Boredom as source of creativity

When was the last time you were bored? Do you remember where you were, what you did and why you were bored? Think about it…

The whole point of the early Internet was to connect – an active effort was needed to access the content that existed. You had to turn on the modem and wait (ah, the nostalgia of modem sound). This active Action was often preceded by a reason: we connected to find out something, do something, or maybe (more rarely) to avoid having to do anything else. With fixed lines the active step disappeared. All we have to do is look at the screen.

From fixed connections to embedded connection

The heady days of fixed connectivity, moved quickly to wifi and now to smart phones and pads. Today connection is not the issue. Technology is all around us and our technology is in constant communication with the rest of the world. This is nothing new, years of technological development – all of which so we can surf over to Facebook while waiting for the bus. What began out of necessity became the ultimate source of constant diversion.

What is lost in a world without boredom?

Now please don’t take this as a nostalgic longing for a time without technology. That’s not the point of this text. The point is to look at what disappears when we become embedded in connection. The first thing our connected toys did was make waiting unnecessary – and before long waiting became intolerable. My purpose is to consider what happens when our opportunity, and capacity for, boredom disappears from our lives. What is lost in a world without boredom?

Boredom is usually experienced as a terrifying abyss that most of us instinctively and habitually flee. We are afraid of the abyss that boredom represents we are afraid that it will swallow us if we let it live inside of us. Or, as Nietzsche writes (Beyond Good and Evil, chapter 4):

And if thou gaze long Into an Abyss, The Abyss Will Also Gaze Into thee.

Boredom is a sickness and every sickness needs a cure. Since boredom is negative it is natural to see a world free of boredom as positive. But is boredom really a disease? It could also be understood as a time when the brain disengaged from tasks and is allowed to be, allowed to experience and roam. But with our technology we are not bored and our minds need not begin to roam.

The end of creative boredom

At my department, all faculty and students have laptops, smart phones and we are all embedded in wireless environment. If meetings are boring, lectures difficult, if group work unpleasant… we surf away. I’m not worried that we don’t do our jobs or our students will not learn. But what is lost is the creative boredom that Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own, chapter 2) refereed to when she wrote:

Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, That the submerged truth Sometimes Comes To the top.

Giving your brain time to process, bubble, draw connections, and finally present new ideas, thoughts and imaginative creations. Creativity requires boredom. Requires time where nothing happens, where everything is still.

When was the last time you bored?

Do you remember the last time you were bored? If you are like me, it was probably about an hour when it was socially unacceptable or technically impossible to use your technology. Escape routes were cut off: Technically or socially. Next time it happens, don’t reach instinctively for your technology. Stride toward the abyss and enjoy the breathtaking view. Release your mind and wait for the next creative impulse to bubble up from your subconscious.

(This post originally appeared in Swedish in March 2010)

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