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The value of boredom

I took a class during my undergraduate degree about the material culture of the Victorian era. I took it mostly for fun and because I found the lessons relevant to architecture. But it also allowed me to write papers about things like gin (though I remember not doing very well on that one).

My big takeaway from that class, which continues to stick with me to this day, is about how difficult it was for the Victorians to process and ultimately accept new technologies and ideas. There seemed to be immense skepticism and concern for everything that was novel.

Take, for example, the first ever escalator. An invention of the Victorian era, there were very serious concerns at the time about what such rapid changes in elevation would do to the human body. That’s why they initially gave people booze at the top of the ride. A little something to calm the nerves after such a traumatic experience.

This, of course, seems silly today. But I always come back to it when I see us trying to process new technologies. Will posterity eventually think that we too were being silly for worrying? Will they think it’s cute that we thought social media was turning us all into narcissistic and envious creatures? Probably.

Still, there’s no denying that material culture impacts us all. I was reminded of this while reading this WIRED article by Craig Mod called, “The Glorious, Almost-Disconnected Boredom of My Walk in Japan.” (Tim Ferriss shared it in his most recent newsletter.)

Craig does ultra-marathon walks. And the article is about one that he did in Japan. While this may seem like a recipe for a whole lot of nothing, there are things to be learned here. In it, he talks about how he rationed his use of technology on these walks and how “boredom” became something of value.

In the context of a walk like this, “boredom” is a goal, the antipode of mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction. I put “boredom” in quotes because the boredom I’m talking about fosters a heightened sense of presence. To be “bored” is to be free of distraction.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of our phones is that they allow us to fill every second of boredom with stuff. Have 3 three seconds to spare? Pull out the phone. On the one hand it’s nice to never be bored. But on the other hand, it’s harder to be contemplative. It’s harder to go deep into things. And it’s harder to find that right kind of “bored.”

Or maybe we’re just being fuddy-duddies who will one day be made fun of by future generations when somebody decides to teach a university course about early 21st century material culture.

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