Endless stimulation and engagement are what the internet seems to be built for.
However, the infinite links between billions of texts, videos, and images have also shown us how quickly we can become bored by each new piece of flotsam that wells up from the fathomless depths of the cyber-ocean.
Jonathan Franzen characterizes engagement with the internet in the following way: when we project “ourselves onto a cyberworld … there’s no end of virtual spaces in which to seek stimulation, but their very endlessness, the perpetual stimulation without satisfaction, becomes imprisoning. To be everything and more is the Internet’s ambition” (Farther Away).
Franzen’s essay goes on to reckon with the suicide of his friend and fellow novelist, David Foster Wallace. Wallace’s depression, Franzen reasons, was bound up with his inability to escape boredom.
In Wallace’s efforts — first in Infinite Jest and then The Pale King — to create intensely complicated works that could encompass the infinite complexity he experienced in the world, he had taken a risk. “[T]o try to add more to what is already everything is to risk having nothing: to become boring to yourself,” writes Franzen.
Franzen suggests that Wallace’s predicament was, in microcosm, what the modern obsession with the written word and the proliferation of internet content is in macrocosm.
As we continue to produce pieces of content — be they novels, blog posts, podcasts, or video content — the resulting cacophony may sometimes sound like meaningless white noise.
How should creative people confront the potentially numbing effects of content-overload and continue to meaningfully create?
Let’s start by acknowledging the enduring relationship between boredom and creatively produced content.
As part of his reckoning, Franzen reflects on the rise of the novel as a reaction to the boredom experienced by the growing number of idle middle class consumers in England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
In this period, England was the economic and intellectual powerhouse of Europe. Industrialist and literary entrepreneurs proliferated alongside a growing “literate bourgeoisie eager to read about itself.” At this time, the old social order disintegrated “into a collection of individual isolates, and … among the newly comfortable middle class” there was a “dramatic increase in leisure for reading”.
It’s not hard to see how this shift to a society full of people with their faces stuck in a book resembles the current screen-obsessed culture we all inhabit.
Luddite reactionaries sometimes claim that our internet-centrism is a new scourge that will undermine the foundations of society. These folks fail to realize that our obsessive fixation on media has been growing since the early modern period onward.
Increasingly liberated from the demands of producing the bare necessities of life, we’ve had to find other ways to fill our time — to distract ourselves.
But what do we want to distract ourselves from?
The answer: thinking.
In 2014, a study explored how people would respond to being alone in a room with no distractions, except the imaginative capacities of their own minds and a device with which they could give themselves mild electric shocks.
The study showed that “participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” (Science 345.6192 : 75).
The main metric of the study was the participants’ statements about their level of enjoyment, which revealed that doing nothing was bumming them out. It turns out that people generally “prefer doing to thinking”.
Why did people hate “just thinking” so much?
At first, researchers speculated that participants might not enjoy having time to think about their own shortcomings. However, their interviews of subjects showed there was no significant connection between self-focus and negative emotion.
Next, the researchers wondered if participants found “thinking to be difficult.” Participants “simultaneously had to be a ‘scriptwriter’ and an ‘experiencer’; that is, they had to choose a topic to think about (‘I’ll focus on my upcoming summer vacation’), decide what would happen (‘Okay, I’ve arrived at the beach, I guess I’ll lie in the sun for a bit before going for a swim’), and then mentally experience those actions”.
To set participants up to have enjoyable fantasies in their period of inactivity, the researchers gave them the opportunity to plan what they would think about. Even after preparing a fantasy in advance, participants’ enjoyment of the idle period was not dramatically increased.
This seems a little surprising. When I read this part of the study, I was certain people would have a way better experience after prefabricating a fantasy. Even if you mentally replayed the last episode of Gray’s Anatomy in your head, you’d have a better time than sitting there shocking yourself, right?
It turns out, though, that we all have different levels of boreability. (To figure out your boreability complete the Boredom Proneness Scale by doing the quiz in this Nature article.)
Tellingly, one of the first conditions of the electric shock study was making sure that no one had their handheld devices with them. No writing material was allowed, and, presumably, participants weren’t permitted to bring in Pride and Prejudice either.
They had to create their own content to fill the time, and it was hard.
It was so hard they were willing to hurt themselves just to get a little bit of stimulation.
So what does it mean to live in a world where you never have to go without a new shock — where ingeniously produced content is constantly crashing over you like warm waves on a Tahitian beach?
In The Pale King (2011), Wallace asks what the experience of boredom really means for modern people.
By setting the novel in an IRS tax-return processing centre in 1985, he provides his narrator and characters plenty of boring encounters with information. The narrative becomes a study of these encounters.
At the end of “The Author’s Forward” and §44, his authorial voice suggests that understanding and developing a tolerance for high levels of boredom, might be the key to surviving and thriving in our time.
“Maybe,” he speculates, “dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there…. […] Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do”.
“I can’t think,” he writes, “anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down”.
What this something is remains an open question throughout the novel. However, it seems linked to emptiness, longing, or lack, all of which form the basis for the experience of boredom.
“[T]he key to modern life,” Wallace claims, is “the ability to deal with boredom. To function in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breath, so to speak, without air”. “If you are immune to boredom,” he writes, “there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish”.
You might be thinking that this is more true for some professions than others: i.e., data entry technicians, accountants, tax lawyers, and drone-like button-pushers of all descriptions.
It might not occur to you, therefore, that for those of us who create, it’s actually our job to be bored.
Consider, we have to sit quietly and listen to the thoughts that run through our heads and — instead of self-administering pleasantly distracting electric shocks — we have to take the risk of writing something down.
We have to do this again and again, and — if we’re serious about being creators — we have to abandon excuses like “writer’s block” and face up to the frequent dullness and banality of our own interior life.
Happily, though, recent research has shown that being bored is an important precursor to being creative.
At the annual British Psychological Association conference in 2013, Dr. Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman from the University of Central Lancashire presented the findings of a study on boredom that showed the experience may enhance creative capacity.
Mann and Cadman had 40 people sit and copy out numbers from a phone book for 15 minutes — a very dull task. Afterwards, these people were given a plastic cup and asked to come up with as many uses for the cup as they could think of.
The researchers then brought in another 40 people fresh from normal life. They didn’t make these 40 do the boring job of copying the phone numbers, but asked them to think of interesting new uses for the plastic cup. These people came up with far fewer possible uses.
Curious about how daydreaming would affect the results, they carried out another study where 30 people had to actually copy numbers and 30 were asked simply to read them, a simpler task which would free up their minds to daydream.
It turned out that those who were fully engaged in copying the numbers were less creative than those who were allowed to do the simpler boring task of reading the numbers before coming up with new uses for the cup.
“This suggests that more passive boring activities, like reading or perhaps attending meetings, can lead to more creativity — whereas writing, by reducing the scope for daydreaming, reduces the creativity-enhancing effects of boredom” (“Boredom at work can make us more creative” para. 6).
Summing up, Dr. Mann stated: “Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity. What we want to do next is to see what the practical implications of this finding are. Do people who are bored at work become more creative in other areas of their work — or do they go home and write novels?” (para. 7).
The confrontation with boredom — that is, sitting alone with one’s thoughts — is a challenge in modern creative life.
If we take The Pale King seriously, it is perhaps the challenge.
When framed as a question, the problem has two parts that cohere in a more or less balanced state for every individual:
If we’re able to face down and ultimately use boredom, the results could be sublime.
In The Pale King, a character named Drinion is a highly efficient tax return processor for the IRS. He’s excellent because of his ability to focus on an extremely dull task for long periods of time. (At one point, Wallace uses Drinion’s character to add a touch of magic realism to the book by describing how he concentrates so hard on boring tasks that he begins to levitate.)
Near the end of the novel, Drinion’s capacity for sustained boredom is described with Wallace’s signature mixture of deadpan hyperbole and earnest admonition:
Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss — a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom. (548)
If you’re a content creator, the things you work on likely have way more potential interest than the things an IRS agent focuses on all day.
It’s our job to look out into the world and figure out how people are choosing to stimulate themselves and invite them to become more engaged. Nevertheless, the infinite regress of links and pages can, as Franzen suggests, become imprisoning.
We should recognize that, in the creative process, there are going to be periods of boredom — sometimes intense boredom. Remember, that these crushing moments are actually staging areas for blissful enjoyment and creativity.
When he’s not refining prose and hunting down grammatical errors, Ben Barber reads paper books from brick libraries, traps Dungeness crab, brews beer, and stalks inspiration through temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. His graduate degrees in English Literature have honed his editorial eye, while teaching him the importance of respecting the author’s unique voice. Feel free to drop him a line if you’re interested in discussing the nuances of semicolon usage, the metaphysics of the late-Romantic poets, Spinoza’s third type of knowledge, or recipes for baby back ribs.