When it comes to raising children there are a few theories with which it would be churlish to disagree. Support them with their school work from an early age, ensure they eat healthily, encourage them to look after the environment and prevent them from getting bored. Actually, that last one might be a bit contentious.
I used to think that boredom was the enemy of creativity. I was brought up to believe that you should never have a dull moment. An active mind was better than an idle one. That is the reason why, the minute I became a father, I made sure that my children always had something to do. However, a recent article by Evgeny Morozov (it was actually a review of three books) has made me rethink this specific parental strategy. It has also made me wonder whether sometimes a bout of ennui is good for the creative mind.
Morozov is the author of the Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. He has written extensively about the effects of modern technology on our social behaviour. So, I was interested in his opinion about what he called “the anti-boredom lobby”. The example he used in his article was Siegfried Kracauer, a renowned figure in the arts in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. Siegfried remarked that the bourgeoisie of his time “are pushed deeper and deeper into the hustle and bustle until eventually they no longer know where their head is”. Replace “bourgeoisie” with “people nowadays” (regardless of class status) and “hustle and bustle” with “social media”, gadgets and ads and you will find yourself at the heart of Morozov’s theory.
For Morozov our lives today are lived in a “state of permament receptivity”. Smartphones and social networking sites have created a culture of “interestingness”. It is a world in which, according to Eric Schmidtm Google’s chairman, and whom Morozov quotes in his article, “you’re never lonely, because your friends are always reachable”. That is a scary thought. Sometimes I need to be away from my friends for a while. All friendships benefit from some breathing space, methinks. The cure for this lack of boredom, according to Morozov is the equivalent of what Kracauer suggested back in 1924: draw the curtains and get to know your sofa. In today’s modern world parlance that could be translated as unplug your computer, turn off your (smart)phone and forget about updating your profile on Facebook. One of the side-effects, according to Morozov, is a boost to your creative power.
Wait a second. Boredom as a conduit for creativity? Well, Evgeny has a point. By sheer coincidence at the same time I was reading Morozov’s feature, I was listening to Giant Steps, John Coltrane’s 1960 masterpiece. A few days before I had seen a documentary on Sky Arts on the American musician and this led me to dust off my Coltrane records and remind myself the reasons why I love jazz so much. The programme, narrated by the inimitable Morgan Freeman, was part of a series looking at key figures in the development of blues and jazz. Coltrane’s sound was highly influential – and controversial – at the time. His style was harmonic, but also very adventurous. When you listen to Giant Steps you’re confronted with the music of someone for whom, to quote Nat Hentoff, co-editor of The Jazz Review and who sang the album’s praises in that publication, there was an obsession “to play all he can hear or would like to hear”. This approach to composing chimes with Morozov’s ideas about information overload. One of the reasons why Coltrane was able to create his unique sound was that he wasn’t busy checking his Twitter feed or updating his Facebook profile, maybe because neither was around when the saxophonist was alive. Although I haven’t got any evidence to back my theory, I imagine Coltrane sitting down after a long, full-on session/concert playing with Miles Davis and just looking into space with blank expression on his face, exhausted, still and silent. En brèf, I picture Coltrane feeling bored. Yet, it is from this idle state that we get the emotional strength of songs like Naima, the playfulness of a melody like Syeeda’s Song Flute and the loping bass hook of the title track, Giant Steps. Coltrane’s boredom was like a landing in a long set of stairs. The respite before the ascendance.
The form of boredom we suffer from nowadays, however, is of a different type. It is the kind that doesn’t give us time to reflect. It is the sort of ennui that provides us with so much information that we find ourselves slaves to it. In order to satiate this craving we, then, consume even more information. We are the hamsters on the wheel of modern technology. Of course, the antidote could be to draw one’s curtains and get acquainted a little bit more with our sofas. But what happens when we finally step outside? Just take a minute to glance through your window and imagine, if you can, that world out there with not hoardings, no billboard and no signs of any kind. Close your eyes, concentrate, see if you can really visualise it. I don’t think you will be able to. The irony is that many of the apps and devices developed to avoid this onslaught of information are provided by the same companies that created this unwelcome distraction in the first place. This is a point made by Evgeny in his article.
It is certainly amusing for me that having reached the “interestingness” stage of our development as a species, some of us want our boredom back. Amusing, because as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was raised to believe that dullness was equal to laziness and laziness was a trait to be found amongst the moneyed classes in capitalist, bourgeois societies. However, I look at my children now, especially my son with his smartphone, always checking his texts and e-mails (even when we are watching a film as a family) and I find myself wishing for a moment of non-activity, a lull in the constant, never-ending flow of information. Preferably accompanied by a loping bass hook.
Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 6th November at 11:59pm (GMT)