September 21, 2019

The Perks of Boredom

“BOREDOM IS ONE of the most common human experiences, yet it seems continually to defy complete understanding. We all know what it is to feel bored, but what exactly prompts, constitutes, or follows from the condition of boredom is far less obvious. Is boredom a function of leisure? Does boredom tangle desire or personal conditions, or both? That is, when I stare at the full refrigerator and complain that there is nothing to eat, or when I scan 100 cable channels and find nothing to watch, who or what, exactly, is to blame?

A century ago, modernist poets and artists worked to illustrate the disintegrated selfhood of twentieth-century humanity, the way a coherent individuality was being torn apart by new social and political conditions such that we were left with, at best, fragments shored against our ruin. Today, the challenge is urgent in a new fashion, since our selves are deliberately scattered data fragments—Twitter feeds, Instagram posts, shopping preferences, and text trends captured by algorithms that seem to know us better than we know ourselves. What hope is there for integration and stability under such conditions?

All of us, at least in the richer parts of the planet where stimulus is rich, are aware of the problem. I am sitting in front of a screen. If it is the right time of day, there is a muted baseball game showing on the nearby TV. I have my phone on the desk, which relentlessly delivers voicemail messages about daily trivia from people I know. I answer some of them. A web-browser window is open in another tab, in case I want to fact-check something without troubling my failing memory, order a book I almost forgot on Amazon, or suddenly feel like wandering down a hot-link tunnel of scant and certainly forgettable relevance to what I still call my life. I can’t settle on any one thing, let alone walk away from the light cast by the screens and into a different reality. I am troubled, restless, overstimulated. I am consuming myself as a function of the attention I bestow. I am a zombie self, a spectre, suspended in a vast framework of technology and capital allegedly meant for my comfort and entertainment. And yet, and yet…I cannot find myself here.”

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