Boredom is always counter-revolutionary. Always.
There is a meme routinely shared on social media of passengers aboard a train, each absorbed in their own personal information and entertainment device. The caption reads ‘All this technology is making us antisocial’. The joke is that it is a very old photograph; what the passengers are holding are newspapers. It is generally posted without comment, as an ironic reminder of the cyclical nature of debates about dominant forms of communication, and about our social and personal habits.
Here is a typical, timeless complaint: nowadays we have lost the capacity to enjoy moments of calm or to engage in quiet contemplation. Bertrand Russell once wrote that children should be spared excessive trips to the theatre. Later it became comic books or pulp fiction. Then cinema and television. Then the internet. Now it is smartphones and the iPad. Every epoch has its technologies of distraction, and each time a new one comes around, we are told that younger generations are losing what the parents once enjoyed in abundance: boredom. Cue a steady, incessant stream of think pieces of varying length in defence or praise of this maligned emotion.
As in the case of the picture of the train passengers, it is not very clear what the ideal baseline level of societal boredom should be. The pattern of the complaint is that the each new technology shifts the boundary. Thus television – the passive diversion that once banished useful boredom from our lives – is said to have been usurped by newer technologies. But added on is a layer of nostalgia: commentators will recall with fondness the time they spent watching bad television in their childhood.
Evil nowadays resides in portable networked devices, which in the current crop of think pieces are often granted worrying levels of agency. ‘Our phones hurt us by killing our ability to listen to boredom,’ writes Mónica Guzmán in GeekWire. ‘The iPhone killed my creativity,’ intones Brian Hall in another defence of boredom for ReadWrite. This alarmist language masks an impoverished notion of what boredom is and how it affects different people.
The idea that creative thinking requires letting one’s mind wonder in repose has deep roots in the literature and may deserve some credit – all the more since the study of neuroscience is beginning to validate the philosophers’ theories. But what is being systematically elided here – in the process of granting supernatural levels of agency to our screens – are the material and historical dimensions of the question.
The closest common ancestor to most of these think pieces is Joseph Brodsky’s 1989 commencement address at Dartmouth College, entitled ‘Listening to Boredom’. It’s a worthy if maddening read, culminating in the Kierkegaardian insight that boredom is ‘a window on time’s infinity’ that ‘teaches you the most valuable lesson of your life: the lesson of your utter insignificance.’ And a lesson worth heeding it may be. However, consider how this message might sound if it had been delivered to an audience of fast-food workers or office clerks, rather than to the assembled freshmen of an Ivy League university.
The pursuit of creativity, with the attendant need to cultivate spaces for contemplation and reflection, is not available to everyone equally. And for the vast majority of people, boredom has a very different inflection.
I grew up between two worlds: the big city where my parents lived and where I went to school, and the rural village where my grandparents lived and where I spent every second weekend and part of the summer holidays. It is to the latter that I owe my strongest recollections of childhood boredom: interminable days spent idling or searching vainly for something – anything – to do.
Having grown into a literate adult, I may be tempted to romanticise this experience, and credit it with granting me a heightened sensibility for the quotidian and for what the French master Georges Perec called ‘the infra-ordinary’. But in that village without libraries or theatres, without social or cultural clubs, in that stolidly anti-intellectual place, I saw boredom turn directly into violence. I remember how a friend with whom I had laboured to while away those summer afternoons drove a motorcycle at speed into an iron gate as soon as he was old enough to do so.
My mother escaped the village and its lethal boredom through books: the fiction and school texts she consumed as a child gave her a literal way out – first to a neighbouring town with a high school, then to a city with a university and a different kind of life. She never romanticised those beginnings, and loathed any talk of the ‘good old days’. She became an intermediate school teacher and always blamed misbehaviour among her students as her own failure to awaken their interest.
If we must talk about boredom, we should start by talking about the cultural and social opportunities that might enable us to view it as a positive value worthy of recapturing, and – if we want to bring technology into it – of its role in foreclosing or opening up such opportunities. This would be a conversation worth having.