When Even Our Boredom Doesn’t Make Us Bored

A fascinating–and disturbingly convicting–article came out in The New Yorker’s Oct 28th issue called “Only […]

Ethan Richardson / 11.14.13

A fascinating–and disturbingly convicting–article came out in The New Yorker’s Oct 28th issue called “Only Disconnect,” by Evgeny Morozov (what a name!). In it, he walks through several books and essays, past and present, that point out what we’re all seeing, that “We’re under assault by connectivity, receptivity, the tyranny of the now.” Morozov takes it a step further by talking about the curing affects of–not hands-on work, not chats with friends, not hikes in the woods–but boredom. Plain and simple, blinds-closed, thumb-twiddling, dawdle-dumb boredom. He says that we actually become smarter, really more imaginative, once we get more acquainted with the noise within. He says this isn’t an old regulation either. People have known this for years. He takes notes from a German literary figure of the 1920s, Siegfried Kracauer, who also described life in the modern city as “a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone.” Ugh. If only he knew…


Kracauer’s remedy was simple: “extraordinary, radical boredom” could reunite us with our heads. “On a sunny afternoon when everyone is outside, one would do best to hang about in the train station or, better yet, stay at home, draw the curtains, and surrender oneself to one’s boredom on the sofa,” he wrote. Only then could one flirt with ridiculous, embarrassing, unscripted ideas, achieving a “kind of bliss that is almost unearthly.” He went on, “Eventually one becomes content to do nothing other than be with oneself, without knowing what one actually should be doing.” A popular slogan of the 1968 generation was “Boredom is counter-revolutionary”; Kracauer would have disagreed. For him, radical boredom wasn’t an excuse for Oblomovian indolence or passivity. Instad, it was inherently political, allowing us to peek at a different temporal universe, to develop alternative explanations of our predicaments, and even to dare to dream of different futures.

These days, “the state of permanent receptivity” has become the birthright of anyone with a smartphone. We are under constant assault by “interestingness,” as new-media aficionados–“curators,” they call themselves–prowl for bizarre factoids and quaint cartoons. The anti-boredom lobby has all but established its headquarters in Silicon Valley: cue Facebook’s celebration of a “more connected” world, or Apple’s reassurances that its latest gadget could do everything “twice as fast.” Google is so boredom-averse that it seems to change its logo every day.

18394084“Now you’re never lonely, because your friends are always reachable,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, declared a few years ago. “You’re never bored, because there’s infinite streams of information and entertainment.” In his book The New Digital Age, he writes that those “feeling bored” can always turn on the “holograph box and visit Carnival in Rio.” But the ultimate anti-boredom device is Google Glass, a pair of “smart” spectacles that can overlay infinite streams of information on anything in our visual field. Google Now, another flagship service, wants to hijack the “now” by analyzing everything we’ve done in the past to predict what we might be doing in the future.

Kracauer’s recipe for boredom–draw the curtains and get to know your sofa–doesn’t work in the heavily mediated homes of today…Information overload can bore us as easily as information underload. But this form of boredom, mediated boredom, doesn’t provide time to think; it just produces a craving for more information in order to suppress it.

Sheesh. It’s enough to make you feel dirty. Dirty even reproducing this on a glowy screen, as I skitter to and fro this tab to other tabs–my Netflix queue, my Craigslist finds, my Google inbox. There are two things I find striking about this: first, the connection made by the executives of these mammoth tech companies–Google, Facebook–between boredom and loneliness. That loneliness equals boredom equals lack of connection. Morozov is saying–via Kracauer–that this is a false dichotomy. Real boredom is useful, substantial, precisely in its uselessness. We have time and space to be alone, to sit and wonder at our fingernails, or the pilling in our sweater. We make up a little rhyme about the moles on our arms. When we are bored, we aren’t necessarily lonely–we’re just alone.

Secondly, we have found ourselves in a kind of connectivity that engenders the worst kind of boredom: what Morozov calls “mediated” boredom. In this boredom we are helped out of our boredom with a spinning light, a fox song, an album of doppelgangers. In short, we are given the hair of the dog and made needers of more. We are catered to this need with faster iPhones, Buzzfeed lists, Twitter feeds–the fount floweth.

Be still, and mind-numbingly bored, and know that I am God. Whereas the right kind of boredom allows us to be alone, to see ourselves, get to know ourselves, the boredom of our billboards and buzzfeeds (and blogposts, be damned) are allowing us to spend more time alone without ever really being alone. This, paradoxically, is loneliness. It’s our diminishing attention span, sure, but it’s also a diminishing sense of self-knowing and our need for it. Is it so surprising, then, that we have panic attacks? Is it not obvious that this might have something to do with global anxiety, that we suppress such a hungry need with such tiny sips?