The End of Boredom

I came late to the smart phone game. I got my first iPhone about four years ago, but it was promptly stolen before I had time to develop much of a habit. I got my second one two years ago. Pre-iPone, I had a whole lifetime of boredom to contend with. Countless long lines: at the DMV, the grocery store, the boarding gate. There were the mundane daily commutes, both walked and ridden. There was the blank space during a date when the other person was in the bathroom. There was the sleepless space over the Atlantic, the hours in cars. Sure, there were books and sometimes music, but there was also a lot of dead, unstructured time.

After I got my iPhone, I downloaded the New York Times app, a solitaire app, and a few others. A week or so later, I was waiting for takeout and reading my articles. I was perfectly entertained. And then it occurred to me — this was the end of boredom. As long as I had my phone with me, I would never again I have to deal with the blank space. And not just that — it was also the death of uncertainty.

Remember before: you could make a bet, and might have to wait for quite a bit to prove who won it — hopefully long enough for the winner to forget what you owed? If I wanted to know what that flower was while out walking, I’d have to wait until I got home to look it up. Two people could have an argument about a fact and remain stubbornly sure of their opposing side because there was nothing on hand to prove the other wrong. You had to try convince your interlocutor with rhetoric rather than Wikipedia. There was a good chance you would get lost going to a new place. You had to ask a question and could not immediately Google the answer.

You had to wonder.

There has been a lot of chatter about boredom recently — how it is good for us, how it enhances creativity, how we should put down the phones and let our minds wander. We have worried about how our attention spans shortened and eyesight strained by out little devices. We’ve wrung our hands about how children these days don’t have unstructured play, how regimenting time and giving children screens at every moment stifles the capacity for imagination. I believe this to be true; I’ve had these conversations myself.

“When I was young,” I would say in such a conversation, “I would while hours away in the long summer sun. The days stretched out in front of me like so many drops of water in an ocean and I could identify plant types and stay entertained without so much as a Lego block in sight.” Everyone will nod smugly, and somebody will mention playing in the mud, or climbing trees, or maybe how neighborhoods were different back then. We all feel better about ourselves for having those childhoods, the right childhoods.

We say this, secretly knowing that if we tried now, we’d be lost out there in the long summer sun.