Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

In praise of boredom

Sitting on a crowded train the other day, I saw something surprising. A young woman was sitting quietly staring out of the window. Why was this surprising? It was surprising because she was the only person not absorbed in a smart phone, tablet or laptop; she was the only person doing nothing.  

With a computer, a smart phone, and an Internet connection, doing nothing is a rarity—a lost art. The Internet is the show that never ends. And for many millions of human beings it has all but eradicated boredom. 

Today, boredom is most likely to be experienced by the poor, the non-networked, and workers in the new exploitative job market where super-menial tasks are done for subsistence wages. The rest of us need never be bored. We are only ever a few keystrokes away from more information, more entertainment, and more opportunities for “socializing” (albeit virtually), than have been dreamt of even in the annals of science fiction. 

Critics of this new culture of Internet absorption say it is leading to the formation of a new architecture of the brain. In an essay called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Nicholas Carr writes that the Internet is “chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” 

It seems we have become addicted to the instant sugar hit of the Internet. But how different is this from what has gone before? Every era has its attractions, all hotly predicted to incite the collapse of civilization, and all said to constitute a threat to our sanity. Once it was the printed word, later the cinema and pop culture, and most recently the flickering eye in the dream homes of the post-war world. 

Yet even if the Internet offers a more virulent form of engagement than previous platforms, there seems little reason to be pessimistic. The human mind has adapted to other technological changes, why not this one, too? And there is evidence that a backlash has started: the refusal of printed books to roll over and die being perhaps the most salient example (even Amazon seems to have accepted this, evidenced by its move into bricks and mortar book retailing). 

Rather than worrying about the likelihood of the new digital zombie apocalypse, I have another concern: I worry about the end of boredom. There are, of course, two kinds of boredom: Enforced boredom and ordinary, run-of-the-mill boredom. As long as there is poverty and dead-end jobs there will always be unavoidable boredom. It rots the soul and gnaws at the fabric of what it means to be human. 

Ordinary boredom is when we find ourselves with nothing to do; for example, when stuck in a dull lecture, or enduring a long wait for a cancelled flight at a soulless airports, or the longed-for vacation that suddenly makes us feel underused and restless. When these forms of boredom affect us, we crave stimulation, and thanks to the Internet we have an inexhaustible supply of stimulation. 

But without spells of boredom, how is the individual ever likely to develop a reflective nature? Without dead time, when does mental ecology become conducive to creative thought? What happens to our mental hygiene if we have no inner downtime whatsoever? 

In his book, Boredom: A Lively History, the academic Peter Toohey examines the history, philosophy, and neurology of boredom. While quick to see the psychological danger of compulsory boredom (what he calls existential boredom, with its links to clinical depression), Toohey also sees the benefits of periods of enforced reflectiveness.

He quotes the poet Joseph Brodsky: "When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor."

Toohey warns against becoming too enthusiastic about the benefits of boredom, but he notes: “Because it can breed dissatisfaction with views and concepts that are intellectually shop worn, boredom can encourage creativity. Boredom may drive thinkers and artists to question the accepted and to search for change.”

I’m never bored today, mostly because I have the escape route of the Internet to mop up those moments of non-deadline driven time. But when I think back to life-changing decisions in my life, they always came out of periods of inertia, inactivity and, well, sheer boredom. Without these tiny refuges from ceaseless activity and constant stimulation, I doubt I'd have acquired the art of self-reflection, or uncovered the need to change my life at times when my life needed to change. A new mantra for the Internet age might be: Turn Off, Tune Out, Get Bored. 

Homepage image: Paul Nash, Boredom, 1928 

Comments [1]

This was a great read, thank you! As a rather nostalgic Millennial, there will always be part of me that longs for the days of pre-Internet simplicity (or at least pre-general-public-friendly-Internet), if only for the social aspect. It's sad to me that social media platforms have become so much more about broadcasting ourselves to our "followers," instead of about about staying connected to our friends. And for some reason, we have been conditioned to absorb these broadcasts to fill the "boredom," even though there are so many things happening in the world that should be demanding our attention. I love the accessibility of the Internet and the information it provides, but it's more frustrating for me to see how people are using it! (I recently deleted my Facebook and wrote a lot about it here: http://thesundaze.com/2015/11/12/goodbye-facebook/)
Tory Hoffman

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