’ll be here soon–very soon. Most projections have a significant percentage of self-driving cars on our roads by 2020, but the technology will be ready even before then. Given a few more years, and the (projected) numbers increase exponentially.

Before you get fired up and start rapping off all the benefits of an autonomous fleet of cars, I’m well aware they are many. Drastically reduced accidents and deaths. Reduced traffic. Increased fuel economy. Less pollution. Improved accessibility to cars (the young, the old, the disabled, the blind). Being able to have a car pick up your kids when you are stuck at the office. Or drive you home when you have a few too many after a shift. We could go on.

The safety improvements alone are a major selling point, BUT (you knew it was coming), just because something can improve safety doesn’t mean we have to adopt it. We could raise the driving age to 25, have a max driving age of 70, institute a national speed limit of 30 miles per hour.  We could all drive tanks. Obviously these are ridiculous, and the costs would be very high, but they would certainly save lives.

The point here is this: innovations that improve safety, convenience, etc. all come at a cost. With some things the price is low, such as seatbelts; they don’t really have any drawbacks, and they save countless lives each year.  The cost may also be high, such as drastically lowering the speed limit or raising the driving age. As a society we can’t accept the costs of these changes (limited mobility for teenagers, inconvenience for parents, much longer commute times or more limited commute distances), so we accept the higher fatality rates that naturally follow. It isn’t necessarily bad or good, it’s just the cost which we are or are not willing to accept.

With that said, what would be the cost of self-driving cars?

I mentioned earlier that these cars will be able to drive our elderly and handicapped (and kids), which will improve the accessibility of resources to those who are currently limited. This seems like a definite advantage.

However much an advantage it will be, it does have a cost, which is a human one.  As with many new technologies which improve convenience, tasks which once required more direct (hands on, face-to-face) involvement become outsourced to machines or algorithms. Are our lives really so busy, so important that we can’t leave work to pick up our children? Take a day off to take care of our aging parents? Have a human system to assist those who are disabled?

Yes, all of these tasks inconvenience us, but it is that exact inconvenience which makes our world human. The sacrifices we make for our children, our parents, and those more vulnerable in society give meaning to those relationships, as we have to give part of ourselves for the other person. It seems a cold world in which we have to delegate these tasks to machines, instead of realizing the importance of the human connection they bring.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this post, when I talked about the emotional and meaningful connection that our culture has with cars.  Why is this? Why do we care so much about getting a driver’s license, have nostalgia for our old beat-up trucks, and take so much pride in our cars?

In a sense, cars are a physical metaphor for our free-will and independence. They give us the freedom to go anywhere we choose (assuming roads go there). We are physically connected to our cars when we drive; my foot controls the pedal and my hands control the wheel. My mind is responsible for having the knowledge to drive, avoid accidents, and get to where I am going. In an increasingly outsourced society, driving is something that keeps us connected to the physical world.

If we accept self-driving technology, we will no longer be in control of our cars. They will become one more piece of technology that separates us from being physically connected to the world. Without that physical connection, our cars will lose the magic which they have had for the past century. The joy of getting your license, getting that first car, the pride and satisfaction of having navigated yourself through the world, will be something of the past.

So, are the benefits worth the cost? I can’t deny that a lot of lives would be saved, a lot less gas would be burned. Is that worth the loss of human connection that would follow? The further disconnect between ourselves and the physical world?

The subtitle of this blog is searching for humanity in a technological world.  Self-driving cars would be another innovation that removes the human aspect from part of our lives, a part that we have placed a high value on for the last century. For that reason, I don’t think the benefits outweigh the cost.

To quote the band Incubus (a phrase that hasn’t been said since 2004), I’m beginning to find that when I drive myself, my light is found.



Driving Into the Future

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably noticed a quickly emerging trend in new car technologies: park assist, self driving cars, eye level projection screens, etc. This is the first in a series of posts looking at how these new innovations will impact how we drive into the future.

Part One: Driving Distracted

I’ll admit, this video impressed me. Sleek, fast, and confident, it makes an impact. But when we look critically at the core of what distracted driving means, the illusion starts to become a bit more clear.

Let’s start by looking at the logic underlying the new technologies connecting our cars and phones. The current social norm is that people use their phones while driving. Texting has become less acceptable, but we still do it, and talking while driving is still widespread and legal in most states.

Secondly, the way most of us use our phone is by physically looking down at it, thus taking our eyes off the road. Common perception is that the physical distraction of looking down causes the danger of distracted driving. So if we can have a way to use phones without taking our eyes off the road,  we can improve driver safety. This is the argument put forth by companies marketing these products. However, many experts in driving safety think that these arguments are based on faulty claims.

All Seeing is Not Created Equal
If you read any popular psychological theories, you will notice the common theme that as humans, we strongly overestimate our cognitive abilities. Our brains make us think that we notice everything that happens in front of us, and that we have a great ability to multitask. However, the reality is in fact opposite; we are poor multitaskers and commonly miss things that happen right before our eyes.

These are the ideas underlying the concept of cognitive distraction, which is essentially how even though our eyes may be physically on the road, if our minds are not focused on driving we will miss things even if they may be in our visual field. Studies have shown (based on the work of Dr. Paul Atchley) that cognitive distraction is just about as dangerous as physical distraction (i.e. looking down).

If this is true, then hands free or screen projection technologies are no safer than normal phone use, as they will lead to equally dangerous distraction. I may take this a bit further and say that they have the potential to be more dangerous, as they give a strong illusion of safety, tricking our minds into thinking we aren’t distracted at all.

Social Norms
We’ve all felt that familiar pull, that undeniable urge to take just one quick look at our phone to see who the text is from, besides I don’t see any other cars on the road and it will be quick and I’m a safe driver anyways so this is ok  and it might be important. Yea, we all rationalize it, don’t deny. But why is the urge so strong that we disregard what we know about safety to fulfill it. Some would say because we can’t handle being alone.

Or maybe it’s the fear of missing out, that if I don’t read this text right now some great chance at success will be unfulfilled, an opportunity gone forever. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t seem rational. There seems to be no good reason for this widely accepted social norm.

So, the question that naturally follows is, why not change it? Public perception does seem to be shifting a bit. Public service ads are pretty much on point with the “it can wait” theme. This is only a partial answer though, because we rationally know it can and should wait, but if we aren’t more intentional about locking the phone away, that urge often gets the best of us.  And if we blindly accept the new “safe” technologies and don’t look more critically, we’ll continue to perpetuate the illusion.


Communication Breakdown: The Text Message

If you’ve grown up in the era of cell phones, texting, and emoticons, the following scenario is likely very familiar:

(Set scene) Group of guys/girls hanging out.  One [guy/girl] is romantically interested in person of opposite sex, wants to text said person.  Asks group what to send in text message.  Group discusses word choice, smiley faces, and level of flirtatiousness in message.  After 5 minutes, it is agreed upon to send “Hi :)”   (End scene).

First off, don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dating in the 21st century, I’m way too out of date to do that.  For example, I first learned what emojis were this morning, and I still don’t really grasp the concept.  Rather the above scene will be used to illustrate some important points about how modern methods of communication affect us.  At some point in time, most of us have been a part of such a scene, either on the sending or receiving end.  Texting has become a fairly standard part of the progression of modern relationships.  I don’t find the trivial details of texting and relationships to be too interesting, but we can learn a lot when we dive into why we are so drawn towards texting.

So, why are we so inclined to send text messages?  To list a few of their merits, they are fast, easy, fairly inconspicous, and very convenient.  Specifically though, why do we choose to text in the situation described above, when you are interested in a guy/girl?  It’s certainly not faster or more convenient, as a quick call to say “would you like to go to dinner” would be twenty times faster and require less effort than navigating the intricacies of texting.

The reason we are so drawn to texting is because it eliminates risk.  When we call someone up, a direct connection is made with that person, which puts us at risk.  At risk for rejection, embarrassment, failure, or even success. Texting allows us to hide behind the glass walls of an LCD touch screen, providing a safe barrier between us and the other person.  You don’t have to have that gut-check moment right before asking the girl out and waiting for her to reply yes or no while you hold your breath for what seems like an eternity but is really 2 seconds; instead you just type, tap send, and wait.

I like to use dating as an easy example, but this holds true for any communication.  If you don’t want to talk to your parents about what’s really going on in your life, you can just text them that you’re ok.  If you don’t want to confront a friend about some problem, just hash it out over an hour long texting conversation.   In any relationship we can avoid risk by using indirect methods of communication (texting, email) instead of on the phone or face to face.

Pause here: I’ve probably run into a bit of dissention with you, the reader.  You validly want to point out that the way we communicate has constantly been changing over time.  First we grunted at each other, then we developed words, then wrote those words down on stone and pieces of bark, then talked through a nationwide system of wires.  Now we send signals up to a satellite, back down, and into a little black device.  What difference does it make, you say?  So now we text instead of calling or writing letters, it’s just part of the natural continuous progression.  What we say hasn’t changed, just the means we use to say it.

Which is a good argument. However, the key point here is that how we communicate fundamentally affects the nature of our relationship with that person.  Asking someone out, calling an old relative you haven’t talked to in years, or talking over an important problem with a friend face to face are all hard, and as we saw earlier, involve risk. But this risk, this leap of faith across the boundary between you and the Other that puts your neck on the line, is what creates the foundation of the relationship.  By opening up and exposing yourself and your vulnerabilities to the other, you inherently make the focus of the relationship about that person, not yourself.  And a true relationship is one in which you desire for the good of the other person as much or more as for yourself.

Contrast this with texting. When we text, we avoid risk and don’t truly extend ourselves to the other person. This causes us to focus the relationship inwardly on ourselves: what should I send to make her come to the party with me tonight? what can I say to make her not be mad at me any more? what do I need to say to get my parents off my back? You get the point.  The absence of risk on my part makes me unconsciously focus on what I can get out of the relationship instead of what can I give.

This is not meant to be a full fledged attack on modern communication. In some, if not most cases, texting likely does no harm. But as modern relationships and communication have undoubtedly changed, it’s something may have more impact than it seems. If you think about it a bit and look at how your own experiences have played out, you might find a bit of truth in it.



Religion in the Digital Age

The subtitle of this blog reads, “searching for humanity in a technological world.”  At the core of this statement lies a belief that our lives have meaning and purpose. For better or worse, we live in an increasingly digital world, and it’s our goal to search for how we can retain the rich cultural and individual value of our lives within this modern context.

No matter what your personal beliefs are, it would be hard to deny that religion has and still does give meaning to the lives of billions of people on earth; that it has been a huge part of the historic, political, and cultural story of humanity; that most of us practice or have at least been affected in some way by religion.


It’s also hard to deny that how we live, work, play, and communicate have all been altered by modern technology.  (If you aren’t convinced of this, read some of our other articles!)

So what about religion–has the practice of religions changed?  Have they converted their teachings to PDF files?  Can you download an app that helps you remember the Muslim prayer times or to not eat fish on Fridays during Lent? (More on this to come in future posts).

pope tweets

A bigger question may be is this an issue at all, or am I splitting hairs?

As you can guess, I think it is something worth looking into. On one side of the spectrum, social media opens up huge outlets of communication for religions to tap into and spread their messages–i.e. the Pope’s Twitter account.  Social media allows religions to instantly access the home pages of millions of people; no more going from door to door with clip boards and pamphlets.

On the other hand, much of what is at the core of religions happens between two people face to face.  Showing true love and forgiveness for one another is hard to do in 140 characters.  And a heartfelt discussion about your prayer life isn’t likely to happen on a Facebook wall. You can’t get down and dirty serving the poor from behind a laptop screen.  In essence, I think a true experience of religion requires interaction in the physical world with the other person, whether that person is your Priest, Rabbi, a homeless woman, your spouse or friend.

jewish altar

This post is NOT meant to give answers, but just to get you thinking about these ideas that we’ll be diving into in our series on religion.  I don’t pretend to have the answers, but hopefully we’ll be able to discover some insights along the way.  Stay tuned!


Images from:,, and Pope Francis’ Twitter page

Top 8 Reasons to Use a Map

As the writer of a blog that (mostly!) criticizes technology, it’s not surprising that I don’t have a smart phone.  However, I was almost changed of my stubborn, “dumb” phone ways a few weeks ago.

I was a groomsman in a good friend’s wedding in Savannah, GA ,a city I don’t know too well.  Between rehearsal dinners, wedding errands, and jumping around hotels, I realized that I was completely dependent on my friends’ iPhones to navigate the city.

What’s the point of not having a smart phone if I have to rely on others’ phones to get by?  How can I be so dependent and helpless in a new city?  As you can guess, my world began to collapse.


Then someone suggested that I just get a map.  So I grabbed a free, not-to-scale cartoon map from the Holiday Inn and set out to conquer the city.  Here’s why you should too:

8.  Blindly following Siri’s directions gets you from A to B, but it doesn’t help you actually learn the layout of a city.  Using a map helps you understand the layout and geography of a new locale.
7.  It makes you feel like Ferdinand Magellan.  Just on a slightly smaller scale.
6. Maybe it’s just me, but looking at a map and planning your day over coffee with friends is a great way to start a morning.
5. When a phone has only one bar, you’re in trouble.  When a map has only one bar, all it means is that you know exactly where you’ll end up that night.
4. You can fix a map with tape.
3. It’s a great skill to have, and the more you practice the easier it gets.
2. Contrary to what Verizon wants you to think, there’s a lot of un-connected places even in America where you can’t get cell phone or GPS service.
1. If the world goes the way of The Walking Dead, you’ll want to have your map of Georgia on hand.


So go grab your map, machete, and Indiana Jones hat and go discover the unknown.  I’ll see ya there.

Images from: