Noticing the digital

Twice a day I change from Jubilee to Northern Line and back at Waterloo station. There is a moving walkway supposed to speed-up the lengthy transfer between platforms. However, it has been closed for maintenance since an engineer died while working on the travelator last September. The other day I was therefore comparably surprised by a commuter in front of me. It wasn’t the fact that he read a book while walking and wore noise-cancelling headphones, subsequently never looked at what’s ahead of him the entire way. Much rather did his right hand catch my attention. Despite the travelator being shut down for quite some time and reason, he still followed the safety advice and hovered his hand over the handrail. His commute appeared routinised to such a degree that he didn’t even notice or adjust to the changed circumstances at Waterloo station.

Understandably so, is for many people the commute a boring part of their day. This is not to say that there aren’t significant things going on. The 140 meter long tunnel at Waterloo station is loaded with meaning. Newspapers have reported about the fatal accident and city, police, and transport representatives issued statements. And even besides that there is endless potential for interesting observations to be made, passing by twenty-something billboards and countless people and bits of conversations.

Yet, it is in response to these fleeting and short-lived events that people develop what Georg Simmel has labelled as blasé attitude in his The Metropolis and Mental Life. People approach such places with an indifference towards the abundance of stimuli that aren’t substantially related to their personal life. The commute forms a stretch of wasted time, is experientially grey and empty. Something we nowadays seek to fill and colour through our use of media technologies. These technologies can be ‘old’, as the book in the commuter’s hand, or ‘new’, as the wireless headphones paired to his mobile phone. And as consequence of the ubiquitous presence of and access to such media, one could rightly argue that nobody has to be bored today.

Digital media in particular offer an easy fix to boredom, as Judy Wajcman outlines, among other things, in her book Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. They can do so in that they allow for spaces of separation and autonomy to be established seamlessly. Within these spaces a person can be present but also withdrawn at the same time. Yet in contemporary reflections and discussions on the impact digital technologies have on our life this capacity to withdraw is often instead rendered in a different tone, namely as a situation of being drawn in. London’s Somerset House recently opened an exhibition addressing this theme under the title ‘24/7 – A wake up call for a non-stop world’. Ideas of an always on culture, an acceleration of the social, and emotional life governed by digital devices and capitalist industries underlying them are discussed alongside a mix of historical and contemporary works.

Digital technologies are within this nexus observed in an ambiguous way. They have provided a solid solution to what in academic debates is referred to as simple boredom – that means to be bored by something or someone. Yet today’s media landscapes are also seen as source of what is understood as profound boredom. Douglas Coupland illustrates this latter notion of boredom in a piece written on the 24/7 show for the Financial Times: “I think I’m doing OK, but then I look through a year’s worth of iPhone photography and, technically, it looks like I did shitloads of things last year but, for me, inside my head, it all happened in a flash. Time didn’t pass. It did, but it didn’t. You know exactly what I mean.”

Coupland’s statement and the exhibition confront a popular feeling that, somehow, time seems to run faster nowadays. It showcases that while media have provided opportunities to fill and make otherwise empty time pass our lives do not feel as being more meaningful or fulfilled at the end of the day. Ubiquitous access to the digital may have offered a solution for modern city dwellers to endure their daily commute but doesn’t provide an answer to profound boredom, the state in which life presents itself as pointless, in which we relate to it from an indifferent position, in a potentially depressed or melancholic mood.

This notion of profound or also referred to as existential boredom is the one that has received most scholarly attention in the humanities and social sciences. It is linked to socio-material forces of modernity, materialised through processes of industrialisation (setting a repetitive and machinic everyday rhythm), urbanisation (creating an overstimulation and acceleration of social life), rationalisation (disenchanting the ways people relate to their surroundings), secularisation and individualisation (exchanging shared frames of reference with a mode of continuous self-reflection but also self-doubt), and contemporary shifts towards forms of consumer and commercial culture (putting newness and innovation over repetition and tradition).

The idea of profound boredom corresponds with diagnoses of a blasé attitude as outlined by Simmel but also the critical observations and reflections on modern life by Walter Benjamin or Henri Lefebvre. While these scholars explicitly see boredom as consequence, and in most cases inevitable consequence of a changed socio-material rhythm of everyday life, this idea of profound boredom is further anchored in nihilistic strands of philosophy. Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or is one prominent example, he himself deeming boredom as the source of all evil. Martin Heidegger’s lectures on The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics forming the more prominent trace present in our reasoning on boredom and all those things that leaves us empty.

For Heidegger profound boredom is a state in which all things lose their meaning – is, as the German term for boredom Langeweile indicates, the feeling of being trapped in a long, seemingly endless stretch of time. This temporal form, this flattening out of time in which past, present, and future stand indifferently to each other catches the attention of Heidegger’s phenomenological reflections because it breaks with a specific temporality. Profound boredom breaks the linear relation of these three temporal states. A linearity which is constitutive for the modern subject that in an imperceptibly short passage through the present reflects on the past and acts towards the future. Breaking this linearity breaks the Cartesian ‘I think, therefore I am’ and thus leaves people disoriented, in a crisis of meaning. Yet this disorientation and crisis is at the same time also opening new paths of relating to the world. It opens up the other side of existence, one not dominated by thought but our senses and feelings instead.

While the idea of profound boredom has been central throughout twentieth-century discussions, its links to simple boredom have often been ignored or neglected. Even if arguable, people have likely always been bored, been left empty by someone or something. However, many of the master thinkers of modernity do not acknowledge this point much. Rather is it common practice to neglect that this more mundane, practical, and concrete experience of boredom is constitutive of the profound state. This neglect stems therein in part from a simple reason. Profound boredom is seen as that form which is said to be historically specific to modernity. It emerged and was popularised, as Patricia Meyer Spacks has outlined in her literary history of the term, during the eighteenth century alongside other ideas like ‘interest’, ‘happiness’, or ‘fulfilment’. Yet crucially it emerged less a phenomenon but more so as a specific intellectualisation of and language to demark inadequacy. Happiness was rendered as a pursuit, as the result of human action and endeavour. Boredom, on the other side, denoted all those things passive and idle, short-lived and repetitive.

Historian Peter Toohey has henceforth argued that the concept of boredom and its associated images can easily be confused with various depressive states. In his ‘lively history’ of the concept he argues that we should not intellectualise it but merely follow the advice the simple emotion of boredom gives us and walk away from the situation that evoked it. Just as the commuter in Waterloo station did, reading a book and listening to music. Appealing as Toohey’s comment is, it’s also unreluctantly undermining the historical discourse at work within such socially accepted and expected responses to boredom. Toohey, critical of the grand claims of profound boredom, still pushes towards the same and unnecessary naturalisation of boredom, as Elizabeth Goodstein has argued in her book Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity. Boredom, both our experience of as well as the rhetoric addressing it, has been psychologically naturalised and philosophically universalised. We seem to have accepted that simple boredom (to be bored by something or someone) is just part of human nature. We see profound boredom (lacking a sense of purpose, fulfilment, or satisfaction in life) as inevitable consequence of the rhythms of modern times.

Returning to the Somerset House’s 24/7 exhibition, I’m thus cautious to blindly follow Coupland when he invokes the same universalised rhetoric, arguing that “You know exactly what I mean”. The life he is referring to in his article is one of missing international meeting calls by messing up time zones. He speaks about the non-stop and always on lifestyle of an artist working and travelling around the globe. An image that also the exhibiting artists and speakers of the opening panel of the show not break with. One just travelled to London for the event from Washington, D.C., was about to board a plane back to the US after leaving the stage. Another speaker had just arrived back in London after promoting his book in Sweden. The host and curator of the exhibition was scheduled to leave for Glasgow the next day to open an electronic arts festival she is organising.

We sure do not all live such lives. And even if so, not all the time, as Wajcman remarks, who was part of the panel as well. But why still make such grand claims then? Do these people really believe such? Some at least were very font of them. Yet confronted with a question from the audience what an individual person can do, they shied away. They agreed that there are no simple answers and fixes to this situation of acceleration and crisis of meaning, to our situation of profound boredom. It requires collective action, Wajcman argued. Yet isn’t making grand claims on the current state of human experience a form of collective action? Didn’t I just spent 90 minutes of my time and £20 of my money to visit a cultural institution which could chart such collective change, chart a new, provocative language on human experience?

On the one side they argue that they’ve figured it out, market the exhibition as wake up call. And similarly the show has been reviewed in the press as provocatively dismantling how our time is controlled by digital devices and the organisations selling them. Artists – following the argument of Johnathan Crary’s book 24/7, which is guiding the exhibition – are said to be at the forefront of solving these issues. But are they really? And if so, where and when? Pessimistic accounts of technology seem to have become the norm today. There has hardly passed a day in the last years without public debates on the negative impact digital devices have on our life. And we may even ask if the system needs dismantling when its reality is one of blunt and obvious tracking, personalisation, and engagement attempts. There seems, I would say, little provocative in staging a wake up call while shying away to take a stance and present an answer – even if that is an experimental one.

Boredom seems profound not in that all our experience is grey and empty but much rather that our language of describing experiential qualities has increasingly become so. The exhibition tries to counter these notions, yet not with a critical reflection of these ideas but rather with the attempt of reconciling us towards communality – touched by the warmth of light, the tranquillity of a room only filled by bird song, or an assemblage of voices calmly humming. It advances the statement that acceleration, that our non-stop world and sleep deprived culture neither popped up overnight nor is solely driven by digital technologies. Yet it is not this fact that makes it timely. Much rather is the Somerset House’s 24/7 timely in that it is a reminder that our intellectual approaches towards digital technologies are still utterly unable to take them seriously.

Eager to defend the fragility of a reality that we call, or at least once called, ours, we seem without hesitation ready to sacrifice the potential to inhabit another. Have they never been in a situation of solitude where the light of your phone screen has been the only one guiding? Have they never found that same atmospheric comfort of birds singing or voices humming communally in the digital? 24/7 not only fails to address but even further occludes the meaningfulness of these things, these moments of finding hope within the mere capitalist ruins that are today’s digital media landscapes. It is right in locating the sources of our modern malaise in manifold domains, the digital being one of them. However, how can it so prominently fail in putting up the same standards towards its search of a solution?

A provocative perspective within the discourse on the consequences of digital technology use would be that which asks: Have we even attempted to notice and take seriously the digital media environments we are surrounded by and talking about so much? For does it appear that the digital has seldom been anything but subsumed within well-rehearsed tropes of cultural criticism, subsumed by the only ground common to our existence, a nihilistic and sceptical one. We agree that life is lacking qualities. We know that something meaningful is missing. Yet addressing anything but this lack appears when not impossible at least intellectually infeasible. Rethinking the parameters of what defines a meaningful and fulfilled experience, rethinking the rhetoric of boredom promises to be a start in order to break from this short-coming. For where would our thoughts arrive once the abundance of short-lived intimacies and flat entertainments overflowing our screens are understood precisely not as such but instead as a joyful and satisfying moment in our lives? It requires openness and patience, requires you to listen and pay attention not to a historical discourse and ideas of thinkers long gone but the intensity of a moment. To really notice the digital and the myriad ways it’s affecting our lives, instead of seeking to master it through our thoughts, we require nothing less than what Heidegger has longed for in his work all the way – Gelassenheit, the capacity of lettings things be. And it is this capacity which 24/7 does quite simply not deliver on.


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