The Pursuit of Boredom

The other day a friend pointed out an article by Sandi Mann in The Guardian. The title was Why are we so bored? The author got me wondering: should we think about boredom as a bane or a boon — a feature or a bug — in the trajectory of our lives?

Here’s the gist of Why are we so bored?, datelined 24 April 2016:

With so much to occupy us these days, boredom should be a relic of a bygone age — an age devoid of the internet, social media, multi-channel TV, 24-hour shopping, multiplex cinemas, game consoles, texting and whatever other myriad possibilities are available these days to entertain us.
Yet despite the plethora of high-intensity entertainment constantly at our disposal, we are still bored. Up to half of us are “often bored” at home or at school, while more than two- thirds of us are chronically bored at work. We are bored by paperwork, by the commute and by dull meetings. TV is boring, as is Facebook and other social media. […]
There are a number of explanations for our ennui. This, in fact, is part of the problem — we are overstimulated. The more entertained we are the more entertainment we need in order to feel satisfied . The more we fill our world with fast-moving, high-intensity, ever-changing stimulation, the more we get used to that and the less tolerant we become of lower levels.

This spin on collateral damage — boredom — caused by our 21st century distractions, including the device + social media distractions with which many now fill every interstice of otherwise-unclaimed attention, is more interesting to me than the usual gnashing-of-teeth over decreasing attention spans. (Though I do think there’s merit in observations about decreasing attention spans. Oh — look! Squirrels!)

A squirrel enjoys a salvaged apple on Dwinelle Plaza, UC Berkeley

Sorry. Back to boredom.

Here’s what technology observer Jerry Mander wrote about the experience of watching TV, foreshadowing a 21st Century link between distraction and boredom in his 1978 classic, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:

You are looking at a face speaking. Just as you are becoming accustomed to it, there’s a cut to another face. (technical event) Then there might be an edit back to the first face. (technical event) Then the camera might slowly draw back to take in some aspect of a wider scene. (technical event) Then the action suddenly shifts outdoors to the street. (technical event) Intercut with these scenes might be some other parallel line of the story. It may be a series of images of someone in a car racing to meet people on that street we have just visited. (technical event) The music rises. (technical event) And so on.
Each technical event — each alteration of what would be natural imagery — is intended to keep your attention from waning as it might otherwise. The effect is to lure your attention forward like a mechanical rabbit teasing a greyhound. Every time you are about to relax your attention, another technical event keeps you attached.
The luring forward never ceases for very long. If it did, you might become aware of the vacuousness of the content that can get through the inherent limitations of the medium [i.e., television]. Then you would be aware of the boredom. […]

Mander drew the same line in 1978 that Sandy Mann did the other day: overstimulation is somehow linked to boredom.

But here’s another take on the question that I’d like to juxtapose with Mann’s and Mander’s, quoting UC Berkeley Professor of Philosophy Alva Noë from his latest book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.

Any adequate account of what art is and of its place in our lives must address the striking fact that art has the power to bore us. […] And art’s potential to be dull does not contradict the fact that art also moves and thrills and transforms and excites us. Indeed, it is the opposite side of the very same coin. Just as there is no encounter with love without the live risk of heartbreak, so there can be no confrontation with art that does not open up the possibility of getting lulled unconscious and bored to death. Art is valuable only in direct proportion to the degree to which it can, or might, bore us. […]
Works of art are strange tools, after all. That is, they are tools we can’t use, they are useless. They are texts with no practical content, or pictures that don’t show us anything in particular. And so they require us to stop doing. To stop acting and to stop demanding application or even pertinence. […] The pictures in the clothing catalog show you something you can buy; the architect’s model lays out something you can build. But the choreography on the stage? The painting on the wall? […] They stop you dead in your tracks. That is, if you let them. If you suspend. If you interrupt. If you enter that special space and that altered state that art provides or allows. Art situations have this in common with religious spaces like churches. They are places where so much can happen but only because nothing really happens. They are spaces for self-transformation.

So is boredom a condition to be avoided at all costs? Or might it be a state we ought to cultivate??

Maybe the best answer is ‘neither.’

It’s no mystery that distraction degrades focus, and completion of directed tasks (which we sometimes think of as “productivity” — getting stuff we want to do done). Multitasking as a valuable mode of behavior or a ‘skill’ is a myth. But continuous distraction also degrades creativity, synthesis and sharpening of new ideas, and ‘serendipitous’ discovery … because each of these tends to require the kind of mental elbow-room that Alva Noë described in Strange Tools: “They are places where so much can happen but only because nothing really happens.” Noë describes boredom as a state between distraction and engagement with transformation.

Boredom isn’t the goal. It’s a way station.

I happen to know Alva Noë: we’re both students of Tai Chi Ch’uan, and study that slow-moving, deeply attentive practice with the same teacher, in Berkeley, California. Some find a martial art built of slow, steadily-paced movements, repeated over and over and over again through many years of study and practice … well … some find it boring. Others find the state of deep attention to space, precision, movement, breath, and awareness … wait for it … a space for self-transformation.

When I go to a Tai Chi class, or practice my form on the back porch, or head over to the nearby schoolyard of an early morning to run through my sword form before too many neighbors are out and about — I leave my electronica behind.

There’s something to be said for letting distraction go. It doesn’t have to be boring … at least, not in a bad way, and not for long.