There was a lot to enjoy and a lot to think about yesterday, at James Ward‘s counter-conference, Boring 2011. I was asked to speak, so I wrote a short presentation about my research into the filming locations of About a Boy, and how the film is themed generally on boredom, and people seemed to like it. The event was organised really well, with a manilla envelope goodie bag that included postcards of ATMs, a subject over which James and I have bonded in the past (we both follow NCR on Twitter) – and I’ve spoken about hacking them at other events before.
In fact, I enjoy all the miraculous unsung equipment of everyday life, so the hand-dryers talk by Tim Steiner was a massive highlight for me. He delivered it with just the right amount of self-awareness and wry humour – but make no mistake, this is a guy seriously interested in hand-dryers.
I left in the break before the final segment, as working full-time saps my weekend energy reserves and I’d seen all the talks I was most excited about. But my flightiness meant I missed what sounded like another fantastic talk from Dr Felicity Ford about the noises of vending machines, another wonderful example of street furniture that has always fascinated me for its mechanisms and old-school hackability.
The event made me think a lot about boredom as something between an achievement and a coping strategy. To the extent that boring things stretch the limits of what people think they are capable of, they will always be exciting. And I honestly mean exciting: there is an actual rush involved. I joked in my talk that taking up film location-spotting as a hobby involves developing your autistic side (I found one location because I recognised a red pillar box in the background.) But whether or not you call it boredom, I really think these pattern-hunting behaviours bring out a new kind of thinking and even a new set of values.
It’s difficult, though. Truly cherishing these things means running up against a society hellbent on novelty/interestingness/the future. The world just doesn’t have time for people who want to do things the long way round. Society is a destination, not a journey. The impulse to collect, order and resist difference is deemed defensive by a culture that prizes spontaneity and communal progress. It looks uncomfortably conservative and insular, even threatening, if your time-spending priorities aren’t motivated by usefulness or consumerism, or (even ostensible) communal benefit. You’re just not holding up your side of the bargain, you’re not playing by the rules.
If you want to take a photo of an IBM till when you’re in Gap (or Paul, or H&M) you have to do it covertly. It’s not illegal, but everyone knows you’re noticing the wrong things. And why not just write directly to IBM? So that’s the thing. The world is boring. I’m not interested in a quick way to find out which companies use IBM tills or getting a location list off the About a Boy director. I’m interested in the long, drawn-out challenge of discovery. The world is boring, you have to make up your challenges, colour it in yourself and find your own patterns.
I’m not anti-social, exactly, but I am resistant to socialising as a route to novelty. I’m community-skeptic. Maybe it’s innate comprehension: maybe I only understand novelty that originates with an individual. And the flipside of that is that one’s own ideas are ringed by a moat; boredom is always a kind of island living – just like Will Freeman in About a Boy. You’re committed to your own path: just as you can’t understand what’s dull about it, others may never understand why you can’t stop. One man’s hobby is another man’s mental illness, so boredom is inherently personal. It’s absorption in the Friedian sense, but as with Melville’s reading of Fried, perhaps absorption itself is condemned to be theatrical, thus a conference of talks about it is only apt. Either way, and whether it comes naturally as part of your autistic-spectrum personality or not, it seems that the key to successful joy in these adventures is in ceasing to care what other people think.
Anyway, having said I’m not very social, James and I have a lot of people in common so there were a number of people speaking and in the crowd who I already knew. It was wonderful to see my favourite co-conspirator Helen Keen, an amusing privilege to attempt small-talk with my talented pal Rhodri Marsden, a treat to chat about the postal system with the always-lovely Peter Fletcher and an honour to discuss abandoned spaces and the confusion of the class system with his missus, my actual favourite author Cath O’Flynn. I loved chatting at length with the adorable pair Jon Ronson and his now unbelievably teenaged son Joel. It was great running into glamorous-beyond-feasibility Katy Lindemann, the lady strongly responsible for my current employment status. And I haven’t seen him for a long time, but we used to work on a lot of projects together, so I felt very proud watching Greg Stekelman‘s hilarious tube lines talk. Actually I felt very proud of all the people I knew on stage. But maybe I’m just getting boring.