A Dispatch From the (Surprisingly Interesting) Boring Conference

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Nov. 27 2012 11:41 AM

Surprisingly Interesting

A dispatch from the 2012 Boring Conference.

Bored person at a boring meeting.
The most boring topics in the world can be interesting—if framed in the right way.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

By the time I arrived at York Hall Health and Leisure Centre in Bethnal Green on Sunday, the Boring 2012 conference had been underway for about an hour, and I was concerned that I might already have had more than enough tedium for one day. Due to a combination of Irish fog and English gales, I had spent 90 minutes sitting on a runway in Dublin and a further 40 or so circling Heathrow as the plane awaited a landing slot. The irony of my morning—that I was subjecting myself to the boredom and frustration of air travel in order to attend a conference dedicated to the most boring topics imaginable—was not lost on me, but as my flight looped repeatedly over greater London, I was too bored and frustrated to properly appreciate it.

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

When I got to the venue, the young lady at the welcome table informed me, with an air of genuine sympathy, that I’d missed some very boring stuff already. The day had kicked off with conference organizer James Ward’s keynote on supermarket self-service checkouts, (with an emphasis on the phenomenon of “unexpected items in the bagging area”). Then a former postman had given a talk on letterboxes and the neglected problem of protective bristles, and there had been a very well-received presentation on discontinued IBM cash registers. I regretfully agreed that all this did sound extremely boring and proceeded to the large neo-Georgian auditorium, where an audience of about 500 mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings were listening with careful amusement as a dapper young man talked about toast. There was a large screen behind him on the stage, and he was clicking through a series of photographs of toast slices, ranging from the entirely burnt to the effectively untoasted, in order to demonstrate what he called “the confusing, non-regulated series of toaster settings on the market.” His manner of weary, slightly apologetic pedantry seemed to be going down exceptionally well with the audience, and a detailed graph mapping various popular toaster models along a continuum of bread-toastedness drew some delighted laughter.

Why would hundreds of people be sitting in a cold East London community hall on a Sunday morning, listening to people talk about toasters and IBM cash machines and self-service checkouts? Because people enjoy boring things. This, at least, is the contrarian premise of Boring, a conference that has taken place every November for the last three years. If the whole thing sounds like an idle Twitter gag, that’s because that’s exactly how it started. In 2010, when a conference called Interesting was canceled, Ward (who maintains a blog called I Like Boring Things) jokingly tweeted that he was thinking of filling the gap by organizing a conference called Boring. Lots of people tweeted back at him saying that if he actually arranged such a thing, they would definitely attend it. So he did, and its program of short presentations on topics of appealing banality—one speaker held forth on his fondness for car park roofs, another on his project of logging each of his sneezes over the previous three years—turned out, against all apparent odds, to be a major success. Last year drew a larger crowd, high-profile speakers like journalist Jon Ronson and documentary-maker Adam Curtis, and a fair amount of media attention. Despite this year’s lack of such relatively glitzy boredom impresarios, the conference still sold out in record time. The deepening London chill was forcing everyone to keep their coats on, but the mood in the hall was one of skittish communal joy.

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The talks all took the form of brisk PowerPoint presentations, most of which tended to come across as affably shambling versions of the sort of headset-mic’d hunch-mongering TED has flooded the cultural marketplace with in recent years. In fact, it’s initially tempting to see the whole thing as a satiric inversion of the TED hegemony. If Boring had a tagline (which is doesn’t), “Ideas Probably Not Worth Spreading” might be a contender. Certainly, some of the talks were purely comic in intent, tapping into a quintessentially English delight in the overlap between banality and absurdity. The comedian Helen Arney, for instance, gave a funny presentation titled “Features and Specifications of the Yamaha PSR-175 Portable Keyboard (Discontinued).” A radio DJ named Neil Denny talked, less amusingly, about various breakfasts that he’d eaten at places like Denny’s and IHOP on a recent trip across the United States. He got some polite laughs, but the audience was becoming restless at this point, either because he was talking about food and it was getting on for lunchtime or because he had unwittingly meandered into the disputed territory between fun, ironic tedium and actual straightforward tedium.

When the conference broke up for lunch, I mooched around the auditorium for a bit. At the back of the hall, a guy with a conspicuously un-boring Mohican hairstyle was inviting people to spin in an office chair. I wandered over and joined the small cluster of spectators, and asked the bearded and bespectacled man standing next to me what exactly we were looking at. “It’s a world-record attempt for the largest number of rotations in an office chair from a single self-propelled spin, apparently,” he said. “Seems more fun than boring, if you ask me.” I agreed in principle, but it didn’t seem fun enough to take in much more of, so I wandered out past the world’s most boring buffet table—white sliced bread, digestive biscuits, dry crackers, cucumber slices skewered on cocktail sticks—and ducked out into the tedious drizzle for a conventionally boring meal at a Nando’s franchise down the road.

The rest of the day was a blur of enjoyably inverted tedium, with some flashes of genuine insight. A blogger named Elise Bramich spoke about the carriage numbering system on the London underground. There was an unexpectedly spirited talk by Kathy Clugston about her job as reader of the shipping forecast on BBC radio, and a faintly queasy exposition by a guy who keeps himself occupied on long walks home from work by not swallowing any of his spit. It tends to work out at about 5.8 milliliters of accumulated saliva per mile, if you’re interested.

The best talks weren’t so much riffs on the absurdity of banality as investigations of the principle that the most unappealing of topics can become intriguing if considered in the right way. A guy called Greg Stekelman, who announced himself as 5-foot-4½, talked about his obsession with celebheights.com, a website devoted to determining, and bickering over, the heights of famous people. (Sample comment from contentious thread on Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine: “Nothing but jealous short guys on here. This dude is a strong 5’11, almost, if not 6’0” in the morning.”) This was one of the funniest talks, and fascinating in its furtive approach to anxieties about masculinity and related measurement-compulsions. Andrew Male, an editor at the music magazine Mojo, gave an intricate and surprisingly affecting talk about double yellow lines, which discussed postwar efforts to combat anti-social elements in London and touched on his own grief over the loss of his parents. The journalist/musician Rhodri Marsden—many slash-based professions were represented throughout the day—conducted a brief tour of the online underground of ASMR (Auto-Sensory Meridian Response) videos. These are apparently non-sexual role-plays in which people, usually women, speak very softly and slowly while directly addressing the viewer on how to fold towels, or pretending to be the viewer’s dermatologist or travel agent. Apparently they’re a massive YouTube phenomenon.

“Boring” is obviously a succinct and eye-catching title for an event like this, but, as the day wore on, it started to seem like something of a misnomer. As banal as the individual topics were, the minuscule obscurity of the subjects people can find themselves interested in—and, more importantly, make interesting to others—emerged as the real theme. In fact, despite its tone of jocular irony, the implied message of the conference was actually a pretty earnest one: nothing is boring if you look at it in the right way. This was a message I tried (and failed) to bear in mind later that evening as I sat in Heathrow’s Terminal 1, waiting for another delayed flight to be called, bereft of Wi-Fi and my phone drained of battery. I’m willing to admit to a possible failure of perspective here, but that, to me, was boring.

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