Proof That Boredom Isn't As Bad As Your Parents Always Told You

10/22/2013 02:15pm ET | Updated November 7, 2013

City-dwellers (especially New Yorkers) tend to pride themselves on their jadedness. A blasé, don't-know-don't-care attitude allows them to walk by various phenomena -- from questionable fashion choices to works of jaw-dropping architecture -- without batting an eye. After all, if we took the time to look at every interesting person, place or thing, we'd be looking all day. And according to some early 20th-century thinkers, this refusal to engage is actually a coping mechanism that serves to blunt our reactions to new sensations.

In a recent New Yorker essay, Evgeny Morozov turns to the prophetic wisdom of industrial-age thinkers who first theorized that high-octane urban life -- with its frenetic energy and constant distractions -- would take a heavy toll on the modern individual. Their antidote to the pace of modern life? In the words of Siegfried Kracauer, one could reconnect with the self through "extraordinary, radical boredom."

The constant connectivity of life in the digital age has created a situation in which boredom is a rarity. We are, as Morozov explains, constantly receptive to "interestingness" and filling our brains with new information, whether via Twitter, news sites, Instagram or online advertising. Whether we're walking down the street, sitting at home, going to the bathroom (75 percent of Americans use their phones while on the toilet, according to a 2012 study), or sitting in the park, we're often filling our brains with information via smartphones at the same time.

These ceaseless streams of information and entertainment can keep us from ever getting bored or simply doing nothing, and that may not be a good thing.

"Information overload can bore us just as easily as information underload. But this form of boredom... just produces a craving for more information in order to suppress it," writes Morozov, explaining that we may not recognize this boredom because it "cloaks itself in the rhetoric of nowness and newness."

We tend to cast boredom in a negative light, but it can actually be good for our thinking and our physical health. Daydreaming has been shown to boost creativity, and according to one psychologist, it could even help you to achieve the goals that are most personally meaningful to you. Taking the time to let your mind wander could also lead to unexpected insights.

"I worry about people who spend all their empty time when they're not in conversations listening to music or podcasts or things like that, and not leaving any space to just daydream," cognitive psychologist Gary Klein recently told The Huffington Post.

But it can be difficult to escape the lure of digital distractions when so few locations are beyond their reach. In his book "Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information" -- which Morozov labels "a call for responsible urbanism" -- urban planning expert Malcolm McCullough investigates the question of attention to our surroundings.

Information deserves its own environmental movement, one that and creates connection-free spaces in modern cities.
This "information environmentalism" -- a term coined by Stanford computer scientist David Levy -- would regulate the amount of distractions and information overload available in public places. These city-wide "Walden zones," as writer William Powers dubbed them in "Hamlet's BlackBerry," would be spaces where citizens could escape digital infiltration for a brief period of contemplation.

In Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, Brazil, millions have already been spent to remove excessive "visual pollution" (distracting ads and billboards) from public areas. Morozov, for his part, calls for more spaces like Amtrak's "Quiet Car," which can provide an oasis of "sacred disconnection."

This "information environmentalism" movement, Morozov is convinced, will take hold naturally. With distraction and information overload reaching a peak in our culture, more and more individuals are making the conscious choice to disconnect in order to reconnect with themselves and their loved ones.

"Do we need a stimulus program for distraction? Probably not," writes Morozov. "Silicon Valley and bad manners are doing a great job already."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story falsely stated that "Ambient Commons" included an argument for connection-free zones in cities. The article has been updated.

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