James Ward: Choose A Life More Ordinary

James Ward likes boring things. That’s not to say he’s boring – in fact, it’s the boring bits that make him quite so interesting.

Prepare to be pleasantly entertained by the mundane, trivial and pointless, as we catch up with the founder of The Boring Conference.

At 5.46pm on the 27 August 2010, I sent a fateful tweet. A tweet which (and this is only a very slight exaggeration) changed my life forever. It was in response to the news that Wired writer Russell Davies had cancelled his annual Interesting conference. I write a blog called I Like Boring Things, Interesting had been cancelled, so it seemed like the obvious thing to do would be to hold a Boring conference instead. And so I tweeted the idea:

I didn’t give it much thought. You can see how little thought I gave it by the fact I missed the word “is” from between the words “this” and “my”. I just sent it out into the world as a joke, but people soon began replying to me saying they were interested in the sound of a Boring conference; that they’d like to attend; that they’d want to talk at the event. Soon I realised that this joke was now a reality. I was going to have to organise a Boring conference. So I did, and then something strange happened. It sold out really quickly.

Four years on, and the event still sells out as soon as the tickets go on sale. We’ve had people talking about subjects including barcodes, milk, ink jet printers, the sounds made by vending machines, yellow lines, the Shipping Forecast and eggs. We’ve had people who take photos of IBM tills when they’re out shopping, people who count their sneezes, and people who collect collections. Boring subjects. But why do we consider them boring in the first place?

At some point, our culture seems to have been split into various clusters. There are the default interests; things which, as a man, you are expected to be in to – football, cars, music, film. Then there are those activities and interests grouped together under the ‘geeky’ banner (comic books, sci-fi, gaming) which are now mainstream enough to no longer need to be huddled together in that way. But what about the rest of it? All the stuff that’s just sort of in the middle? The stuff no-one pays much attention to. The stuff which is just sort of there. The boring stuff.

But what if, instead, we changed how we thought about things? We changed the things we prioritise? The things we celebrate? What if we changed what was considered acceptable to be enthusiastic about, and focused on all this other stuff instead?

“How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day?” asked the French writer Georges Perec in his 1973 essay on the “infra-ordinary” (his word for that which is the opposite of the “extraordinary”). Perec challenges us to question the habitual. “But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither question nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information.”

“What we need to question,” Perec writes, “is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us.” At the end of the essay, Perec asks a series of questions. He asks us to make an inventory of the items in our pockets, to describe our street and compare it with another street, to question our teaspoons. “It matters little to me that these questions should be fragmentary,” he writes. “It matters a lot to me that they should seem trivial and futile: that’s exactly what makes them just as essential, if not more so, as all the other questions by which we’ve tried in vain to lay hold on our truth.”

By focussing on the trivial things we normally overlook, we can reveal patterns which would otherwise remain hidden. We can uncover stories and discover things we never knew before, just by paying a bit of attention to something we’d previously dismissed. The everyday provides a recognisable and familiar framework through which ideas and theories can be tested and appraised.

For the last three years, I’ve found myself getting deeply immersed in the world of stationery while I was working on my first book, Adventures in Stationery. I began writing the book because I’d always been interested in stationery, but it was only as I began to look at it in more detail that I realised just how important it truly is. From the very beginnings of human civilisation, we’ve made marks on things to help us make sense of the world. Cave paintings, cuneiform script, hieroglyphics, ancient writings on parchment and vellum. There’s a direct connection between these and the modern written word. Our understanding of the world is based on this written communication, it’s how we build on the knowledge of previous generations. We do it with words, and we write those words with stationery. Civilisation was built with paper and pens. And if you’re going to be using a pen, then you need a desk tidy to put it in, otherwise it might roll off your desk.

As I researched the history of stationery, I realised I wasn’t just learning about Post-it Notes and paperclips, I was learning about the history of our society. The paperclip and the stapler didn’t just emerge at random – they were the direct result of an industrialised, connected world where international trade in consumer goods resulted in the formation of the office environment. Products like the highlighter and the Post-it Note don’t just change the contents of the office stationery cupboard, they create new behaviours, new ways of thinking and learning.

For us to dismiss the boring and trivial means we lose out on the opportunity to learn about who we are and where we have come from. To dismiss the mundane and quotidian limits our understanding of the world. To overlook the overlooked is to deny a simple truth: the ordinary is extraordinary.

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