The saying “may you live in interesting times,” usually attributed as a Chinese curse, correlates peace with boredom, and upheaval with stimulation. If an era is interesting, it must be a mess, with those living through it plagued by uncertainty and fear. But, like so much traditional wisdom, it’s not especially true. (It’s also not a Chinese saying at all.)
Take the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which, even if you were able to penetrate the cross-talk, was astoundingly dull for taking place in a year of national collapse. You had Trump trying to make some goddamn point about Biden graduating at the bottom of his college class — as if anyone could give a shit — and Biden never found the time to hammer Trump for all but endorsing extremist movements like QAnon, being pals with Jeffrey Epstein or literally getting impeached. It was an excruciating 90 minutes, but most of all, it was meaningless sound and fury.
Weeks away from Election Day, liberals are shouting “VOTE!” every chance they get, but the shitshow America watched on Tuesday night is precisely what keeps millions from bothering to exercise that right. Politics are simply too tedious, and too far removed from the struggle to survive on the ground floor of this cruel nation. Meanwhile, people have enough drudgery of their own to endure: gig jobs that don’t pay the bills, fruitless attempts to navigate health insurance systems and juggle debts, addiction to fatal drugs and a monoculture of Marvel movies. One can almost sympathize with the fringe conspiracists for inventing a false reality that feels more compelling than this shit.
In early 2016, some prescient redditors established r/ABoringDystopia for “chronicling how Advanced Capitalist Society is not only dystopic, but also incredibly boring.” It’s useful as a way of keeping your eyes open to what’s become the dreary wallpaper of decline paired with futuristic tech and all-consuming financialization. See, literature and film have always imagined worst-case outcomes for human society, but our favorite works of art did so with shocking verve and flair — stuff like A Clockwork Orange and the Mad Max franchise take hold of your senses with elevated violence and surreal imagery. But our world sublimates bloodshed into a kind of background static: Whether you die of opioid abuse or COVID-19, your quiet demise becomes part of a statistic that the rest of us can rattle off without grasping its true weight.
We are not sacrificed to any spectacle like the Hunger Games; we are ground down bit by bit, in a million little ways.
By rendering pain, injustice and the predatory economy in a drab aesthetic and corporate jargon, you numb the population to their own suffering. It’s not that we want to be thrown into a literal Thunderdome to fight for our lives, but you have to admit it would be a more honest and efficient mode of slaughter than having the masters of capital slowly drain you over the decades. Trained as we are to look for the colorful or “exciting” nightmare, we passively accept the bureaucratic surveillance state, a do-nothing Congress, creeping fascism and exploitative labor practices.
Those who can work up some outrage about this stuff have an uphill fight in convincing others to care, and they burn out quickly. It just doesn’t hold the collective attention as it should. It’s wearying.
Until someone figures out how to break the cycle, I guess we can expect to have our morale chipped away at, one promoted tweet at a time. Salvation depends on not being lulled into adaptation — once we accept the boring dystopia as “normal” or even “fine,” we lose any hope of unraveling it. When you notice your jaw going slack, and your eyes glazing over, you have to snap out of it. Complete assholes want to keep a vast majority of the population desperate and miserable to retain power. We cannot tune out now.