According to Vladimir Solovyov’s famous story “A Short Tale of the Antichrist,” the final component of the Antichrist’s plan for world domination was to establish universal entertainment:
“So the nations of the world, after they had received from their lord universal peace and universal abolition of hunger, were now given the possibility of never-ending enjoyment of most diverse and extraordinary miracles.”
But if the Antichrist’s plan is to establish universal entertainment, he’s apparently going to have to think of something besides the internet, because people are already getting pretty bored with it.
Taylor Lorenz reports in the Daily Beast:
“There is a notion among older people that teens, with their smartphones and unlimited internet access, never experience boredom. CNN and other media outlets have repeatedly declared that smartphones have killed boredom as we know it. ‘Today, we don’t have time to daydream. Waiting in the doctor’s office or standing in line, we can check our email, play Angry Birds, or Twitter,’ a media consultant once declared in HuffPost.
But today’s teens are still bored, often incredibly so. They’re just more likely to experience a new type of boredom: phone bored.
Phone boredom occurs when you’re technically ‘on your phone,’ but you’re still bored out of your mind. It’s that feeling when you’re mindlessly clicking around, opening and closing apps, looking for something to do digitally and finding the options uninteresting.
Whereas previous generations may have scrolled through channels on the radio, wandered into different rooms in their house, or flicked through countless TV channels, today’s teens say they’ll sometimes open and close up to 20-30 apps, hoping that something, anything, will catch their attention.”
By no means does this boredom surrounding the internet and smartphones only afflict teens. The mindless scrolling through social media sites and apps that Lorenz describes above is also something I and many other adults do when our alternative duties, and life in general, seems “too hard.”
I periodically hear the complaint that people today don’t know how to be bored. A better way to express that sentiment, though, is that people today don’t know how to overcome boredom.
But overcoming boredom is difficult because it’s not primarily something caused by external circumstances. It’s primarily a spiritual affliction.
The term “boredom” didn’t emerge until the 19th century, perhaps not-so-coincidentally following the secularization wrought by the Enlightenment and the inauguration of the Industrial Revolution, which separated man from the natural environment and made the working class perform monotonous tasks in harsh and ugly conditions that bred the demand for a variety of escapist forms of entertainment.
Before the 19th century, the closest terminological equivalent to “boredom” was acedia, otherwise known as the “deadly sin” of sloth. According to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)—one of the best “psychologists” of sin—acedia is an “oppressive sorrow [that] so weighs upon man’s mind that he wants to do nothing.” Evagrius Ponticus wrote that the person suffering from acedia “hates precisely what is available and desires what is not available.” Another description of acedia has been offered by Dr. Nicholas Lombardo, OP: “We are bored when our desire cannot find anything on which to rest. Our will restlessly strives after God-knows-what—and fails to desire anything at all.”
Traditionally, acedia has been specifically regarded as an oppressive sorrow about spiritual things. In the Christian understanding, famously articulated by St. Augustine, God has made human beings for Himself, and their hearts are restless until they rest in Him. Acedia is the restlessness that ensues when God calls men and women to turn to him—in prayer, for instance, or through a faithful performance of the tasks at hand—but they refuse.
Today, due to recent technological developments, this restlessness of acedia happens to frequently take the form of flipping around on the internet in a directionless manner.
Thus, the problem is not the internet, but that people are bored with life. Men and women are still suffering that from mal du siècle of acedia that, according to Aldous Huxley and others, particularly characterizes the modern era. Smartphones and the internet have simply offered us a more efficient tool to distract us when we’re bored.
But, apparently, the strength of our restlessness is such that their effectiveness is waning.
Dan is a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find his academic work at Academia.edu.