Killing Time with Lizzie Boredom: Boredom and Technology in the Digital Age

by Elizabeth J. Theis

Armed with the most up-to-date boredom-swatters, the Last Man announces his indifference to unanswerable questions, and blinks. —Leslie Paul Thiele

In my absurd sitcom, Killing Time with Lizzie Boredom, I’ve created a monster—a grotesque character whose life is a Heideggerian allegory of our relationship with digital media in the 21st century. I play the protagonist, Lizzie, an agoraphobic hypochondriac with dreams of becoming a celebrity. A good friend, my co-writer, told me, “she’s all of your worst qualities, and none of the good ones.” It’s true; Lizzie is an exaggeration of myself and my anxieties. However, while I was experimenting with this character alongside the last five years of technological advancement, she has developed into something bigger, more universal. She is the unofficial mascot for boredom.

Perhaps Lizzie could be considered an existential hero. Of course, existential heroes are often unsavory characters, hardly virtuous. They are fellows like Jean-Paul Sartre’s Antoine Roquentin, whose “Nausea” vanishes when his ears are filled with beautiful music, or Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman, who commits murder in order to escape the banalities of his sated lifestyle. Devoid of meaning and floating along on a river of indifference, killing time or killing people, the existential hero attempts to find meaning outside the self because he or she cannot find it within the self.

Lizzie has no faith, no sexuality, no identity. She knows no pleasure, only satiety. She cultivates a relationship with her television in order to validate her otherwise wretched existence. Over time, interaction with this appliance isolates her from the outside world and leads her to a crippling mania. Her psychosis, though extreme, represents a social epidemic symptomatic of living in the digital age: due to technological overstimulation, we, as consumers of digital content, increase the rate at which we fall into a state of boredom while attempting to alleviate it with the same electronic distractions that brought us there. However, the real danger of boredom is that the act of relieving it via electronic amusement eliminates opportunities for ontological thought, objective reflection, and creativity.

Boredom is actually quite captivating—a post-modern epidemic both fueling and fueled by our relationship with technology. This composition, in conjunction with Killing Time, suggests that in order to reclaim a satisfactory quality of life, we must examine our relationship with machines in the age of accelerated innovation. It is my hope that Lizzie Boredom can be a comedic arbiter in discussing this concern.

A Brief History of Blah

Kierkegaard called it “the despairing refusal to be oneself” and “the root of all evil.” Schopenhauer referred to it as an “enemy of human happiness,” and Paul Tillich called it “rage spread thin.” Arthur Helps optimistically states that it’s “the sense of one’s faculties slowly dying.” In any case, we all recognize the sensation: it washes over, and we feel a sense of discomfort, because a particular event or experience has become unsatisfying. However, there are different types of boredom, and most can lead to more existential forms of this state of mind.

In his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, Lars Svendsen consolidates the typologies offered by Martin Doehlemann: one can experience situative boredom while waiting for a train or sitting through a dull speech; one can achieve the “boredom of satiety,” when having too much of the same thing; one can experience creative boredom—forced to do something new in order to alleviate this feeling, like doodle in the margins of a notebook or play with one’s hair. This list is not conclusive, and all of these types of boredom overlap; however, they are all forms of superficial boredom that can lead to Doehlemann’s fourth typology, existential boredom, where an individual is discontented and the world has lost meaning. Existential boredom is characterized “not simply by unfulfilled desire, but the unfulfilled desire for desire.” It is the type of boredom that Heidegger claims we are constantly running from, seeking technological distraction in order to avoid confronting our mortality.

I’ll get to Heidegger’s beliefs relating boredom to technology, but first, I’d like to offer an abridged history of boredom as a state of mind. Outlining the history of our submission to this epidemic will allow me to shed light on its symptoms and will backup my claim that boredom is an illness associated with ideologies connected to modernity.

It is important to understand that boredom is a fairly new phenomenon, emerging in the middle of the 19th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first documented usage of the word “boredom” appears in 1852 in Dickens’ Bleak House. Boredom as a concept existed in many forms and was called by different names before the industrial revolution. However, prior to the advent of mechanization, only certain social castes could afford the time or money to be idle and thus susceptible to boredom.

Early forms of boredom were frequently chastised because they caused the individual to focus on the self rather than on god and morality. In the Middle Ages, a monk might suffer from acedia, or “the noonday demon.” Acedia was a feeling of listlessness that descended upon him in the middle of the day, causing him to question his faith. It was seen as one of the greatest sins of all, because it often led to worse ones. After all, “idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” However, religious clergy were not the only people to experience the loss of meaning in idle time. Having plenty of leisure time has often been associated with upper echelons of society, where it’s been seen as a status symbol. Upper classes of society have long experienced the abundance of leisure that accompanies wealth.

Boredom became a widespread and “common” social phenomenon during the rise of industrialization. Around the middle of the 19th century, as machines took the burden of labor off humans, people experienced the “democratization of leisure.” Once technology began to take the burden off labor, a paradigm shift occurred that changed the way people found meaning in the world. With more free time emerged a “new understanding of time and temporality.” Time appeared longer, becoming both a commodity and a precious resource. Collective ideology was replaced with individualism and subjectivity both in work and leisure. Labor became less communal, and this resulted in creating a work ethic that promoted “self-legitimization” and “self-cultivation.” Leisure time was also experienced individually instead of collectively. Individual accomplishment and identity construction became a way to spend leisure time, and “the cultivation of emotion came to be a distraction.” Instead of looking toward one’s community for acceptance, an individual had to look for happiness within the self. Inevitably, as people became more isolated, the quest for inner peace was accompanied by a crisis of meaning marked by “the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to find meaning in their leisure.” After all, “life becomes short when time becomes long.”

In order to maintain an identity, and in order to find meaning, people filled their time with conspicuous consumption, mainly through the use of technology and its distractions. The advent of the printing press allowed the modern novel and the newspaper to become more widespread and available to the bourgeoisie. Interaction with books and newspapers changed the way in which individuals interacted with words. The experience of reading was individualistic, whereas before this, people shared stories orally, communally. Narratives once belonged to everyone at once, and the birth of the modern novel meant the protagonist’s story could be shared intimately with an individual. People had more time to read, and what they chose to read helped them build an identity – to become a contemplative individual.

“If modernity morally condemned boredom, postmodernity domesticated it.” As people grew comfortable in their subjective approach toward life, they felt they had a “right” not to be bored, rather than a moral obligation. Mechanical innovation once meant working to serve the efficiency of mankind; it was a means to an end. However, as it takes the burden of labor from our shoulders, it creates a new human problem: the need to fill time. In the post-modern era, technology and innovation began to operate in the service of novelty and aesthetics. Eventually, the commodity in demand became information and connection. Alas, filling our “free” time with information eventually led us to depend on continual distraction, perpetuating the need for more new information when we are satiated with the old. Maintaining this IV drip of information consumption has led to our isolation and has denied us the opportunity to sustain ontological thought. Indeed, it has become easier to fill time than to endure it.

Perhaps this brief history of boredom can allow the viewer to understand my character’s maladies. Having inherited her home, Lizzie Boredom need not work, and experiences an overabundance of free time. She lives to fill it, consuming whatever she can, from food to television. We watch as she plows through popcorn and sandwiches without tasting them, through television shows without absorbing them. All has lost meaning and substance. By filling her time with conspicuous consumption, she has given up on finding an ontological home in the world. A surrender Heidegger would suggest embraces nihilism.

The Silent Fog

Standing here, in the early stages of the hyperreal, technologically-accelerated 21st century, one might question how Heidegger’s theories of boredom and technology, written in an age where motion pictures were barely becoming part of the everyday experience, could be used to identify our contemporary existential predicament. However, by his time, boredom had become quite commonplace, appearing in artistic expression, literature, and philosophical discussion. Because his work bridged the gap between modern and postmodern philosophy, he often dealt with theories of existentialism and the subjective being. As we become increasingly intertwined with technology, it is crucial to consider his teachings in order to understand how we’ve arrived at the existential challenge we are faced with today. 

Many of Heidegger’s lectures and writings focus on the concept of the Dasein. Dasein is the subjective notion of “being-in-the-world” or “being there,” where “there” is a phenomenological way of being in the world rather than a physical location. The “fundamental attunement” or operational quality of the Dasein is an inherent anxiety that emerges as a response to an innate “homesickness” individuals feel due to a natural compulsion to find an ontological place in a world where death is the only absolute:

This is where we are driven in our homesickness: to being as a whole. Our very being is this restlessness . . . What is this oscillating to and fro between this neither/nor? . . . What is the unrest of this ‘not’? We name it finitude.

Heidegger believes that this intrinsic anxiety is the cause of having been “thrown” into a world where there is no definitive reason for our existence or an answer to what our final purposes ought to be. In a state of anxiety, we do not fear anything in particular because we are “face to face with Nothing itself.”

Heidegger claims the manner in which an individual manages anxiety is through moods. Moods are a lens through which one acclimates to the world. Moods are the vehicle through which we unconsciously perceive the world. University of Florida professor Leslie Paul Thiele describes moods thus:

“It is common to portray moods as a kind of haze that obscures clear vision, blinding us to an objective reality. Moods are actually more like the air that makes hearing itself possible. Without this medium to carry sound waves, ears would be pointless. Without moods to situate us in the world and make it matter to us, perception would be anchorless, will rudderless, and intellect powerless.”

Moods can only be replaced by other moods. They cannot be overcome, only endured. Because they are a transparent medium through which we experience the world, we are often unaware of their operation. 

Heidegger claims that boredom is the central mood of the technological age—that it draws “back and forth like a silent fog in the abysses of Dasein.” In boredom, one flees from confronting finitude. Time becomes longer, and we respond by trying to “pass the time, in order to master it.” We try to “shake it off” once we succumb to its grasp “knowing it can return at any time.” However, instead of running from boredom, Heidegger insists we endure this “monstrous essence,” because superficial forms of boredom can lead to more profound boredom that allows ontological questioning, philosophical thought, and an opportunity to connect with the Dasein.

Contemplating these foreboding matters may allow us to feel empathy for our aforementioned existential heroes. Lizzie, like Sartre’s Roquentin, develops manic psychological afflictions due to her inability to comprehend her own mortality. She is obsessed with the idea of becoming a celebrity, because she believes that she can achieve immortality through stardom. She seeks validation and meaning through the screen of the television. She uses her fantasies to escape the morbid realities of her private life and to keep her mind occupied. In an attempt to avoid confronting mortality, she “kills time.”

Like Lizzie, our encounters with boredom have turned into a “frenzied turning away.” We seek aesthetic distraction in order to make boredom comfortable. In our search for meaning, we too, continuously look for new stimuli, and by embracing the constant stream of connectivity allowed by technology, we ensure we will stay stimulated. Time is less and less something that happens to us. It is increasingly ‘managed’ by and for us.” However, we must ask ourselves if machines are adequate fulfillment in seeking an ontological and existential home in the natural world, especially when incorporating them into our lives seems only to leave us wanting more.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out, Repeat.

Today, one would think it is impossible to become bored. Our digital devices are always with us, allowing constant connection to entertainment and interaction. However, this constant connectivity has caused us to become increasingly sensitive to, even intolerant of, empty time. The rate at which we feel the discomfort of boredom wash over us has accelerated. Demanding distraction, we defend ourselves against boredom by stockpiling devices with which to combat it. “Every moment of the day is spoken for. It ensures us that we will not be left waiting.”

Additionally, instantaneous connection has caused us to develop new expectations about speed and innovation, and as we adapt to high-speed life, we experience a slew of new anxieties. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle discusses these concerns. She claims that technology, once meant to free up our time, instead ties us up. Indeed, by adopting machines to solve problems, we have created a pace we can no longer keep up with. Technology rearranges time and space in such a way that we must layer activities on top of one another. We must multitask to stay afloat, and use machines to manage our lives. Technology has taught us to depend on it. We combine our public and private lives in order to manage both. To stay on top of things, we have begun bringing digital devices along to dinner, to the bedroom, to the bathroom. We are convinced that being constantly connected allows us to make better use of our downtime, yet we spend it catching up on emails and texts.

Messages once came to us – through the post or over the phone. Today, we seek out communications and are constantly checking our emails. People have found themselves in a constant “state of waiting for connection.” Scientists have even concluded that we are truly “addicted” to receiving new bits of information. Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, in discussing our new relationship with information, claims that our dopamine system can be triggered when we find something unexpected or when we are in anticipation of new information. We are Pavlov’s dogs, waiting for the ring of the bell; when we hear it, we salivate in anticipation for our reward. Panksepp further claims that the smaller the bits of information, the more we are frenzied to receive them. It is no wonder that Twitter and text messaging have become part of our daily routines, as they accommodate our newfound addiction to information. Like addicts, when people are disengaged from the network, they feel antsy. People speak of disabling social networking accounts or losing a cell phone as a sort of “death.” Does this mean we have equated being online with being alive?

Lizzie is an exaggeration of this modern condition. She has a deeply intimate connection with her television. The television in Killing Time is always on, at times just showing static. Lizzie depends on it to feel as though she is not alone in the world. It is a light that never goes out—an eternal glow that Lizzie can gaze into in order to stop her mind from travelling to undesirable places. Its white noise calms her and may even help her fall asleep, because for Lizzie, silence has become intolerable.

In Touch and Out of Sight

Our perpetual attachment to the network tricks us into thinking we are never alone, but in actuality, we become increasingly isolated as we lose the ability to be intimate with one another. As we invest in machines, we lose our tolerance of face-to-face interaction. Individuals are “tethered” to technology and constantly connected to a vast network of friends that disguises their isolation. In fact, being alone has become a prerequisite for communication. By adopting new expectations of communication, we change our expectations of each another. We are able to control how much and how directly we communicate, because we can “disengage at will.” People have become more comfortable communicating in the digital world, because they can keep people at bay, and so communicating in person has come to be an inconvenience. Turkle’s findings show that as we embrace machines, we lose interest in each other. They experience all the “comfort of connection without the demands of intimacy.” Personally, I conclude that we’ve become bored with human intimacy.

As we adapt to carrying out life online, we develop new ways of interacting with one another. In order to cultivate personal relationships that accommodate a layered arrangement of time, we fabricate online identities that can exist on multiple temporal planes. Managing them has become a narcissistic preoccupation. We find comfort in living online, because it allows us to avoid confronting the true nature of our mortal, flawed selves. Sherry Turkle discusses this contemporary phenomenon upon observing teenagers and adults cultivate their online personas. She claims when we cultivate our avatars, we present ourselves as we wish to be seen. We end up creating expectations of ourselves that we must then learn to live up to. Furthermore, this means that in digital life, we are interacting with a network of people who are all putting their best foot forward. Constantly seeing the successes of others can make individuals feel as though they can’t live up to their own expectations. The anxieties associated with constant connectivity have begun to enter our common lexicon. In recent years, the American Psychiatric Association has even discussed entering Internet addiction into the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and the term “Facebook depression” has begun appearing in the English lexicon.  

Lizzie’s relationship with her television and her hope of becoming a celebrity has turned her into a complete recluse. While I have previously called her an agoraphobic, perhaps it’s worth considering that she may, in fact, simply be completely indifferent to human intimacy. She is so intolerant of it that she murdered her parents in order to be alone. Like her, we have taken an axe to the intimate connections in our lives by embracing technology. However, it is important to stress that although Lizzie has lost interest in people, she does desire to be connected to the outside world. Like us, she accesses it through the machines in her life. In her attempt to interact, Lizzie creates a second identity. We see this version of Lizzie when she escapes into her hallucinations of stardom. This public identity is everything Lizzie wishes she could be, beautiful, confident, poised and talented. Her fantasy self is a stark contrast to the person we see stuffing popcorn in her mouth under a decaying roof, but the viewer can see in her eyes that, even in fantasy, she is barely holding it together.

No Time Like the Present

This essay and the film referred to are meant to argue that the evasion of boredom is an epidemic brought on by subjective ideology and conspicuous consumption as mediated by technology. Today, with the flurry of technological distractions at our disposal, we have lost the ability to find meaning inside ourselves. How can we engage philosophical thought when every moment of our day is spent seeking out information or cultivating the superficialities of our online personas? Our search for meaning becomes aesthetic and superficial when we frantically fill every moment of the day. As we deliberately try to fill our time, we miss out on the psychological benefits of simply being in time. We cannot experience solitude, only loneliness, for “to experience solitude you must be able to summon yourself by yourself.”

I am not asking people to disengage from their constant connectivity so they can brood about the inevitable. I wish to encourage people to rejoice in being alive. Existential and ontological thought “can grow, but only if given the proper conditions.” The problem with using technology to suppress boredom is that it prevents the mind from taking its natural path of exploration. “What is not being cultivated here is the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.”

When Heidegger speaks of the “basic mood” of the technological age, he is addressing the post-modern problem of “evasion in the face of boredom.” He claims “we are supposed to let it be awake!” We need the courage to let it sweep over us, because superficial boredom is followed by a more profound boredom that allows for ontological questioning and philosophical thought. Profound boredom is meant “to attune us through and through in the ground of the Dasein.” We are wrong in thinking that we must fill time in order to conquer it, for boredom is only overcome by enduring it. We must stop deliberately trying to find meaning; we need to let meaning find us:

“Are we explicitly and intentionally to produce boredom in ourselves? Not at all. We do not need to undertake anything in this respect. On the contrary, we are always already undertaking too much. This boredom becomes essential of its own accord, if only we are not opposed to it, if we do not always immediately react to protect ourselves, if instead, we make room for it. This is what we must first learn: not to resist straightaway but to let resonate.”

Indeed, there are many benefits to simply allowing ourselves the experience of enduring time. Although we constantly seek order, we also benefit from letting our minds run wild. After enduring superficial boredom the individual reaches a passive “state of mind in which ideas and images are allowed to appear and take their course spontaneously.” Falling into this state of mind allows one to “stretch their inventive capacity,” leads to “creativity and problem solving,” and allows for a “refreshed return to activity.” Allowing our minds to wander stimulates creativity, reflection, and relaxation. Just think of the games a bored child comes up with when told to “go play outside.”

By embracing technology, we have depraved ourselves of intimacy, solitude, and the opportunity for inward reflection in our search for meaning. Sherry Turkle says, “we deserve better.” However, trying to endure boredom in an era where our relationship with time has become so intertwined with technology is very difficult. Even while I write this essay, I occasionally stop typing and take a moment to think, only to find myself succumbing to autopilot and checking my email and Facebook. Once I “come to,” I launch the aptly named program “Freedom.” It’s going to take a lot of work to change our habits, if we’re even willing to try.

Heidegger claims that moods cannot be overcome, but can be replaced by other moods. I’m not sure if I’m in a position to posit what sort of mood enduring boredom and allowing time for ontological thought and creativity could lead to. However, I do think it’s fair to say that if we open up our minds, the possibilities are endless. In fact, perhaps a state of mind that believes in endless possibilities could be the treatment for boredom, which has us believing that there aren’t enough options at all.

Epilogue: We All Died Laughing

Comedy as an art form allows its audience to transcend the real world. When we engage with it, we suspend our disbelief and imagine an alternate reality where what once seemed commonplace becomes absurd. Particularly, satire causes the audience to understand the undesirability of the social norms that the comedian chooses to attack. It is for these reasons that I decided to use comedy as a vessel to discuss foreboding issues of mortality and finitude.

Additionally, laughter unites people in their inferiority to the Absolute. Baudelaire claims that as with many human functions, it is contradictory in doing so: 

“It is at once a sign of infinite grandeur and of infinite wretchedness: of infinite wretchedness by comparison with the absolute Being who exists as an idea in Man’s mind; of an infinite grandeur by comparison with the animals. It is from the perpetual shock produced by these two infinities that laughter proceeds.”

We need unite our isolated selves now more than ever, not to contemplate death, but to laugh at the absurdity of life. When approaching existential subject matter, comedy can be comforting. It “can be redeeming in the sense of making life easier to bear, at least briefly.” What follows is a joke many comedians can relate to:

“A woman goes to the doctor and says she’s depressed—that life seems harsh and cruel. She says she feels all alone in a threatening world, where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. The doctor says the treatment is simple. There is a great clown in town, Terrifini, who trivializes the very worries the woman is talking about. She tells her, ‘go to the performance, that should pick you up.’ The woman bursts into tears, exclaiming, ‘but doctor…I am Terrifini.'”

It’s said that the best comedians in the world have suffered great loss or have endured great depression. Perhaps a more universal notion is that great comedians have the ability to share a unique connection with an audience by identifying and exploiting the mundane details of everyday life. Indeed, comedy serves as an effective mechanism to expose aspects of contemporary society that might be otherwise considered taboo. Richard Pryor made us laugh at racial disparities so we could become more aware of their existence and effects. The Daily Show sheds light on complex ironies by satirizing political issues, and even garners support for or against particular biases. Presently, the emergence and popularity of female comedians is creating dialogue about women’s roles in the media and society. Comedians subvert by exposing the absurd conditions of contemporary society. Through humor, they encourage us to question our lifestyles and why we follow them. They create characters that expose contradiction in morality and uninhibited, unsavory emotions; they set themselves up for failure by standing in front of a demanding audience; and yet we wonder how a career that is built on human folly could foster such widespread depression.

Aside from being an outlet for political and social expression, comedy can be used to explore philosophical and ontological concerns. Humor, for me, is a way of considering the fundamental question of philosophical thinking: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” (Perhaps a punch line could be “to get to the other side.”) If we can use humor to discuss politics, identity, race and gender, then we should also be able to use it to discuss the anxieties and uneasiness surrounding existence, mortality and being. In recent years, “dark” comics like Louis C.K. and Maria Bamford have built successful careers by making jokes about anxiety and depression. Several years ago, Dave Chappelle publicly discussed a decision he made to alleviate anxiety by fleeing to Africa for several weeks. With these comics exposing the taboos of mortality, people might find the courage to laugh in its face.

Thanks to some of my favorites, I have felt encouraged to put my own insecurities on the screen with the hopes that people will relate to them or find solace in their own. In Killing Time with Lizzie Boredom I attempt to satirize what Heidegger points out as one of the greatest ironies of post-modernity:

“Time becomes long for us. Is it supposed to be short, then? Does not each of us wish for a truly long time for ourselves? And whenever it does become long for us, we pass the time and ward off its becoming long!”

I like to think that I created my character because I was bored. However, I have also created her as a warning. I have created her with the hopes that people will gain the courage to endure time. We must regain interest in the natural world for reasons that warrant another thesis.

It would be presumptuous and simply incorrect to call myself one of “the best comedians.” Maybe one day, maybe never. More than anything, humor has always been a comfortable tool for me to wield when trying to cope and connect with the foreboding mysterious world around me. The accolades that I received from my production piece convince me that people might, in fact, be ready for a character like this. Lizzie Boredom proves that it is possible to combine comedy with existentialism, entertainment with philosophy. It is possible to unite people in this era of extreme isolation. My purpose for making films has always been to shake people, to get them to start thinking about the things they consume. The discussions I’ve been having with people about digital media and anxiety show that people are concerned about their relationships with technology, and it’s rewarding when someone can look you in the eyes and tell you that.