“The things people do out of sheer boredom! They study out of boredom; they pray out of boredom; they fall in love, get married and reproduce out of boredom; in the end they die out of boredom.”

It was the German author Georg Büchner who put these words into the mouth of his protagonist in the comedy Leonce and Lena written in 1836. And if we take it literally, the proposition of boredom as the prime motivating force in life (and death) seems like a bad joke.

But before we throw out the baby with the bathwater, let’s put the bias on hold for a second and reconsider the role of boredom in the 21st century.

A Brief Anatomy Of Boredom

The English word ‘boredom’ first appears in Dickens’ novel Bleak House in 1852 and perhaps it is no coincidence that it appeared at a time which also saw a rapid increase of steam-powered engines and mechanical contraptions. Was boredom a new privilege bestowed upon the masses by the rise of machine labor? Did pre-industrial man never get bored, or did he simply lack the vocabulary?

It remains to be seen whether boredom is a symptom of (technological) development or a fundamental part of our psychological furnishing. But at one point or another we all experienced that sensation described by psychologists as “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.”

Many philosophers have written about the topic, among them Martin Heidegger who has contributed lengthy treatises in which he argues that one should attune oneself to this seemingly negative mood rather than shrug it off in the ordinary understanding:

Isn’t that exactly the attitude we still have towards boredom today? The very idea of it seems to conflict with our notions of purpose and a “fulfilled life”. “Hard-working people don’t get bored,” we say. “They are too busy to get bored.”

Boredom In The Age Of Social Media

Clay Shirky recently said something in an interview (which I quoted before) that a lot of people (including myself) can relate to:

 I remember, as a child, being bored. I grew up in a particularly boring place and so I was bored pretty frequently. But when the Internet came along it was like, “That’s it for being bored! Thank God! You’re awake at four in the morning? So are thousands of other people!”

When was the last time you felt utterly bored sitting on a train, standing in line, staring out of your window on a grey afternoon? It just doesn’t happen that much anymore, does it? Nowadays people browse their Twitter feeds on their iPhones while standing in line, whack away at the keyboards of their laptops in trains and flood their eyeballs with a constant feed of “all you can eat” movie subscriptions à la Netflix at home.

And maybe what Sam Anderson said about playing games like “Angry Birds” is also true for many other activities now filling the time once occupied by boredom: “They’re less an activity in our day than a blank space in our day; less a pursuit than a distraction from other pursuits.”

Is boredom dying out? Do we need to prescribe small dosages of boredom to escape the vicious cycle of inane activity? Can reading help bridge the states of non-doing and over-doing?

When I was a teenager and had prolonged access to computers for the first time in my life, I began to notice that it was possible to be bored in front of the computer, moving the cursor around my desktop and arranging files and folders in idle patterns. This was pre-Internet.

Later, I found out that it’s also possible to be bored online, mindlessly hopping from link to link, refreshing profiles, numbly scrolling through newsfeeds.

In a sense, as much as I agree with Shirky that we’re experiencing less and less pure boredom, Social Media and the state of “always on, always connected” seems to put us into a condition where we are neither fully experiencing activity or boredom. It’s a hybrid-state of distraction and exhaustion.

And I remember the presenter of the popular German children TV series “Löwenzahn” addressing himself to the audience while the end-credits were rolling: “Now turn off the TV! Do something else!”

It’s not that we heeded his advice, mind you. On the contrary, we mocked him and continued on our inevitable trajectory of media consumption.

But at least it planted the idea in our heads hat there is, in fact, an alternative to electronic activity, one that we’re increasingly losing sight of in the age of microblogging and hypernetworking:

img credit: chairs: Some rights reserved by limonada / candle: Some rights reserved by Simon Greig (xrrr)