How smartphones killed off boredom

For a decade, an electronic cornucopia has been driving us to distraction. Is this good?

Moments of idle reflection and minutes of frustrating inactivity have been rendered a thing of the past by the devices in our pockets. Photograph: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Moments of idle reflection and minutes of frustrating inactivity have been rendered a thing of the past by the devices in our pockets. Photograph: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

 

Next month see the 10th anniversary of the release of the first iPhone and the start of a smartphone revolution that has shaped the intervening decade in many ways, both obvious and subtle.

But the birth of the smartphone also presaged the death of something else, something whose absence we hardly remark on but which is of momentous importance – the smartphone has in many ways eliminated boredom in the developed world.

Those moments of idle reflection and those minutes of frustrating inactivity have been rendered a thing of the past by the devices in our pockets, which provide short bursts of diversion whenever we have a moment to fill.

Very soon after getting my first iPhone, I realised that boredom was over – I had an infinite supply of articles and books to read at any moment. And this was before Twitter and Facebook became fine-honed mobile experiences, cunningly engineered to hog users’ attention.

And sure enough, I haven’t experienced boredom in the classic sense in years – it exists for me now more as a kind of vivid childhood memory rather than as a human emotion I might experience in daily life. And I’m certainly not alone in not missing it remotely.

Like most people, I had a strong aversion to boredom and felt its imminent demise would be one of the great achievements of the smartphone, both on the individual level and in the aggregate. I found persuasive the prediction of the US public intellectual Clay Shirky in his 2010 book Cognitive Surplus that the spread of the internet would unleash a huge wave of previously untapped human potential – the “cognitive surplus” of the title – leading to a burst of extra productivity and creativity.

Unintended consequences

Needless to say, it will be a very long time before we comprehensively reckon with how significant the extinction of boredom will be for our species, but now it’s clear that we can’t just dispense with a basic human experience like boredom and not have some unintended consequences to grapple with.

A decade on, and it’s clear we are already facing many of those unintended consequences. That is because we have not substituted boredom with constant engagement, but rather with distraction. And it turns out constant distraction, with frequent hits of dopamine at every hint of novelty, isn’t necessarily a healthy state of mind.

Around the same time as Shirky’s book came out, Nicholas Carr was selling an altogether more pessimistic vision of how we were going to be affected by immersing ourselves in technology in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In Carr’s view, the internet was doing nothing good for our brains, eroding our ability to focus and think deeply.

Carr seemed to echo the warnings of previous generations about the dangers of television, or even the famous warning by Socrates on the potential damage of writing – it epitomised the predictable moral panic that greets every new technology. But while Carr’s polemic was a little histrionic for my taste, the intervening years have proven him rather prescient, and his thesis has been elaborated on by a multitude of writers, catering to an audience clearly feeling the ill-effects of constant distraction.

Books such as Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives by David Levy, and The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by psychologist Larry Rosen and neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley are just some of the high-profile examples of the genre in recent years, the sense of techno-induced anxiety palpable in each of those subtitles.

Corrosive dependence

Indeed, our compulsive need for smartphone distraction is drawing parallels with another form of mass addiction with harmful consequences. In a recent essay on the corrosive effect of smartphone dependence, millennial self-help writer Mark Manson made the explicit comparison with smoking: “It’s attention pollution when somebody else’s inability to focus or control themselves then interferes with the attention and focus of those around them . . . The same way second-hand smoke harms the lungs of people around the smoker, smartphones harm the attention and focus of people around the smartphone user. It hijacks our senses.”

Perhaps these are all just growing pains, and the smartphone era is a mere phase, a temporarily jarring transition until we reach a point when we realise our brains are actually perfectly capable of diving in and out of different streams of information, and that it is society that needs to catch up with our diversion-filled environment.

But I suspect the conclusion will be something quite different. Constant distraction, obviously enough, is bad for us. But less intuitively, perhaps we also need to admit that doses of boredom are good for us.

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