We Were Never Being Boring/ We Had Too Much Time to Find for Ourselves

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Oliver Burkeman has deep thoughts about boredom and web video:

It is generally agreed that we are more bored today than ever before. Some surveys put the percentage of people who yearn for more novelty in their lives at around 70% and rising. As the scholar Lars Svendsen explains in his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, until at least the 17th century being bored was an elite privilege, bragged about by princes and the nobility. The paradox is that boredom seems to have become democratised in exact proportion to the explosion of reasons not to be bored: books, affordable international travel, and the mass media, for a start. And here is an even stranger paradox: in the age of the internet, when the average person has access to vastly more genuinely fascinating information than at any point in history, what are the sites that consistently achieve cult status, from the birth of the web up to the present day? The boring ones. A ripening cheese. A coffee pot in a Cambridge University computer lab (the first webcam, and now a dusty artefact of online history). A camera trained on a street in a Scottish village where nothing ever happens. And I do mean nothing: so little, in fact, that it would be more interesting to watch paint dry—which, incidentally, you can also do via the web, at watching-paint-dry.com.

This is, uh, interesting, but which internet is Burkeman looking at? On the one I'm using, the stuff that gets the most views features something interesting happening. The biggest driver of traffic to videos is individual surfers e-mailing/IMing/etc links over to their friends with some sort of promise like "omg this is so funny." It's a participatory culture, not a waste of time.

What's the appeal of the nothing-much-happening sites Burkeman is grooving on? Part voyeurism, part inquisition. It's not dull people who are interested in watching complex chemical reactions take place.

NEXT: Public Servants or Masters?

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  1. I think the reason culture commentators think that there’s an epidemic of boredom is because culture commentators tend to write the histories of items of “mass interest” or “general interest”, and “mass interest” is dying.

    There are tens of millions of dorks online working on the minutaie of crafts like knitting and quilting, tech issues like hacking routers to boost wireless reception, gaming “mods” and virtual communities, obscure histories and geneaologies, etc. The list is interest. The problem is that almost none of this stuff can be made interesting to people not directly involved in it, so you can’t write the type of “Gee how interesting is this stuff other people are doing” magazine articles that were the staple of the freelance general interest writer. This leads some to the conclusion that everyone must be bored.

  2. Typo: the list is ENDLESS, not “interest”.

  3. Well, I definitely feel as if…..uh…what was I writing about again?

  4. Burkeman is bored because he has boring friends who do nothing to amuse him. Or he’s such a bore that he can’t attract any interesting friends. Either way, the problem is him, not us.

  5. It’s not dull people who are interested in watching complex chemical reactions take place.

    Weigal is a shill for big paint…

  6. It’s a participatory culture, not a waste of time.

    Isn’t it kind of both?

  7. I suppose this could be another result of an ever increasing welfare state mentality. I am not sharp enough to get out of the path of the storm, so the govt must give me everything back that I lost. I am too stupid or lazy to raise my kids so the govt has to pass a bunch of “dumdass ass protection” laws so I dont screw them up too badly. I cant get off my ass to go out and experience life, so somebody needs to entertain me. If cheese maturing is all I can find, it will do fine thanks.

    politics, religon, education, or anything else in our lives needs to be pre-chewed and packaged in a pleasant way and we eat it up.
    Substance? no thanks
    responsibility? I’ll pass
    committment? Define that for me please

    We willingly hand over what we want the Iraqis to fight for. And raise holy hell over a chocolate jesus.
    well fuck me runnin

  8. Only boring people get bored.

    I do remember back in the 90’s reading that something like 70% of the average PC runtime was for solitaire.

  9. we are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

  10. I’m pretty bored right now, but that’s because I’m at work and my boss can’t keep me busy (and they block way too many sites here).

  11. Americans are bored because our lives are too easy.

  12. Nice Pet Shop Boys reference, there.

  13. Boredom is an interesting thing.

  14. Percy: Erm, er, yes, er, well, Lord Whiteadder, er, a vow of silence… Now, that’s quite an interesting thing… Tell me about it.
    -the British sitcom Blackadder.

  15. This is, uh, interesting, but which internet is Burkeman looking at?

    He’s looking at the same one we all are, except through his I-have-a-theory-and-I’ll-cherry-pick -to-prove-it filter.

    Even if the ripening cheese website achieves a “cult status” (whatever that means), it’s less than brilliant to assume this means that thousands of people are actually visiting the site and watching cheese ripen for hours. A better explanation would be that people click through to the site, look at it for a little bit, conclude that it’s not interesting, and move on (and then they claim “ha ha, that was awesome” to be part of the zeitgeist).

    Americans are bored because our lives are too easy.

    There’s a lot of truth to that. Before the 17th century, the common, non-serf, slave, or servant-owning folk had lots and lots of things to do just to survive in some little comfort. As lifestyles have improved for all of us as a result of industrialization, there is less work we need to do. Want to be less bored? Go out there and sow and reap those fields by hand.

    Then, of course, the other part of this is that boredom is a self-inflicted state of mind. People who want to be bored become bored. As Burkeman himself admits, there’s plenty of things to do to keep oneself amused.

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