The Lost Geniuses

I sit staring at a beige sofa, as I glance away its geometrical palm leave pattern imprints a mottle purple haze on my vision. I’m thinking of the hours I’ve wasted. The hours we have all wasted. Time lost drifting across the internet, absorbed by series, saturated with film. Hours spent being entertained. We’ve been indoctrinated into frittering away our lives in tepid amusement. We believe that we deserve to be entertained, distracted from reality. The beige sofa is boring. The beige sofa is motivation.

Boredom is a wonderful thing. Boredom has provoked humanity’s greatest accomplishments. We owe our existence to that irritating, persistent, emotion. Pascal was wrong, when he said, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ It is not problems, but solutions, which arise from our inability to do nothing.  

During the black plague, Newton was isolated in the countryside. Detached from humanity, he developed calculus. But not just calculus, boredom coaxed him into creating seminal works on optics and gravitation too. No TV, no Internet, no radio. Newton would have been, by all accounts of our modern age, inconceivably bored. So, he worked. In two years detached from humanity, he was prolific. He had no bureaucracy to contend with, no fame, no forms, no social pressure. His mind was calm, free, and bored. By all accounts, he didn’t lose any perspicacity in his later years, but he produced very little of note because he was busy running the Royal Mint. The job was typically given as a sinecure, which he took seriously. Without boredom, he no longer needed to find things to do. He no longer created.

Einstein too was afflicted by boredom. His work at the patent office wasn’t taxing, and he typically completed it by mid-morning. He needed to occupy his mind in the afternoon and he did by developing special relativity. But what if he didn’t contemplate quietly in the calm of the patent office, what if he frittered away his time on Facebook, or YouTube? Could he have elevated himself above the common man and dispensed with them? I doubt it. You see, when we are young we are susceptible to peer pressure. We believe that we must have social media accounts to fit in, and if we don’t we are missing out. Born now, Einstein would have had Facebook for the early portion of his life, and he would be consequently less accomplished. He may have dispensed with the vagrancies of the Internet as he aged, but the founding years of thought which are so important would have passed him by.

 When I think of Einstein, Euler, Newton, and the titans of mathematics. I wonder why there are not comparable individuals in the modern age. Our population is higher, and our education is theoretically better (though I question this). There should be more remarkable individuals than there are. One might conjecture there are so few because we have discovered everything of note. But that is easily dispelled. We still lack a complete understanding of fundamental physics, and much of our knowledge about life itself is incomplete, or approximate. There is much to discover, but it isn’t being so because many of the greatest minds have been funneled through an education machine that extracts inquisitiveness, and because our society indoctrinates the belief that our time should be filled. We ought to be entertained. But one doesn’t need to strain their mind to realise that the greatest achievements of humanity come not from being entertained, but from being bored. A precious commodity which has been taken from us.

The rise of the Internet has extracted this boredom. It is abhorrent and brilliant. It is singular in its ability to absorb our attention and give nothing of worth in return. Humanity is now rich in time. Time which was once spent hand-washing clothes, harvesting food by hand, making preserves for winter, is now ours to spend how we wish. We have it, and we fritter it online.

But our profligacy with time isn’t restricted to the online world. The web has spread, and its gossamer fibres impregnate our thoughts, actions, and beliefs. It infects our being leaving swathes of us passive consumers incapable of creation. And yet, these consumers parade their short attention spans and decry their inability to focus. They search online for ‘how to improve attention span’ or blame it on diseases like ADHD, while ignoring the truth. Focus derives from lack of distraction, and while we continue to distract ourselves with instant messaging, and constant entertainment, focus will allude us. But this isn’t our fault, the world runs on money, and money is made by keeping people’s attention. The smartphone has been designed to keep us clicking. We receive a positive message from a friend, and ‘ding’ our brain says ‘have some serotonin for that’. We reinforce this behaviour until it becomes a habit, an automatic process driven by dopamine.

 We have been trained to be entertained. Our minds so deluged with nonsense that our thoughts are soggy. They lack originality and vitality. The parasitic media seeks to engross us, to track our habits, search, and interest, for monetary gain. We don’t consider that a single news story from ephemeral media diverts our attention for the day. The subconscious runs like clockwork, processing the information. If it’s busy processing how ‘an actor said this, or a politician did that’ then it can’t focus on what’s important. How to improve your own life in this moment. These transient thoughts revisit us throughout the day. Your mind continues to churn on nonsense and attempt to link it to your current reality. The more things you fill your subconscious with the busier it is. And a busy subconscious is a cluttered mind.

And so, the paradox of the modern age is created. With more information, the individual becomes less knowledgeable. Ephemeral media gives our minds a constant stream of nonsense to stress upon. Yet, it never improves our lives, or helps us accomplish things. People in the United Kingdom can vilify or adulate Trump all they like, but it doesn’t change anything. The time dwelt upon him, his policies and actions has no real effect on their lives. All they gain is a feeling, an emotion, which is neither noble nor base. It’s just a neurotransmitter which your subconscious releases to the conscious as an evolutionary mechanism to teach you to avoid, or have more, of something. We feel like the information is important because we feel strongly about it. But how many of the thousands of articles and news stories you have read in the last 10 years felt very strongly about and forgotten days later. How many of them have in any conceivable way affected your life? The entertainment industry is in an arms race to capture our attention and make us ‘feel’. We become addicted to these feelings or habits of checking, so much that we can no longer sit still and quietly contemplate. Boredom has left us, and with it so goes concentration, motivation and drive.

I look back upon my life and wonder what if? What if I had been guided by the books I read in my twenties in my teens. What if my school and university, days weren’t filled with games and Reddit. I’m annoyed. All that time frittered into the either. These are the moments I’ve lost. They are the moment you’ve lost. They are the moments we’ve all lost. All because we have been conditioned to believe we need to be entertained. That boredom is a bad thing to be avoided. But is isn’t, boredom is wonderful. Tedium pervades the inactive mind hustles it forward. If you only let it.

And yet, I can’t help but think I’m watching the descent of humanity. I’m watching the news turn into a parody, which plays mood music to force the emotion they want. I’m watching our society engrossed in a program that attempts to coax attractive people into mating on an island. I’m watching the same people attempting to justify their reasons for watching. Our world and society are dying, it’s dying because we don’t allow ourselves time. Time to sit and be bored.

So here I sit typing on the beige sofa. The beige sofa is boring, the beige sofa is motivation.