Departments

Boredom

Dividing people into two kinds is usually futile; but one useful division is by theories of boredom. Some people think of boredom as a sin; they are ashamed to be bored: some people think of boredom as a symptom; they are afraid to be bored.

The sin theory of boredom begins with the observation (pithily expressed by Hume) that life is so far from being a pleasure in itself, that we would rather do anything at all with it than simply live. We seek preoccupation above all other ends. Boredom, like original sin, is an inherited debt that we are always working to discharge, that reasserts itself the moment we relax.

The symptom theory of boredom begins with the observation of animals and tribesmen, who are often lazy, but never bored. Boredom, then, is a symptom of the disease of civilization, of the way civilization warps and overstimulates the mind. Boredom is a sign of bad living, a signal that one is taking life too seriously, thinking too much. The proper treatment is to seek distraction and stupefaction, to shut the mind off.

Both theories are equally artificial. Consider that in most places, for most of history, the alternatives to boredom, both preoccupation and distraction, were beyond control. Harvests and wars happened when they happened, things broke when they broke or had to be made when someone needed them. Occasions of all kinds, feasts, bouts, revelries, holidays, followed the seasons. To be aware of boredom as a remediable condition belonged to the few, to rulers, warriors, priests, scholars. Not a luxury itself, like luxury, it prerequires general prosperity. (Look at Prince Hamlet, whose boredom was to a sixteenth century audience a sign of his greatness, a princely attribute lifting him above common men.)

Boredom was always real for everyone, but went unnoticed, because it could not be changed. That innocence is lost to us; we are cursed to be bored and know we are bored. That we must theorize boredom distinguishes us as moderns almost as that we must theorize mortality distinguishes us as human beings.

I subscribe to the sin theory of boredom. I have been bored, but I heartily repent both occasions. I would find them interesting now. Being this kind of person places me on a losing side—one losing so badly that the winning side has yet to notice that there are two sides. The sin theory and the symptom theory are not equally matched; the sin theory makes converts where boredom reigns and must be consciously resisted; the symptom theory makes converts where remedies for boredom are easy and cheap. And remedies for boredom surround us.

I think the sin theory was once predominant; I think TV defeated it. But even as TV fades its victory endures. You may have heard the thesis that the edifices of Web 2.0 represent the liberation of a cognitive surplus previously absorbed by TV. But it would be silly to expect that the culture, the habits, the state of mind of TV watching would disappear because the TVs are shutting off. TV has had generations to train the preponderance of human beings to fear being bored. The TV watchers turned from screen to monitor, moved from sofa to desk chair, but they remained what TV had made them, afraid of boredom, not ashamed of it, and they remade the net accordingly, turned everything social and turned everything social trivial. And because the net is teleologically compelled to absorb other media, out to the limits of culture, the TV watchers, in shaping the net, are performing all that earlier generations feared about the effects of TV on culture, catabolizing the achievements of centuries in a space of years, all so rapidly that it seems a natural phenomenon.

Note that I do not condemn any of the possibilities and powers of Web 2.0 and would neither propose nor assent to abolish nor withdraw from them. Rather I want it to go on, I want to see Web 3.0, I want to see a semantic web and lifelogging and all the rest. I want everything to be tried. But I reserve the right to condemn how it is being used.

The notion that the medium is the message, that new media compel new habits of thought—this slogan of progress is itself obsolete. It obtains only when new media are spaced out generation to generation and can raise their own. But when new media arise and displace the old decade to decade or year to year, we carry over the habits and attitudes of each into the next, in a way that warps its development and frustrates its potential.

But this is not an apocalypse. There are still two kinds of people, those who are ashamed of being bored, who think boredom a sin, and those who are afraid of being bored, who think boredom a symptom; and there always will be. The present victory is too absolute. Generations grow up taking the accomplishments of previous generations for granted. The very universality of this success dooms it; in time to swoon over collaboration and community will seem as absurd as it now seems absurd to swoon over industry and mass transit.

No trend goes on forever; nothing stays cool forever. Here is my great disquiet and doubt about the future. How institutions based on salaries and hierarchies continue to function after they cease to be cool is obvious. But what happens to institutions based on collaboration and community when they cease to be cool?

Count over utopias and dystopias. Do you live in William Morris's News from Nowhere, in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, in B.F. Skinner's Walden Two? Do you live in Aldous Huxley's England? In George Orwell's? All of these were reasonable extrapolations of existing social trends; but social trends do not extrapolate. The face of future is like one of those optical illusions where the outline of a vase is also the profile of an old woman or the portrait of a young woman is also the shadow of a skull. Foreground and background always change places. The two theories of boredom are the limits of a pendulum; and the pendulum is swinging still.