Before the Internet and You Can Eat Books if You Like

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“Before the Internet, you would just sit in an armchair with a book open on your lap, staring into space or staring at a decorative broom on the wall—kind of shifting back and forth between those two modes of being”, writes Emma Rathbone. An empty spot, somewhere between the eyes and a wall, or a detail that contained the whole world, would be enough to keep you entertained for hours. Lounging, lazing and idling around the house and hanging around outside were legitimate pastimes for spending moments not filled with responsibilities.

The world described by Rathbone takes me back to my childhood, to the mood of holidays and weekends back then. To those moments when you watched a beam of light, shaped like a distorted window, float across the wall, and the soundscape was dominated by the ticking of a clock. I grew up in a completely ordinary world, and my everyday life was completely ordinary. The houses were ordinary, the school was ordinary, the town was an ordinary town of average size, with ordinary people living in an ordinary 1990s world. Time was something there was usually plenty of.

When we entered a computer classroom for the first time to compose emails to the person sitting next to us, it did not feel like the beginning of a new era. It was hard to come up with something to put in the message that you could not say out loud immediately, or at least during the next break time. Along with my first email address, the memory of those computer classes soon faded, but the Internet was here to stay, and started taking up a part of my time. 

Madonna sang ‘Time goes by, so slowly, for those who wait’ in a farewell to a world that was about to disappear, just months before the launch of the first iPhone. Time started to go by much faster and boredom was replaced by constant input: SMS, Messenger, WhatsApp… the list goes on. Nobody had to remember anything anymore, you just had to Google it. Boredom did not disappear. The New Boredom just turned out to take a different form. Now it means resting your eyes on quickly flowing characters or listening anxiously for the notification sound – now we have two new ways of existence to switch between.

The Internet has just turned 30, and touchscreen smartphones have existed for at least 12 years. What does boredom mean to the post-smartphone generation who have no recollection of those timeless times? Do they ever get bored?

Praise be to boredom, say the grown-ups. Or, as one of the students at Rauma’s Freinet School puts it: “Grown-ups usually think that boredom is good for you, but for children it is the end of the world.”

Adrian Bejan, a professor at Duke University, offers a scientific explanation for the different generations’ perceptions of boredom. Time seems to move faster for older people, as their brains gradually loses the ability to process signals. Younger brains, however, stay alert at all times and can process far more stimuli than mature brains. This means that a moment perceived as a welcome break by an adult can feel like an eternity for a child, an end of the world even.

During the spring term, students from Year 5 at the Freinet School in Rauma looked at the theme of boredom and found ways to express it in writing workshops. Based on their ideas, they recorded a radio play whose title roughly translates as Land of Boredom in an Era of Apathy. In the conversations the students have written for the characters, boredom becomes fatigue, laziness, sluggishness and lethargy. Everything to do with boredom has an air of tedium in this radio play.*

The Year 5 students began by creating their own characters, who live in the country of boredom. The characters include Swag-Pörrö, Bored Tiina, Slime and Seppo, who meet in Tiina’s room and the library, where the action takes place. To complement the script, the young radio-play makers have made a soundtrack with sounds of boredom, including music (such as Swag-Pörrö’s theme song and sad incidental music) and sounds created with Foley sound techniques, i.e. using different materials and a microphone to make sound effects (the ticking of the clock, books being eaten). They also took turns as sound recordists, capturing lines of dialogue and other audioscapes.

Repetition of the same routines and a lack of anything new leads to boredom, suggested French philosopher and author of the Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre. After a long Internet browsing session, nothing really stands out from the endless flow of stimuli. An information overdose can be just as boring as an information deficit. Old-fashioned wall-staring at least gave you time to think, writes Evgeny Mozorov, quite unlike the deluge of information offered by the Internet. The flow of stimuli provokes an unrelenting desire to escape the experience of boredom with more information, and so it goes on.

The theme of information-bingeing is present in the radio play, in a manner that was only possible in the pre-Internet world: the bored characters try to suppress their boredom by bingeing on information in the forms that preceded the digital age: they start eating books and CDs.

For the young authors of the radio play, life without Internet really is a long-gone era of apathy: “An age with no mobile phones? RIP!”

ANNA-KAISA KOSKI
Curator (radio play and audience development), Rauma Triennale

References:

Madonna: Hung up. From the album Confessions on a Dance Floor, 2005.
“Miksi lapsuuden kesät tuntuivat kestävän ikuisesti ja vanhemmiten päivät kiitävät ohi? Amerikkalais­professori keksi selityksen.” Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, 25/03/2019.
Mozorov, Evgeny: Only Disconnect. New Yorker, Issue: October 28, 2013. 

Rathbone, Emma: Before the Internet. New Yorker, Issue: June 26, 2017.

‘Land of Boredom in an Era of Apathy’ radio play is created under the supervision of children’s writer and creative writing teacher Karoliina Suoniemi and sound artist Jukka Herva, and it is installed in one of the outdoor buildings in the museum courtyard.

Photo by Titus Verhe.

* The radio play is in Finnish.

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