How Social Media Ruined Everything, pt. 1

Boredom is dead, and that's a bad thing.

Randy from South Park had the best explanation of the dangers of marijuana:

Pot makes you feel fine with being bored, and it's when you're bored that you should be learning a new skill or some new science or being creative. If you smoke pot you may grow up to find out that you're not good at anything.

We’ll get back to that in a minute, but first, a story about two teenagers named John.

John and John went to high school together. One of them played guitar, the other played bass, and, bonding over their shared love of rock music, the two became friends. They dreamed of superstardom, and they formed a pact: each boy would practice his respective instrument for a minimum of six hours a day.

Neither was to invite the other to hang out - nor accept such an invite - if he hadn't yet finished that day's six hours. And if one boy was at a party and didn't see the other, he knew it meant his friend was at home practising away. Gruelling as this regimen was, they kept it up throughout their teenage years and were eventually both accepted to a prestigious music college, where they met some equally-dedicated musicians and formed a band.

Those boys had discipline and it paid off: their names are John Petrucci and John Myung, and since 1985 they've been guitarist and bassist respectively of Dream Theater, titans of progressive metal who have sold 12 million records and are probably the most successful and influential band in their genre.

And even if prog's not your thing, no-one can deny that John and John are seriously good at their instruments. Both have won all kinds of awards, graced the cover of every guitar magazine, and are never far from the top whenever someone compiles a list of "greatest guitarists/bassists ever".

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There's a lot to learn from the tale of two Johns. Firstly: how fucking sick is the intro riff to The Dark Eternal Night? And more importantly, hard work pays off. With six hours a day of deliberate practice, you too can be a rock star.

But that South Park quote feels relevant too. I don’t know how much weed John and John smoked as teenagers, but they obviously knew how to put up with boredom. If they’d been getting high, six hours a day of focus might not have been impossible but it would have been much harder. We might have lost out on some great music.

So I wonder: what kind of great things are we missing out on now, when it’s never been easier to numb one’s boredom? Because somewhere out there is a talented fifteen year-old who has the potential if he applies himself to become the next John Petrucci. Except he won't apply himself, because instead of using his abundant free time to get good at guitar (or anything else), he's mindlessly swiping through a social media feed.

I know, this isn’t the only factor. Most people won’t become virtuoso guitarists even if they never use a smartphone (or drugs), and, as someone old enough to remember when the grown-ups were fretting about “the MTV generation”, I’m aware these kinds of concerns predate Facebook. But that doesn’t mean nothing’s changed. Maybe humans have always had a propensity for procrastination, but all distractions are not created equal. Humans like to stay awake too, but it would still be a cause for concern if the kids switched from coffee to crack cocaine.

Imagine if you could smoke a joint that was hooked up to a supercomputer which analysed your biometrics between each puff to tweak the cannabinoids for maximum mind-melt. (Now there’s a startup idea.) That’s not far off from what’s happening when you interact with (say) TikTok. Your every swipe and like is fed to a finely-tuned algorithm that churns away to “optimise” corporate profits, and optimal profit occurs when your brain is a scattered, unfocused pile of mush that can’t tear itself away from the screen, much less get anything useful done. We’ve never been less bored, and I fear for the future of entertainment.

Like smoke through a stoner’s lungs, this technology has spread into every spare moment of our lives. It can only mean that fewer people are taking the time to master difficult skills. Why spend six hours a day practising guitar when your phone offers instant gratification? It’s not just heavy metal that I’m worried about.

To survive the 21st century we’re going to need ingenuity: scientific discoveries, intellectual breakthroughs, advanced engineering and academic excellence, and the only way we’ll get any of them is if talented minds can put their distractions down for long enough to engage their brains in focused deep work - tens of thousands of hours of it. It’s never been easy, but it’s only getting harder.

At least weed gave us Bob Marley. What will we gain from Instagram?

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Image credit: John Petrucci by Andreas Lawen, CC BY-SA 3.0; John Myung by Henning Ihmels, CC BY 2.5