Black Mirror and the Virtue of Constructive Boredom

By John Anthony Donne

Technology is making us bored. Andy Crouch supposes that the English word ‘bored’ came into existence in recent centuries in tandem with a new disposition that we experience with the advent of new technologies, especially digital technologies.[1]

And boredom begets boredom. It is a recurring internal trigger that causes us to want to re-check our phones to see if there’s been a new notification on social media or a new email in our inbox in the past thirty seconds. Boredom is an internal trigger that keeps us hooked, as tech developer Nir Eyal explains.[2] But this kind of techo-boredom is a boredom that is a technological problem, and so returning to technology for the solution only exacerbates the issue.

I’m reminded of a moment from one of my favorite TV shows, Black Mirror (Shameless Plug: I have co-edited a book about Black Mirror with Amber Bowen, which you can find here), created by Charlie Brooker. The show is best known as a dystopian exploration of technology’s dark side, but when you look closely the show is grounded in our shared humanity. In one episode called “San Junipero,”[3] the fourth episode from the third season (on Netflix), we witness the budding relationship of two characters, Kelly and Yorkie, who meet within a virtual reality designed as therapy for the elderly and as a digital place for one’s consciousness to permanently reside after death (what they refer to as “passing over”). San Junipero is meant to be a fun place where tourists and residents alike can pursue whatever they want. For different reasons that are incrementally disclosed to the viewer, both Kelly and Yorkie enjoy San Junipero as a place to forget the concerns of their real lives. But in one moment of personal intimacy with each other, Kelly explains that she used to be married to a man named Richard for forty-nine years. As she reflects on their relationship, she singles out the joy, the laughter, and the boredom—the mundane reality of an authentic relationship that stands over and against the fleeting fun of San Junipero and whatever flings may occur there.

And that’s the job of much of our technologies, to provide an escape from boredom. But as Kelly’s words imply, there’s an authenticity to life that resides within our boredom. There’s a reality to boredom that is lost in our technological world.

But there’s another kind of boredom. A kind of boredom that many long for nostalgically in our tech-saturated world. The kind of boredom I’m interested in is the kind of boredom that Michael Harris calls “constructive boredom.”[4] This is the kind of boredom that we only experience if we are intentional. It’s the kind of boredom that, far from constraining us because it is characterized by the privation of technologies and entertainments of various sorts, actually fosters creativity and new ideas.

To use a sort of meta example, as I was thinking about some of the ideas for this article I was driving to the Seminary where I teach while listening to a podcast. Because I’m an ENFJ and Enneagram 7 (and, perhaps, with undiagnosed ADHD) I was tuning out the podcast conversation and instead thinking to myself about the importance of boredom. And as I was thinking about some of the connections that I’m highlighting here in this piece, it occurred to me that I used to come up with concepts like these on a weekly and semi-weekly basis for my blog, The Two Cities, which for the past two years has been a regular podcast. And I wondered why I no longer come up with these sort of nicely packaged ideas like this one that I would typically put on the blog anymore. And it occurred to me that ever since I discovered podcasts 3–4 years ago, that’s how I spend all of my time alone, whether I’m getting ready in the morning or getting ready for bed, driving to work, going for a walk, making dinner, or even responding to emails after they’ve accumulated for some time. I listen to podcasts so much because I’m an extrovert and a learner (not to mention that Input and Learner are in my top strengths on Strengths Finder), and they help me feel like I’m part of all sort of interesting conversations throughout the day. But, of course, they also keep me for thinking my own thoughts. And so, as I realized this, I turned off the podcast. I want to be better at cultivating boredom.

As twentyone pilots sing in their song “Car Radio,”[5] when we sit in “the quiet” by ourselves some us experience that as “violence,” and it can be better for us to inundate ourselves with music, or in my case, podcasts, to create some distance from whatever we’ve got going on in our lives that we’d love a good distraction from. But what twentyone pilots go on to declare quite powerfully in “Car Radio” is nothing short of a manifesto on the importance of thinking instead of allowing an auditory medium to do the thinking for us, so to speak.

And that brings us back to the broader point about boredom. In our technological age, there are many more ways to entertain ourselves than music and podcasts, and we can experience this techno-boredom that requires more technology to satiate. But, of course, that is a never-ending pursuit. Instead, we need to create space for non-technologically-mediated boredom. And indeed, I believe that increasingly our technological habits from the past couple of years of quarantine and lockdowns due to the pandemic are provoking that desire to unplug and create healthy boundaries in many of us. I know I for one want to experience more of what boredom has to offer for the sake of my personal relationships, academic productivity, and spiritual formation.

John Anthony Dunne is assistant professor of New Testament and the director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN). Check out more from John at on the Two Cities podcast.


[1] Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family.

[2] Nir Eyal, Hooked.

[3] Directed by Owen Harris (2016).

[4] Michael Harris, The End of Absence.

[5] From the album, Vessel (produced by Greg Wells; Fueled by Ramen, 2013).


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