Information is perhaps the rawest material in the process out of which we arrive at meaning: an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense in which we go fishing for facts. But the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed. In most human societies, there have been specialists in this skill, yet it can never be the monopoly of experts, for it is also a very basic, deeply human activity, essential to our survival. If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by.
According to the contemporary Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, the concept of boredom as we understand it today is distinctly modern. In A Philosophy of Boredom (2005), Svendsen notes that while it’s ‘always possible to find earlier texts that seem to anticipate the later phenomenon… boredom is not thematised to anymajor extent before the Romantic era’. It was during that time, he writes, that the concept became democratised, and not solely ‘a marginal phenomenon reserved for monks and the nobility’. ‘Boredom is the “privilege” of modern man,’ he adds.
And so here we are. Whether you believe we are experiencing peak ‘boredom privilege’ or whether you believe that a life well lived simply offers no time for boredom, most people agree: boredom itself isinteresting. If only we knew what it actually was.