Boredom, Incivility & Other Symptoms

February 08, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Life was simpler when I was growing up. Please note that the term "simpler" does not imply "better." Life, like technology, advances. The complexity of day-to-day living has increased as the number of possibilities has multiplied. Every time my 17-year old nephew posts on Facebook that he's "bored" (something that occurs with almost daily regularity), I scratch my head in bewilderment. With all of the options he has, how can he possibly be bored? At his age, I was never bored. But maybe the genesis of the boredom comes not from having too little to do, but having too few things to do about which he feels passionate. After all, it could be argued that passion, not activity, is the antidote to boredom.

Let me briefly indulge myself (as I am wont to do) and turn back the clock some 25-30 years. For me, an "average" high school day followed a common pattern. I would get up around 6:45 a.m. (an obscenely early hour, in my opinion); take as little time as possible to shower, dress, and eat; then catch a ride to school with the neighbor across the street (who was a teacher there). Eighth period ended at 2:24 p.m., so the bus dropped me off around 2:45. If it was a nice day, I would spend a few hours outside shooting baskets or playing a game of four-square or dodge Frisbee or, if I was alone, hitting tennis balls off the garage doors. After dinner and homework, I would occasionally watch television or play primitive video games (Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc.) but, more often than not, I would spend an hour or two writing and another hour or two reading. On weekends, I would play Dungeons & Dragons and, if I could get a ride, see a movie or two. In 1983, I purchased my first "computer" (a TI-99/4) and spent hours programming games (few of which I ever actually played). I listened to the radio a lot. There were no VCRs (yes, they existed, but I didn't have access to them) and no on-line. There was no e-mail. No Facebook. No Twitter. No iPODs or iPADs or iPhones. Kids with small b&w TVs in their rooms and their own phone lines were to be envied. I had neither (and didn't particularly desire either). One of my friends had a waterbed; I wondered how he could get through a night without becoming seasick.

It is different today, of course. Those things that formed the foundation of my life back then - paperback books and a manual typewriter - are either relics or headed in that direction. I avoid the former and have long since abandoned the latter. I still do a lot of reading, but the Kindle is my preferred medium and I converted to a word processor in the early 1990s and haven't looked back. Still, I don't think many kids spend a couple hours per day reading. Not when there's so much else to absorb their attention. But perhaps the ennui expressed by my nephew would be alleviated if he started reading and discovered how immersed he could become in another reality, if only for a few hours. A good book can represent a source of ongoing anticipation. It can ignite passion.

My first encounter with e-mail came in 1985 when I was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. All incoming students were provided with an e-mail account although, to access it, it was necessary to visit a computer lab. At the time, I ignored it, and continued ignoring it until my professors started sending assignments via e-mail. I got my first personal (non-school, non-work) account in the early '90s. For many years, I regarded e-mail as one of the great modern innovations. After all, without it, I would never have met my wife. Today, however, I view it as more of an annoyance than a blessing. Smart phones allow me to check my e-mail anytime, anywhere - which is precisely what I don't want. Philistine that I am, I prefer to have some time to my own. E-mail serves a valuable purpose but I no longer review it obsessively. Once or twice a day is enough. In fact, once or twice a day is sometimes too much.

Sometimes I feel too plugged in - as if surfing the web and interacting with people electronically has overwhelmed the off-line aspects of living. Civility is fast becoming a thing of the past. It's hard to hurl invectives at someone when you're face-to-face but, on-line, the gloves are off. The reason, I think, is that most people don't acknowledge the object of their derision as being a human being. He/she is an avatar, a representation. It's a shell of electronic isolation. Reality surrounds us but isn't at the other end of a phone line/cable/wireless signal. Internet attack dogs hide behind the illusion of anonymity and spew hateful diatribes. They deliver blistering soliloquies without considering the consequences. Hurt feelings? Who cares. Bruised psyche? Grow a thicker skin. Once, such slings and arrows bothered me. Now, I shrug them off. It's all part of the job. If you're going to cast aspersions (as I occasionally do), you have to be willing to absorb them when they come your way.

"Film criticism" isn't what it once was, either. Reading a review once meant opening the paper on Friday morning and seeing what the local critic had to say or watching a news program to hear the opinion of a Dennis Cunningham or Joel Siegel. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel provided something new with Sneak Previews - an opportunity to watch two intelligent men discuss (sometimes argue) about the merits or lack thereof of movies. It was the most fun when they disagreed. Viewers took positions. It became an almost participatory sport.

For film criticism, the Internet changed things. It allowed forward-thinkers like Roger Ebert to make available their work to a significantly wider audience. To the best of my knowledge, Roger was the first of the A-list critics to embrace the Internet, placing him well ahead of the curve. He was on-line in the very early 1990s, having signed on with Compuserve as their official reviewer. The Internet also allowed non-professionals such as myself to have a voice. It cut out the middle man (newspaper, magazine, etc.). ReelViews is now more than 14 years old (it passed its 14th anniversary last month), but I started writing on-line reviews around the end of 1992. Having done this for 17+ years, I feel like a grizzled veteran. I'm the only one of the oldtimers still around. But I'm not bored. I have passion (at least until I have to watch the next lame, lifeless romantic comedy).

There has been much debate over the years about whether the proliferation of on-line critics has been a good thing (in that it allows everyone to express an opinion) or a bad thing (in that it allows everyone to express an opinion). Every time I read a well-written, thoughtful review by a non-professional, I find myself in the former camp. Every time I read an ill-considered or borderline-illiterate comment about a movie, I slide closer to the latter group.

One thing that bothers me is the growing group of "critics" who exist simply to tear things down. It doesn't matter how objectively good a movie is, they will find some way to rip it apart. Often, their sarcasm crosses a line into the mean-spirited and their criticism sounds a lot like a personal attack. They believe themselves to be hip and humorous and, when read in small doses, they can seem that way. But a steady diet of them leads to indigestion. Yet in an attack culture, their words lie closer to the center than the fringe. Lest I come across as holier-than-thou, I do not entirely exempt myself from this category. I have written (and will doubtless write again) my share of nasty reviews. But I am not relentlessly negative. I do not set out to destroy everything I see. My philosophy of reviewing does not embrace the scorched earth policy. The difference between me and some of my poison pen colleagues is that I do not seek to attack. I do not delight in writing a scathing review for the pure pleasure of writing a scathing review. I'll pounce if the movie deserves it but not because my reputation demands it.

Studios, who haven't figured out how to manipulate illegal downloads to their advantage, have enjoyed blurring the lines between serious critics and casual bloggers. This aggravates everyone except, I suppose, the casual bloggers. To some marketing people, an anonymous poster to Ain't It Cool News is on par with A.O. Scott. If the quote is in print, they can use it. The key is to keep the attribution small.

Sometimes, I feel like I have too much information available to me. Yes, information is power, but so much of what we are bombarded with is pointless trivia. Why should I care how many women Tiger Woods slept with? Is this a news story? How much bandwidth was wasted speculating upon, telling, and re-telling this tale? So much of what qualifies as "news" today exists merely to fill the massive crater that has been created by the Internet and 24-hour cable news channels. With such an insatiable appetite, it consumes an unimaginable quantity of garbage.

I am not advocating going back to the past and giving up the wonderful advances technology has provided. Sometimes, however, I feel overwhelmed. I want to turn off the iPhone and find a few moments' peace. People are astonished to know that I have not set up the voicemail box for my iPhone and that I do not give out my number. There's a reason for that: I don't want to be contacted except in the most extreme of emergencies. I value my privacy, even if no one else does.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one who feels this way. Am I the only one who looks at today's world and sees beneath the glitter and milk and honey a persistent aura of decay? Am I the only one troubled by the lack of civility in on-line interaction and the growing importance of gossip and tabloid fodder in the news? Maybe it's the lack of substantive interaction that has caused members of my nephew's generation to become disaffected. Maybe he's bored because he sees all of the electronic clutter for what it is - an enhancement to life rather than the reason to live. Perhaps this is his way of asking the age-old question: "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

Then again, maybe he simply is bored and would be best served by buying a new video game.