• Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Breakdown
  • Epilogue
  • Investigating a generation born bored.

    Chapter 1

    Party at the ATM

    The teens were back. Actually, some of them had never left.

    For weeks now, there had been a constant stream of bodies congregating on the sidewalks below my third floor apartment. I honestly couldn’t recall what stood there before they showed up. Had it been a storefront? A food truck? An encampment of homeless tents?

    This group had an unfamiliar flavor to it, unlike youth as I knew it. Up close, who knew who these kids were, but there was a strange aura about them as a whole. A handful of references come to mind when I try to place its novelty on some kind of cultural continuum: a line funneling into a Boba Guys, for instance, or the quilt of protesters and pizza boxes draped over Zuccotti Park for that void of time in 2011. Or maybe this scene’s closest relative is actually a skatepark, where man-made infrastructure dies in the hands of the city and is reborn at the feet of little thrashers. Maybe the crowd is a remix of all of the above, churning out something entirely new. Fandom, solidarity, tribalism, nesting — it’s all sort of there.

    Whoever they were, there was one thing bringing them together, at least in a material sense.

    They were here for the ATM.

    A group of three young friends take out their debit cards, now that they’ve finally made their way to the front of the crowd formed around the ATM. The machine stands there like a monolith — sometimes blending in with the crowd, sometimes radiating its singular, magnetic presence. The friends don’t form a line to the machine, necessarily, but casually hover around the screen. One by one, they make a transaction. It’s almost a collaborative effort, like taking turns reaching into the chip bag, fingers getting greasier and greasier. Must be Salt and Vinegar.

    One of them gets out a twenty dollar bill, content. There’s a message on it, inscribed in black Sharpie. Maybe they’re coordinates. It’s always different. The second friend gets a hundred. They all laugh as the crisp bill pokes out of the money slit, like a tongue caught in a grin.

    Finally, the third teen takes her turn. She loves the way the rubber buttons feel: awkward to the touch, wiggly like a loose tooth. English, Withdrawal, Checking Account, No Balance, a twenty. The machine churns as if saying “Hello, I understand,” inhales, exhales and out comes the bill. She pockets the twenty and then, to her delight more than to her surprise, an extra one dollar bill comes out, just as crisp.

    “Whoa, you got one,” her friend blurts. “Never happened to me before.”

    “Yeah, me neither,” the other friend chimes in.

    They all look at the machine, which is potentially older than they are. Suddenly, another teen emerges from the crowd and asks the three of them if they’re still using the ATM. They all take a respectful step aside, giving him some space. He inserts his card and waits.

    “The New York Times wrote about us,” she announces.

    “What do you mean, us?” A friend responds.

    “This,” she continues and looks around them. “Going to the ATM. It was a ‘You’ll never guess what Gen Z is obsessed with now’ kind of thing”

    “Wow,” the boy at the ATM interjects, without turning his attention from the screen. “That’s so boring.”

    Chapter 2

    Thirst for Famine

    In 2020, the iPhone becomes a teenager. That means, to an arguable extent, that connectivity is finally coming of age. And in light of its maturation, the elder generations are freaking out. They thought unlimited access to more information would mean that every question would find an answer. That things would make more sense, rather than less. There are, at least in perception, endless tradeoffs. With each new generation of iPhone, another deal is made with the reaper. With every new software update, a childhood memory fades.

    This is the misconception of our times — that we’ve never been closer to the truth. But the added information doesn’t present a more complete picture of reality as we know it. Instead, it creates an entirely new reality. If you believe in science and reason (and not God) this all must feel especially wild. All this information isn’t filling in the gaps of our knowledge. Instead, it’s inflating the whole of it, plot holes and all. In fact, because the outer lining has expanded, there are even more of them.

    In fiction, there’s a distinction between story and plot. Story is what happened — whether imagined or true. For example, after a long day at the ATM, three friends attended an awesome concert. Plot is a literary device that organizes the events of that story. The plot might begin at the ATM and linearly move towards the concert, or it could start right as the opening act takes the stage, heightening a sense of mystery or urgency. Plot makes a story palatable. It helps us orient ourselves within it by telling us what is important — whether that’s through the news, school, religion or general experience. By cluing people in, it creates a feeling of control. That’s the problem today: because plot has become so perforated, whatever answers emerge end up meaning very little. But people, for the most part, still want answers.

    Unfortunately, the methods for regaining control by opting out have become just as taxing as the information overload they oppose. When you choose to die of thirst in a scorching desert, you don’t magically reset and teleport to Mykonos. You get swallowed by the sand.

    Sometimes you don’t see the cost of things.

    Chapter 3

    The Cost of Things

    The Esalen Institute is a windswept retreat center in Big Sur, California. Established in 1962, it rose to fame as a spearhead of the Human Potential Movement—a fancy name for a group of self-actualizing intellectuals—drawing the likes of Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary, and Aldous Huxley. Today, it’s run by Terry Gilbey, a former Kaiser Permanente exec, who took the reins from ex-Google product manager Ben Tauber in 2018. Needless to say, it attracts a different kind of “countercultural” elite: Silicon Valley executives. In its current incarnation, it has provided the blueprint for an industry that promises to give back our time, attention and control.

    Unplug is one of the many startups that make up this growing market. Its mission statement rings familiar: “We believe that people should take control of their technology instead of their technology controlling them. As a result, they are able to have better attention management, increased productivity and higher quality downtime.” This movement’s focus is all about being more productive and optimizing one’s time. 1440 Multiversity, another wellness startup, is actually named after the 1440 minutes in a day. Its founders, Joanie and Scott Kriens, insist that those minutes are “available to each of us to be more aware, more authentic, more empathic, more connected.”

    By dynamically leveraging will power and guilt, the digital detox silently crept into categorization as an anteCorona A-list self-investment, alongside the paleo diet, ayahuasca, and lip filler. When a product or service achieves the semiotics of an investment, it takes on cultural and monetary value beyond its true identity. In the case of the digital detox, its true identity is subtraction. Just like the buyer of a multi-tranche CMBS hawked in the run up to the 2008 financial crisis, the detoxer is relieved of their duty to comprehend what they are buying. This abstraction (or is it infantilization?) moves the detoxer further away from anything resembling immunity, freedom or enlightenment—a few possible side effects of control.

    When accessed through an over-optimized technology diet, the opt-out subtractive space of a promise land will always be governed by the same dynamics as the plugged-in space. Detox culture encourages people to focus on the exit strategy rather than the root causes of the problem in the first place, let alone where they might want to go next. It’s kind of like the sentiment that “we just need to beat Trump.” Let’s say we beat Trump. What do you want next? Most people couldn’t tell you.

    Are people really frustrated? Or have they just grown bored? To the Silicon Valley executives obsessed with disconnecting, the world probably does feel incredibly boring, however chaotic. Life is too fast, too loud, too unproductive, too time consuming for those who retreat every month into an off-grid hut deep in the woods of Northern California. It is also too unpredictable for these people, who believe meaning will be found in silence and solitude, or, in other words, in their heads. They are essentially paying for insurance: a detox buys them literally nothing, with the off chance that an epiphany might strike in the middle of the afternoon. If it ever comes, it won’t be because they afforded themselves a luxury retreat in Sea Ranch. It’ll probably be because they finally gave up.

    Chapter 4

    Activated Boredom

    What else, besides information, is everywhere? 
Carbon, we guess.

    Activated charcoal is the productized version of carbon, transforming an everyday/everywhere element into something far more specialized. At least at Erewhon, activated charcoal can be found in almost everything — toothpaste, skin care products, baked goods, beverages and water filtration systems. It’s created by burning carbon-rich materials like wood or coconut shells at high temperatures, then exposing the remaining materials to an oxidizing gas. This process results in a fine powder with a network of pores that increase the surface area of the charcoal, yielding something highly absorbent. So much additional surface area is created during the activation process that 1 tablespoon of activated charcoal has about the same surface area as three full-sized football fields.

    Just like activated charcoal, Activated Boredom takes something ubiquitous and potentializes it. In this case, the ubiquitous element is simply reality, whether that’s information or the physical world. Quite unlike opting into an escapist fantasy in which one never receives another push notification ever again, Activated Boredom expands the surface area of one’s receptivity to the minutiae of living. Instead of turning shit off, it turns everything on.

    ATMs are inconspicuous. You find them recessed into nondescript walls, lurking in the back of convenience stores sandwiched between the freezer case and stacks of potato chip boxes, and camouflaged in graffiti and stickers in the piss-slick alleys adjacent to bars. A trip to the ATM is, at best, uneventful. Whether you forgot that Tasty Hand Pulled Noodles only takes cash or you simply need a bunch of twenties to slip in your grandkids’ Christmas cards, the ATM transaction is only ever a stepping stone. Never a destination.

    Why were the teens at the ATM? Activated Boredom. Their digitally native perception allows them to reappraise and revalue something boring like an ATM. To those who experienced life before the dotcomming of everything, things like ATMs, grocery stores and malls are a marker of the way things were. But for those who grew up online, these locales are utterly opaque, uncharted and steeped in mystery. Untethered from their original purpose, they become exotic. The ATM becomes a secret meeting point or a portal to another world. It becomes the destination.

    As a foil to the detoxer’s pursuit of freedom through constraint and control, to practice Activated Boredom is to recognize (authentically or cynically, it doesn’t matter) that control is inherently self-alienating. Where detoxers trick themselves into surrendering to one set of rules in lieu of another, the practitioner of Activated Boredom consciously accommodates the systems around them, like banking.

    We started writing this report shortly after experiencing a power outage in a woodsy neighborhood of northeast Seattle. Power outages can be bad, of course, but when the stakes are low, they can be pretty fun. This is because they’re imposed on us magically, by force of god. In a split second, the structure of our electrically-dependent world is revealed to us. And then, once we’ve been stripped bare, we’re granted a new, almost fantastical framework for playing out our lives. We light candles. It’s a little bit like a digital detox, in that we can’t do things like binge Netflix or charge our phones. But what’s truly different is that with a power outage, there is no intention to change. Simply a willingness to play along.

    Activated Boredom substitutes control with imagination. It is not the pursuit of answers, but the pursuit of mystery.

    Activated Boredom is tricky to package as any kind of strategy because its motivational queues are more intuitive than aspirational, like when those Seattle teens discovered a dead body in a suitcase using the Randonautica app. They’re well aware that their intuition may lead nowhere, but trusting it is far more exciting than writing it off.

    That said, we tried to break it down into some possible individual and brand behaviors. It’s not total or definitive, but it's a start. Like shopping in a new or unfamiliar grocery store, you don’t know where to find what you need or even what you want at all. In lieu of buying the entire store, take a cart and have a look around.

    Individual

    Brand

    Forget about a vision for the future. Be a visionary archaeologist.

    Go to your local grocery store (our favorites are Wegmans, Grocery Outlet, Westerly’s, Erewhon, Samiramis Imports and Costco). Don’t prepare a shopping list. Imagine you’ve never seen a grocery store and may never see one again. Single out any unassuming item on the shelf. Assume someone put it there for you to see. Why do you think they did?

    Be a museum.

    Everything contains a mystery with a thousand possible answers. Solve one today.

    Don’t kill the mystery. Relatability, for one, is something to avoid here. There’s no mystery if everything’s the same.

    If you can’t always be the treasure, try to be the metal detector.

    Be patient with the banal but proactive about engaging it.

    Rather than cramming a square peg into a round hole, you can find happiness by lowering expectations and going with the flow.

    Be patient with your audience. You can’t be discovered if you’re always pursuing.

    Channel surfing > Netflix

    Don’t strive to minimalize your lifestyle. Don’t be wasteful either. Recycle and repurpose — materially and conceptually.

    Engineer and market less.

    Ebay is a lifestyle brand.

    If digital detoxes are gym memberships, Activated Boredom is breaking a sweat climbing a steep moonlit hill through dried foliage because you thought you heard lapping water on the other side. Or twerking at the grocery store because The Nutcracker soundtrack comes on rotation right when you find the sauerkraut. Not only is the workout free, it’s besides the point.

    Let your intuition guide you, even if you don’t totally trust it. Look for clues.

    Nobody will remember the big picture. They’ll remember the details. Make them count.

    it is not the pursuit of answers, but the pursuit of mystery.

    An “embassy” is a term coined to describe the locales that are especially accommodating to Activated Boredom, like grocery stores or ATMs. They’re decidedly accessible, ubiquitous, always around the corner and always belong to you, no matter what the corporations who own them think. While even Costco requires a membership card, its vernacular is easy to fall into. Rather than role playing or co-opting a different persona, get the world to roleplay for you. You’re a mouse in their walls. Just don’t overdo it on the cheese.

    Use the grand scheme of the corporate system as a palette for creating new subplots and minor characters. Retail Tik Tok, where corporate brands are personified into fanfic narratives, starts to get at this.

    Write, but know that texting with a friend or loved one can be writing too.

    Be open to interpretation.

    Set your conditions and dance on them, literally or metaphorically. Don’t overthink the bounds of those conditions. Be boundless within them.

    Don’t be too open to interpretation that you have no scaffolding to offer. Activated Boredom may not require your instructions, but it does thrive off a framework.

    There is no definitive beginning or end, but be mindful of expiration dates when you’re shopping. Behave ephemerally.

    Be open to change.

    You don’t necessarily have to wait for “nature to heal” — or plot holes to close — to treat the industrial world like uncharted territory.

    It’s okay to want to try to stay fresh and up to date, but be sure to accept that you, too, will get old.

    Be open to old age. Embrace it, actually.

    And finally, whoever you are, always remember to take your card from the machine.

    Epilogue

    The Magic Gathering

    The venue in Berkeley is packed. Nearly everyone seems to be under 21. It is at once easy and hard to discern who came with who, in the endearing way young friends tend to cluster together. While no one is drinking (likely due to age or lack of interest), there is a rowdy and contagious chatter spread about. Everyone is hypothesizing about the raucous musical act ahead. A gangly green-haired kid with mascara and braces asks another kid in a Burger King uniform whether they expect to be “flattened by an army of lethal bangers.” “I hope so,” the friend responds, with a shrug.

    After thirty minutes, which feels like an eternity before a concert, the lights dim. A spotlight illuminates the center of the stage and a man in his early twenties steps up to the microphone. He is dressed in a formal red suit. It seems nostalgic. His hair is combed neatly. Nobody knows who he is or why he is on stage. He smiles.

    He is a magician.

    THE LIGHTS DIMMED....

    He is twenty-five years old. He is local. He is self taught. He holds an applied math degree from UC Berkeley and has a minor in theater. He believes he is about to confound the shit out of his audience. In fact, he is about to send them into a collective hysteria.

    For 45 minutes, the magician performs mind-blowing trick after mind-blowing trick. The audience is enraptured. They shout. They laugh. They laugh so hard they scream. One girl, near the back of the room, hides her tear-stained face in the front of her hoodie. She can’t take it any longer. The audience is flattened by an army of lethal bangers quite unlike the lethal bangers they were expecting.

    The magician’s grand finale is to make a dollar bill fly around the room, zipping around people’s heads like an autonomous magic carpet on LSD. Two teen boys standing near the front claw at their eyes in total disbelief. Where one might think to ask, “how did he do that?”, the teens have a different question.

    In tandem, they shout, “WHYYY DID YOU DO THAT!?????”

    They are in the moment. They are curious. They realize that some mysteries are not meant to be solved.