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’) with a translation offer. Because of the time difference, the project managers will already be in their offices waiting for replies. I click on the link, log in, skim through the text as quickly as possible and click to claim it before anyone else. I get it, with a deadline in the afternoon. I know I won’t be able to fall asleep again: I 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 put my phone on the bedside table, reach down and pick my laptop off the floor, log into the online translation program that’s linked to the agency’s site, translate the first sentence, get stumped by the second, put the computer 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. 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 meaningful 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 are very hard to turn to positive ends because they’re not rooted in a person engaged in a meaningful task. They fragment rather than point to their opposites.
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 a physical office with pointless meeting, targets, performance reviews, competitiveness and monitoring by management. I have the luxury of time, of old-fashioned boredom: I’m free to say no to jobs. But being on the margins causes 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 worry. My life is largely structured around deadlines that I suspect the agencies make unnecessarily short to be more competitive. I haven’t raised my fees in ten years because of competition and improvements in machine translation. I work in the evenings, weekends and holidays. My monthly income varies wildly. I have no contracts, no financial 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 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, even now, there’s only work and laziness. There’s no such thing as meaningful idleness. Idleness is laziness and laziness is a moral failure to work (meaning to make money), even now when for many 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, whether your activity is useful or not. Once you’ve got it you’ve made it: you’re real too. People can now become rich by spamming ads, streaming themselves playing video games or being on reality shows. Crooks and lazy people become respectable once they have too much wealth 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 early Christian church, acedia and tristitia, sloth and sadness, were related deadly sins. They ranged over states such as apathy, laziness and despair: sins of wilful withdrawal, flights from the divine. They were spiritual problems, problems of the whole person to be cured not just through work – and still less by making money – but also through prayer and spiritual exercises: meaningful idleness. The sufferer was meant to move from the darkness of self-enclosure into the light of God and the community of the faithful through prayer, endurance and grace.
In their contemporary forms they’re private conditions to be overcome with drugs, managerial cognitive behavioural therapy and self-help techniques designed to help sufferers administrate themselves into fulfilment and re-enter the workforce with renewed vigour. But don’t sloth and sadness still lie in wait among the workforce? And when they appear, don’t they tell us the truth about their everyday causes and our limited cures?
Boundless by nature, being unceasingly lets things come into being, unfold themselves, become what they are. Our communication networks are pale versions of it, providing little nourishment: information and profit without meaning. Operating within their own echoing worlds, mirroring vital forces and real human contact, they work not to give life but to replace it. Within them being veils itself in us as all kinds of symptoms, regularly rebranded to sell us cures that don’t work.