Zoned Out: Boredom In A Digital Age

by Mara Jebsen


“Peoples bore me, literature bores me. Especially great literature”

-–John Berryman

It is Thursday and I am in the café in which the ceiling fan and rock’n’roll seem to make a gentle pact to keep rhythm. To the left of me lies one Brooklyn neighborhood, and to the right, another. Above these ceiling fans are two apartments stacked on each other, but I don’t know how they are shaped or furnished. Above them is the sky, which today is blue-mottled with clouds. The café basement, which I have never seen, hums below us, and below that, I imagine, a lot of native Brooklyn dirt, and the complicated systems of water and electricity that make the city go, go, go —and below that—I don’t know.

Often I map myself. I've got an ignorant, sensual GPS system. I track what I can and can’t sense. Maybe it’s common amongst those of us who traveled a lot as children—this desire to physically locate oneself in time and space. Then, I was there. Now, I am here. Here smells like oranges. But my mapping habit is getting compromised because lately, I usually have the laptop in front of me. There’s google maps, and all kinds of information that I could use to extend my senses. The sheer reach of it freaks me out.

Once, I was blindfolded for a week. It was in Cambridge in 1998, the summer I was 19, the one I now remember as the summer of jazz and the playboy bunny. I was a waitress at the time in a music club, and sometimes I modeled a little for a photography class (I have a distinct memory of clambering around a cemetery during a heatwave in a wedding dress. Polyester lace climbing up my neck) but the money from that wasn’t adding up to rent. The blindfold was part of a medical study that I knew through various channels was safe and aboveboard. They paid me 1,000 dollars to stay in the hospital, to do funny little exercises, and to get six MRIs so they could study the effect of the blindfold on my brain activity.

I was in the partial stimulation group. There were three: non-stimulated, partial stimulation, and full stimulation. Partial stimulation meant that twice a day they’d test my memory, and bang on a barrel far away and ask me how far away I thought the sound came from. It was very intuitive. They’d let me hold the barrel and feel how big it was. Then they’d bang on it, and ask, “How many barrels away is this barrel?”. I thought it was funny and didn’t care if no one laughed with me, because I couldn’t see them.

Partway through the week I had the strangest revelation: except for the itchiness of the blindfold, I was happy. I could think really clearly, and I was completely unselfconscious. One day I escaped from the annoying nurse-woman. I realize now that as the week progressed, I was probably growing increasingly disheveled. “Your jello is at 4’ o’ clock ”they’d tell me, and I’d put a spoon on the tray and take a stab at it. I think I missed a lot. I was probably really crazy-looking with my blindfold and my jello-shirt. The nurse-woman began to speak to me in this impatient, disgusted way I’d heard no trace of when I first met her, but I didn’t mind. I thought she was ridiculous.

So I made it by touch to the elevator, and up to another floor. Eventually I felt my way to a chair wherever I was, and sat down towards what must have been a television. I was totally exhilarated by the fact that I couldn’t tell if anyone saw me and I had no idea where I was. I felt like some sort of reverse spy. In any case no one stopped me. I listened for a while to the tv show—it was an episode of “Friends”. All of this seems like a dream now, and of course I can’t picture any of it. Then someone sat next to me and started talking to me. I could tell by the voice that it was clearly an old lady.

What she really wanted me to know about her was that she’d once been a playboy bunny. She kept telling me about how terrific her legs had been, and how fun it had been to wear the costume, and how charming Hugh Hefner was. So I imagined her with a little bunny tail and leotard, except that it didn’t match the voice. Eventually I asked her to take me back to my floor and she put my hand on her forearm and lead me back. I could tell by her skin that she was pretty old. I don’t think anyone noticed I’d gone. I was thrilled.

When I wasn’t exploring the hospital or spilling food on myself, I was listening to about a hundred cds–my friend’s entire collection. I’d drink coffee and sit for hours and every note would burn itself into my head. I’d get so amped up. I don’t even know what I was listening to, because I couldn’t see the cd covers, but there was lots and lots of jazz. Then I’d walk around the room feeling all the walls, and trying to get better at not bumping into the bed.

Of course I would not always want to live this way, but basically for that week, I was happy, happy, and everything was swept out of my life except music and the desire to feel the shape of things, make sense of them, and the purity of my attention was such that my brain felt like a white knife.

The MRIs seemed to confirm this. Towards the end of the study, the annoying nurse-lady said, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but we’re really excited by what we’ve got so far.” I took this to mean that my brain was actually changing. I liked to think of different parts of it lighting up, to prove it. I felt like I had superhuman hearing. But for some reason I never looked up the actual study afterwards, to find out if it had been published, or what the total results were. I don’t know why. I just took the money and went back to college.

(I am still in this café, though hours have passed now, and the lights and music have changed.)

Behind me a young babysitter is chiding her charge with a sing-song voice:

“savor it savor it slowly slowly don’t gulp it all down!”

I look back and the little girl’s face almost entirely obscured by a giant cup of chocolate milk, and by her brown bangs—all she is, is a shard of gleaming eyes defiantly gulping. I love it. She’s gulping just to gulp now. The chocolate milk doesn’t matter.

I think that every generation likes to accuse the next one of being too weak to withstand large quantities of good, wholesome, character-building boredom, of not knowing how to slow down, to savor. You can hear Berryman’s mother telling his he ‘has no inner resources’. I don’t really want to align myself with the generation that is really worried about technology and social media and media-junkie-ism. I’m a bit of a media junkie myself. And I’ve been deeply bored before, in places with no tv or internet or clubs to go to. I’ve sat in a bedroom surrounded by so much nothing I though maybe I’d accidentally gotten stuck in a glass paperweight. Or I’ve felt like the hours are all blue beads dropping off a string, and they don’t even make a sound when they fall. But I’m pretty sure there are two ways to be bored—by overstimulation and under-stimulation. And being over-stimulated is like trying to drink from a fire-hydrant—you don’t get any.

Every year for nine years, I’ve been delivered to my classroom in New York a fresh set of teenagers who are increasingly bang in the middle of a rip-roaring technological world, and the world of NYC at once. For the first couple weeks its like they’ve been given a large dose of speed, and I can see it spreading through their nervous systems like a tree illuminated, branch by branch. The coffee, the late nights, the yellow cabs, the sounds, the flashing screens. But then, something seems to go dead as exhaustion and overstimulation set in. People contract. They zone out.

I feel tremendous sympathy that is not only sympathy but recognition. To live in this city during this time of technical barrage is to be smack in front of the fire hydrant. Savor, gulp, you don’t feel like you have much choice. And the problem of overstimulation isn’t just something that affects the beautiful kids drinking mountain dew anymore—it seems to affect us all. We are like children on a whirligig shouting “faster, faster”. I do it, too. “Faster, faster, faster!” But eventually, everyone wants to get off.