Morning. My phone pings me awake like a command. I’m tired and need another hour’s sleep, but check it anyway. Google Maps couldn’t find your location: please turn on Location Services. Emails. A company I bought a backpack from once telling me about its new offers. Facebook telling me someone I met once years ago has updated her status. Amazon asking me to leave a review. WhatsApp messages about a night out from a group chat. The day seeps through the curtains. S. is asleep. Her phone beeps. I get an automatic email from an agency’s online project management system (they call it a ‘community’). Because of the time difference the project managers who sent them will already be in their offices waiting for replies so they can get back to the clients, so the clients can get back to the project managers and the project managers can get back to me. I click on the link, log in, skim through the text and click to claim it. I know I won’t be able to fall asleep again: I secretly knew it the minute I picked up the phone. But I’m too tired to get up so I go on the American message board I spent two hours on last night before I fell asleep. After scrolling through memes, pictures, comments and news I realize they’re the same ones I looked at last night. I click through to some news articles and a video of people falling over set to a techno soundtrack (which I quickly mute after S. groans and turns away). After an hour of this I get an automatic email saying I’ve been assigned the text I claimed, reach down and pick my laptop off the floor, log into an online translation program that’s linked to the agency’s program, translate the first sentence, put the laptop back down, get up and go to the bathroom.
I give my attention willingly to those who compete for control of it. As my attention shifts and flits, it turns into distraction. My attention and distraction become one and the same: a product.
My boredom before it’s dispersed in this depthless drift at least has a kind of substance. It seems to fill my being. It’s close to fullness: all that’s needed is a shift of attention. The boredom of dispersal is more akin to apathy, a thinning out.
In creation outside dispersal – outside hypercommunication and the commodification of attention – boredom and distraction have their places as parts of a whole. What looks like laziness can be part of fulfilling work. You write something, get stuck, stare out the window or go for a walk and suddenly the living truth that was there all along comes to you.
In dispersal boredom becomes a mix of apathy and a roaming anxiety that can lead to nothing positive because they’re not rooted in a subject engaged in a meaningful task. They dissolve the subject rather than point him or her towards their opposites – towards home.
Dispersal exists side by side with surveillance – at home, on the streets, at work. This country is a world leader in private and state CCTV cameras: if you call the police about a disturbance in a city they’ll often be able to see it in real time. Every one of my clicks on the internet is tracked through my online and phone IDs and combined with real-world data about me (such as my address, income, education, relationship status, movements, everything I’ve ever bought with a card and everywhere I bought it) to create the most precise marketing profiles possible. My phone itself tries to connect to our other devices to tailor ads for me, even when I’m not using it. Algorithms guide me through the web, shaping my life in ways I don’t understand…
As a freelancer in the countryside, I’m spared the apathy and anxiety of working in an office with targets, performance reviews, competitiveness and constant monitoring. I have the luxury of more time on my hands, of old-fashioned boredom and the possibilities that come with it. I’m free to say no to jobs. But being on the margins of the system gives rise to its own anxieties. I need to be communicable the whole day. If I don’t claim job offers straight away some other freelancer, somewhere in the world, will. I never know how many people a job has been offered to. I’m connected to the same networks as everyone else and if they’re cut off I’m lost and start to panic. My life is largely structured around deadlines that I suspect the agencies make unnecessarily short to be more competitive. I often work in the evenings, weekends and holidays. My monthly income varies wildly. I have no contracts, no financial security, no social safety net. From time to time an agency will stop sending me work – I never know why – and I have to send out another round of unsolicited emails to addresses I find online, or fill in application forms on agency websites. (And if the work were to stop, the heating got cut off and I needed to apply for benefits, it would be on condition that I provide documentation showing that I was spending thirty-odd hours a week looking for jobs – a fulltime job in itself that’s literally impossible to do and pays barely enough to survive.)
For serious people there’s only work and laziness. There’s no such thing as productive idleness. Idleness is laziness and laziness is a moral failure to work, to make money, even if there are no prospects but debt and meaningless stress. You make your own prospects, you get out and sell yourself and so that eventually you too can rip other people off. But when money is the Real it no longer matters what you’ve done to earn it. Once you’ve got it you’ve made it: you’re real too. Lazy people can now become rich by streaming themselves playing video games or being on reality shows. Crooks become respectable once they have too much money to ignore. They cease being objects of contempt. They’ve gamed the system to their advantage, which is something serious people have to respect, since they respect the system and the system is money. ‘She’s not as stupid as you might think’, they’ll say, or: ‘Whatever else he might be, he’s savvy.’
In the old Christian tradition, boredom, accidie, and by extension all unhappiness that didn’t stem from a specific external cause, was a deadly vice, a flight from the divine. The solution was to meditate on its opposite, to go through the darkness of self-enclosure into the light of the whole. In its contemporary form – anxious apathy, depression – boredom is a privatized condition to be overcome with pills, cognitive behavioural therapy and self-help methods to enable the sufferer to get back into the workforce. But boredom waits for us. It waits to tell us the truth about its everyday causes and our bogus attempts to cure it.
Boundless by nature, Being unceasingly lets things come into being, unfold themselves, become what they are. Our ever-expanding communication networks are pale versions of it, providing little nourishment: information without meaning. Operating within their own echoing worlds, mirroring vital forces and real human contact – the way a psychopath mirrors other people’s emotions to get what he wants from them – they seek not to give life but to deny it, to close us off from Being and replace it. Within them Being veils itself in us as apathy and anxiety, the symptoms of our withdrawal.
We find big house spiders on the walls. ‘It’s that time of year’, says S. When she sees me about to bludgeon one with a roll of kitchen towel she stops me, slides it into a glass under a piece of paper and brings it outside. ‘Won’t they just come back in?’ I say.