Brilliantly boring

Brilliantly boring

A website that shows a large piece of cheese as it (very
slowly) matures is getting thousands of hits a day. What is it about dull-
as-ditchwater webcam footage that can be so strangely gripping? Oliver Burkeman
dissects the cult of banality on the net while Alexandra Topping picks some of
the classics of the genre

http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/0,,178327,00.html

Brilliantly boring

A website that shows a large piece of cheese as it (very
slowly) matures is getting thousands of hits a day. What is it about dull-
as-ditchwater webcam footage that can be so strangely gripping? Oliver Burkeman
dissects the cult of banality on the net while Alexandra Topping picks some of
the classics of the genre

Tuesday April 3,
2007

The Guardian

Something strange and slightly troubling begins to happen
when you spend more than about two minutes watching Cheddarvision, the
much-publicised website set up by the cheesemaker Tom Calver, which broadcasts
live footage of a single 44lb truckle of cheddar as it imperceptibly matures.
First, unsurprisingly, you feel bored and irritable. Then, after a while, and
without really meaning to, you slip into a peaceful, meditative, quasi-hypnotic
state. You start to breathe more deeply. Peripheral distractions – traffic
noise, ringing telephones – fall away. There is you, and there is the cheese.
Nothing more. If something should actually happen to the cheese while you’re in
this state of mind – every week, the cheese is turned over; on one occasion,
the label fell off and had to be replaced – it has an impact utterly
disproportionate to the event. It is inexplicably hilarious; astonishing;
gasp-inducing. Then the drama subsides, and once again, it’s just you and the
cheese – and, depending on the time of day, perhaps tens of thousands of other
people, scattered across the planet, for whom no other concern is more pressing
in their lives, right at this very moment, than to stare at cheddar.

It is generally agreed that we are more bored today than
ever before. Some surveys put the percentage of people who yearn for more
novelty in their lives at around 70% and rising. As the scholar Lars Svendsen
explains in his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, until at least the 17th century
being bored was an elite privilege, bragged about by princes and the nobility.
The paradox is that boredom seems to have become democratised in exact
proportion to the explosion of reasons not to be bored: books, affordable
international travel, and the mass media, for a start. And here is an even
stranger paradox: in the age of the internet, when the average person has
access to vastly more genuinely fascinating information than at any point in
history, what are the sites that consistently achieve cult status, from the
birth of the web up to the present day? The boring ones. A ripening cheese. A
coffee pot in a Cambridge University
computer lab (the first webcam, and now a dusty artefact of online history). A
camera trained on a street in a Scottish village where nothing ever happens.
And I do mean nothing: so little, in fact, that it would be more interesting to
watch paint dry – which, incidentally, you can also do via the web, at
watching-paint-dry.com.

Some incredibly boring websites, it’s true, hold the promise
of sporadic but genuine excitement – a webcam trained on the US-Mexican border
might conceivably show an immigrant crossing it illegally; the webcam trained
on Mount St Helens might show it erupting. Even the
Virtual Holmfirth webcam, positioned to broadcast a live view of events taking
place on the pavement between Sid’s Cafe and the parish church, might catch a West
Yorkshire youth engaged in antisocial behaviour. (If that ever
happened, by the way, we would probably identify the epidemic of boredom as the
cause of the antisocial behaviour.)

Just as frequently, though, boredom seems to be the very
point of a boring website – as if we truly appreciate the quiet, uncomplicated
space of a few moments spent watching, say, a nest full of eagle eggs that are
not going to be hatching any time soon. Suddenly, it becomes a little easier to
understand why people go trainspotting.

Steven Johnson, in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You,
advances the thesis that our attention spans are actually getting longer, and
that popular culture is making us smarter. Feature films, he points out, last
longer than they ever did. Computer games, along with many TV drama series,
require far more sustained cognitive engagement than was needed in the
purported golden age of childhood. Is it possible that we are becoming more
patient, too? After all, which is the truly more shocking thing about Channel
4’s Big Brother: that it becomes a freakshow of racism and psychological
dysfunction when condensed into a half-hour broadcast? Or that there is
actually a market, however small by comparison, for hour after unbroken hour of
footage from the Big Brother house, broadcast on the digital channel E4, where
absolutely nothing occurs? In an information-saturated society, writes the
sociologist Orrin Klapp, "we suffer a lag, in which the slow horse of
meaning is unable to keep up with the fast horse of mere information". It
would be nice to believe dull websites are popular because they are a rebellion
against overload – a space for our slow horses to graze.

Except for one problem. The truth is that we all know how
the web exerts a mesmerising power of distraction, somehow absorbing our
boredom without really curing it. This is what we mean when we say that
web-surfing is addictive. Big Brother has this effect, too: you don’t feel
bored while you’re watching it, but afterwards, you still wish you hadn’t. The
fact that you just spent 10 minutes staring at a decomposing compost heap – as
you could, until recently, at a website operated from the Sussex village of
Horsted Keynes – does not automatically mean that you really wanted to, nor
that it was good for you to do so. True, it’s possible that you watched the
compost decompose with a deep appreciation for the ever-advancing natural
cycles of life and death. Then again, maybe you were just bored. Maybe you had
spent half the morning staring listlessly at your computer screen, and were
desperate for any novelty – even the novelty of someone putting something so
incredibly dull on the internet.

I could go on. But it would only get boring. And besides, I
have a cheese to watch.

The Trojan Room coffee pot

Started 1991, although it only went global in 1993 (before
that it was confined to Cambridge University’s
local computer network).

Finished August 2001 (after which the by-then-famous coffee
pot was auctioned online for pounds 3,350).

The story The Trojan Room coffee pot is thought to be the
world’s first webcam. In the days before the world wide web, Cambridge
academics had the idea of training a camera on the department coffee machine to
help people avoid making pointless trips to the machine before the coffee was
ready. When the coffee pot eventually made it on to the web, hundreds of
thousands logged on for a look. "It became famous for being famous,"
said Quentin Stafford-Fraser, one of the original developers.

JenniCam

Started April 1996.

Finished December 2003.

Number of hits At the height of its popularity, JenniCam
attracted an estimated 3 to 4 million
people a day.

The story Long, long before Justin Kan was making the news
with the 24/7 webcam of his life (justin.tv), American student Jennifer Ringley
was doing exactly the same thing, albeit on a much smaller budget, from her
college dorm in Pennsylvania.
Generally, it was very, very boring, but sometimes Jennifer, who was 19 when
she started broadcasting, did things like have sex. Or strip for the camera.
The ethics of all this were much debated. Was it voyeurism? Hi-tech post
feminism? (This was a long time ago, remember, in internet terms.) She went on
the David Letterman show to chew it over. Later she charged for access to the
site; in the end it closed down because of problems over nudity and the online
payment service she was using.

Mount St Helens VolcanoCam

Started 1996.

The story One of the first webcams to be pointed at an active
volcano. Mount St Helens notoriously erupted in 1980
with a blast equal in power to 500 atom bombs, and has been in continuous
eruption since reawaking in 2004. The picture is updated every five minutes,
and, weather and light conditions allowing, you get a nice view of the volcano
from an observatory about five miles away from the action. From September 2004
to March 2005, the website received more than 342m hits, averaging 1.8m a day.

How to find it VolcanoCam

Big Brother webcam

Started 2000.

Finished It keeps finishing, but then it starts all over
again …

The story Back when Big Brother was an exciting, newfangled
thing, few seriously believed that viewers would keep logging on to webcam
footage when the TV show was over. Especially as the technology then was plain
rubbish. But how wrong we were … Web footage of the inside of Big Brother
houses used to be free; these days, you have to pay for it. Part of the thrill,
if it can be called that, is that sometimes stuff happens that is too revolting
to be shown on TV.

Eaglecam

Started September 2004.

Finished May 2006.

The story There are many webcams trained on eagle nests.
Generally speaking, they are of niche interest. Last year, for reasons that may
never be fully understood, one abruptly rose to international prominence. An
estimated 10 million people a day began logging on to follow the fortunes of a
pair of bald eagles in an accountant’s backyard on Hornby
Island, near Vancouver,
Canada. The birds were
there, or they weren’t. They preened, or didn’t. Would the eggs hatch? No.
They, allegedly, were eventually smashed and eaten by their parents. Bird
lovers everywhere mourned.

Hencam

Started Summer 2005.

Number of hits so far More than 470,000.

The story They cluck, they peck and, sometimes, they lay
eggs. Hen-owner Neil Whitaker says that the idea to chronicle the lives of his
three birds, Milly, Tilly and Penny, came to him when he was chatting with
friends in the pub. You may or may not be pleased to hear that the
Bradford-based chickens have laid 49 eggs between them so far this year. When
the Guardian logged on yesterday, Penny and Tilly appeared to be eating
something from the earthy floor of what looked like a chicken coop. Milly’s
feathery bottom could be seen in the background. "I can’t honestly believe
so many people would want to sit around and watch hens," says Whitaker.
But there it is.

How to find it hencam.co.uk

Texas Border
Watch

Started October 2006.

Finished November 2006.

The story For one month only, scores of webcams provided
live footage of the 1,240-mile-long Texas/Mexico border. The idea was that the
public would email or call the Texan authorities if they saw anyone attempting
anything that looked like an illegal border crossing (out of Mexico,
into Texas, to clarify). The
trial was a huge success. More than 25m hits were recorded on the website, and
more than 200,000 people subscribed: thousands of emails resulted. The site is
currently closed, but the state now plans to open a full-time webcam public
surveillance operation. As Texas Governor Rick Perry put it, "A stronger
border is what Americans want and it’s what our security demands and that is
what Texas is going to
deliver."

Wildcamgrizzlies

Finished August 2006, but highlights can still be seen on
the National Geographic website.

The story This grizzly bear webcam was a smash hit last
year. Like all the classics of its genre, there was sometimes nothing doing. A
bear sitting doing nothing, say. Or no bears at all. Other times, though, you
got to watch bears frolicking and catching salmon in the McNeil river in Alaska.
The camera was hidden in a fake boulder on the riverbank, allowing viewers to
get a uniquely close-up, fear-free, view of the bears. As one blogger wrote at
the height of the webcam’s popularity: "A smaller bear than last night has
been feasting since about 5pm EST.
This is really fascinating. I look forward to seeing more of them. The large
male last night was awesome."

How to find it wildcamafrica/

Cheddar Vision

Started January 2007.

Number of hits so far 803,414.

The story The new undisputed king of the boring webcam.
Since going live 102 days ago, more than 800,000 people have logged on to watch
a piece of West Country cheddar mature. Highlights have included someone
putting a sticker on the piece of cheese, and the sticker almost falling off.
If you go to the cheese’s webcam site, you will find directions to YouTube,
where you can see a time-lapse film of its first three months of life. The
cheese, which also has its own MySpace site (where it has more than 500
friends) will be auctioned off for charity when it reaches full maturity.

How to find it: cheddarvision.tv/

The Neilston webcam

The sell "Probably still the most boring webcam on the
net!" Or so it says on the frontpage of the website.

The story Someone has put up a webcam on a suburban street
in Neilston, a village of 6,000 people 12 miles south-west of Glasgow.
It is updated at regular intervals throughout the day. When the Guardian logged
on yesterday, it looked quite sunny there, but there was no one in shot. All
you could really see was some road, and a bit of someone’s driveway. As far as
cult webcams go, this is still very much a new kid on the block, but its
popularity is growing fast. At least 106,529 other visitors have also been
bored by this page, it boasted yesterday.

How to find it neilstonwebcam/


– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Perdonen
sus Mercedes, no es que me haya olvidado de ustedes, pero estoy muy ocupado.
Estoy escribiendo mis conclusiones y les paso el chisme que, seguro sí voy a
Estocolmo (y no porque padezca el síndrome ese), chidos resultados, very
chiros.

Pues, el
leiv motif de este post ya lo habíamos abordado. Apenas lo descubren en el
Guardian. Je, je, je. Van detrás de las vanguardias, compas. Eso los rebeldes del Sureste y
sus seguidores (críticos, verdaderamente piedras en los ZAPATOS) lo hemos
sabido dendenantes: hay que desviar
la mirada, y más que todo el juicio en cosas banales, de modo que
no se dedique tiempo alguno a la reflexión, y mucho menos a la acción. ¡Dios me
libre! Anatema.

Por ello,
hay que bombardear al popolo con noticias insustanciales hasta el asqueo. Que
si la Britney ya salió del Madhouse, que si la Salma (muy mala actorcita, btw;
la única que desentona en el Callejón de los Milagros) está embarazada; que si el Cuauh deja a
las wilas; etc., etc., etc. Peor, ahora que se ha descubierto que mi cuate el
Diego tiene hepatitis, se aborda todo lo superficial y se deja de lado eso por
lo que se ganó mi respeto, que es su tardío compromiso social. Por cierto, el
mejor jugador de todos los tiempos es Pelé. Mucho más completo que el Diego,
lamentablemente el no anotó el gol más hermoso de todos los
tiempos, un verdadero poema futbolístico sobre el césped del estadio AZTECA, ¿o
Guillermo Cañedo?

Ya para
terminar, y
como muestra del nivel en que todo se ha banalizado al extremo: ¿Recuerdan
que creo fué hace dos años el climax
del código Da Vinci? Pues, supongo nadie lo definió mejor
que Mario Vargas Llosa (todavía no le dan el nobel, no se vayan con la finta.
Pero no se pierdan leer: La ciudad y los PERROS.) que calificó al “Código Da
Vinci”
como “literatura light”. Ese Dan Brown dudo haya leído
siquiera al Giorgio Vasari.

En todo
caso, para alimentar mi optimismo, no todo tiene que ser gris
como uniforme de los PFPos, he escuchado que los de la resistencia ya se están poniendo las pilas y organizan actividades
chidas
como toquines para jalar banda. ¡Vientos Huracanados!

M@rcosa insustancial,

Norwich, G(ran) B(analidad)

3/4/07

P.D.Anti Benson &
Hedges. "No todo está dicho".


… “What
you are about to do, DO IT quickly”. John
13:27

 

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