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The History of Boredom

You’ve never been so interested in being bored

smithsonian.com

This Sunday, 500 people will flock to a conference hall in East London to be bored. Over the course of seven hours, they will hear talks on, among other things, pylons, self-service checkouts, double-yellow lines – as in the ones on the road – shop fronts and gardening.

“Quite why anyone else would want to go is a mystery,” says James Ward, 31, the conference’s organizer. Ward, a marketer for a major British retailer, says that the conference started by accident: In 2010, after learning that the Interesting Conference, a day of talks put on by Wired writer Russell Davies, was cancelled, he tweeted – jokingly – that he ought to put on a Boring Conference.

His suggestion would have come to nothing if he hadn’t already earned a number of followers through his blog, a paean to mundane things like stationary. Within a half an hour, he says, the conference was happening. “Never joke on the Internet about doing something, because you may have to do it,” he says. Ward and his followers are in good or at least famous company: One of Andy Warhol’s celebrated bon mots was “I like boring things.” But as Ward admits, the Boring Conference isn’t actually boring. “It’s things that on the surface would appear boring, but aren’t,” Ward explains. In fact, a number of speakers from the cancelled Interesting Conference simply rehashed their talks for the Boring Conference that first year. “The name is slightly misleading, but it’s a good name.”

For Ward, boring and interesting are two sides of the same coin; one man’s pylons is another man’s Playboy. But what does it really mean to be bored? And more importantly, what does being bored do to and say about you?

Boredom’s Origins

“Boredom” first became a word in 1852, with the publication of Charles Dickens’ convoluted (and sometimes boring) serial, Bleak House; as an emotional state, it obviously dates back a lot further. Roman philosopher Seneca talks about boredom as a kind of nausea, while Greek historian Plutarch notes that Pyrrhus (he of the “Pyrrhic victory”) became desperately bored in his retirement. Dr. Peter Toohey, a Classics professor at the University of Calgary, traced the path of being bored in 2011 in Boredom: A Lively History.

Among the stories he uncovered was one from the 2nd century AD in which one Roman official was memorialized with a public inscription for rescuing an entire town from boredom (the Latin taedia), though exactly how is lost to the ages. And the vast amount of ancient graffiti on Roman walls is a testament to the fact that teenagers in every era deface property when they have nothing else to do.

In Christian tradition, chronic boredom was “acedia”, a sin that’s sort of a proto-sloth. The “noonday demon”, as one of its early chroniclers called it, refers to a state of being simultaneously listless and restless and was often ascribed to monks and other people who led cloistered lives. By the Renaissance, it had morphed from a demon-induced sin into melancholia, a depression brought on by too aggressive study of maths and sciences; later, it was the French ennui.

In the 18th century, boredom became a punitive tool, although the Quakers who built the first “penitentiary” probably didn’t see it that way. In 1790, they constructed a prison in Philadelphia in which inmates were kept in isolation at all hours of the day. The idea was that the silence would help them to seek forgiveness from God. In reality, it just drove them insane.

Studying boredom

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