Today I read an article on CNN about smartphones and the so-called death of boredom. The idea behind the article is simple enough: in an age when we can carry the entire Internet in our pocket, quickly sending texts, checking email, and surfing the web whenever we have a spare moment, have we lost our capacity to be quietly unoccupied?
I remember asking a similar question several years ago as I walked through Boston’s Public Garden, alone. It was a beautiful day, and everyone around me was either walking in pairs, talking, or walking alone, talking on a cell phone or listening to an iPod. Everyone but me, in other words, was somehow filling the silence of a sunny day with some sort of sound: if you weren’t talking with someone, you were listening to something. Even a homeless man pushing a shopping cart full of tattered belongings had a battery-powered boom-box perched atop of his possessions, blasting music. What I realized that sunny day in the Public Garden is that very few of us have the time or inclination to listen to our own thoughts anymore. Why bother with the boring monotony of silence and solitude when you can give someone a call or crank up some tunes?
That was in the old days when people actually talked on their cell phones. I’ve written before about J’s and my conscious decision not to buy smartphones: when I step away from my computer, I want to be able to “unplug” entirely. J and I are, however, in the distinct minority; as that CNN article noted, “More people now own a smartphone in the United States — 45% of adults — than own a traditional cellphone.” This means a huge number of people have games, music, and the allure of the Internet close at hand whenever they find themselves unoccupied. Stuck in a long line? Play “Angry Birds.” Waiting for the bus? Check your email. Awkward conversation lull? Send a text.
I don’t want to vilify smartphones: if data plans were cheaper, there would be countless ways I’d use a smartphone in my daily life. It would be convenient to have an up-to-date weather report, the latest news, accurate directions, or the answer to a nagging trivia question easily available at the tap of a touch-screen, and it would be helpful to be able to check my online classes even when I was away from my laptop and wifi. But just because smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets make it possible for people to fill their spare time with email, music, and the Whole Wide Web doesn’t mean that filling every spare moment with such things is a good or desirable thing.
When I was a graduate student working on my dissertation, I had a PDA (remember those?) with a program that allowed me to read and edit word-processing files. I kept a folder with all my dissertation files on this device, and whenever I found myself with a spare moment at the doctor’s office, in traffic, or waiting in line at the store, I would take out my PDA and start tap, tap, tapping on my dissertation.
After years of making good use of every spare moment—after years of carrying my damned dissertation with me EVERYWHERE, as if it were an unavoidable albatross slung around my neck—one of the most delightful aspects of finishing my degree was finally having the luxury of doing nothing. When traffic snarled to a stop, I could admire the surrounding countryside rather than reaching for my PDA. Waiting in line at the grocery store, I could make faces at the cute toddler in the cart ahead of me rather than burying my nose in dissertation edits. Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I could read whatever trashy magazine a previous patient had left behind rather than milking every last second of productivity out of the occasion. Sometimes, being productive is helpful, but other times, being productive is tiring. Is it any wonder that many teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived given how many of them sleep with their cell phones under their pillow, just in case anyone calls or texts them during the night?
As I write these words, I’m sitting in my office at Framingham State: a quintessentially blank, boring space with a large, airy window overlooking the main road bisecting campus. After having spent my office hour answering student emails, I switched off my email notifier when I opened this file, hoping to pound out a post without distraction. It’s taken me longer than you’d think to write these lines, mainly because I’ve stopped occasionally to think, staring out my window at the students slowly ambling past, clad in the hoodies, jeans, and sweatpants that are a college student’s official autumn uniform. Some of these students walk in pairs, chatting; others walk singly while checking their phones or fiddling with their iPods. Are any of them bored? I can’t possibly know by looking at them, but I do wonder: when is the last time any of them sat quietly in a blank room looking out a large, airy window, doing nothing more productive than thinking about the slow crawl of their own silent words?