Why it’s good to be bored

Is there a more depressing sight than a parent staring at their phone while their child desperately tries to get their attention? Well, yes, actually: Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Theresa May trying to stare down Europe over Brexit, Englishmen in baseball caps, my hairline… I could go on.

But a parent diddling with their smartphone while their child dances around their legs practically screaming ‘LOOK AT ME! I AM YOUR FIRST-BORN AND I AM DOING SOMETHING PRETTY BLOODY AMAZING WITH THIS STICK!!!’ is enough to make even the most ardent gadget lover wonder ‘do we control the machines? Or do the machines control us?’ before shrugging and teeing up Candy Crush on their Samsung Wonderwang.

I witnessed this phenomenon while out for a stroll last Sunday (yes, I stroll — and amble sometimes). As I approached Stroud Green Road I found myself stuck behind a mother and son, the latter careening around on his micro scooter and repeating the question ‘What’s three plus three, mummy?’ like a demented parrot while mum stared at her smartphone with a kind of grim defiance. Damn you, Steve Jobs! I thought. Look what you’ve done to our once mighty species! Reduced us to data farting machines that can’t even perform basic arithmetic for our offspring!

But it’s not quite as simple as that, is it? For all our concerns about smartphones they’re now woven into the fabric of our lives, one of those rare items that few people leave the house without. We use them to pay for things and to pacify our children. They keep us connected to home or the office while we gad about town (did I mention I gad too?), and act as an all-in-one camera, contacts book, calendar and handheld games console. They’re so bloody brilliant we can hardly bear to put them down.

It’s not really the smartphone’s fault. It can’t help being all whizzy and shiny and endlessly entertaining. That’s just how it was made. Ten years ago Steve Jobs said, ‘Let there be Apps! And a touchscreen! And a battery that barely lasts a day!’ And lo, the heavens opened and the first iPhone wafted down from the sky on a beam of light, straight into his outstretched hand. At least that’s how I imagine it was invented.

I’m sure Saint Steve couldn’t have foreseen all the myriad ways the iPhone would change society, though the fact that he followed the drug dealer code of ‘don’t get high on your own supply’ and limited his children’s screen time shows he was aware of its addictive qualities. For instance, very few people have to check their email at one o’clock in the morning. None of us need to pause a conversation with a friend to read a text that simply says: ‘Out of bog roll. Can you pick some on your way home? Thx.’ Or, as one in four Brits have apparently admitted, interrupt sex to see if we’ve scored any retweets. But we do.

In the case of Twitterholics, their smartphone is often the first thing they reach for in the morning, and the day often ends with them firing off one last tweet before collapsing, exhausted but potentially about to go viral, into bed. Its siren song can easily lure us away from boring conversations about bills or gardening or precisely how many badgers Brian May has saved from culls (about a million, so I’m told, all of which have been rehomed in Brian May’s hair).

Before long you furtively reach for your phone the moment someone opens their piehole and starts to speak, because in comparison to the wonders of the internet, listening to someone speak is just, well, a bit shit. You whip it out the moment you board any form of public transport, preferring to stare at any old crap online rather than the dead-eyed expressions of your fellow smartphone users. And eventually you learn to walk and scroll at the same time, just so you don’t have to look at all those tiresome trees and clouds. I mean they’re all the same really, aren’t they? Green and leafy or white and puffy. Booooring!

Of course the companies who create the apps on our phones are also partly to blame for their addictive qualities. Many apps are designed to keep us hooked — a process Silicon Valley insiders charmingly call ‘brain hacking’. Adam Alter explores this phenomenon in his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. In summary: we’re all little better than a lab rat, pumping a button with its tiny paw in the hope of getting a chunk of cheese. Only we prefer likes and retweets to a lump of Tesco Value cheddar.

So what’s to be done? How can we enjoy the benefits of smartphones without being tethered to them 24/7? I believe the answer lies partly in purposeful boredom.

WHAT? I hear you shriek. But we’ve just got rid of boredom! After ten thousand years of human civilisation! It’d be like bringing back Polio or the bubble perm.

But wait. Hear me out. There are benefits to boredom, I swear.

As any writer knows boredom isn’t your enemy. In fact it’s often your friend, providing you with ideas and insights and experiences you might not have had while staring at a screen. Nevertheless, it’s still a friend we tend to go out of our way to avoid. But as the philosopher Bertrand Russell writes in his book The Conquest of Happiness: “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Bloody hell. I mean who wants to be a cut flower in a vase? It’s only one step away from being a cut flower in a bin.

So having taken Mr Russell’s words to heart, I now cultivate boredom. I wool-gather with the best of them. Before I leave the house, I ask myself: ‘Do I really need to take my phone with me?’ And if the answer is ‘no’ I leave it at home.

Shorn of my smartphone, I’m forced to fully engage with my surroundings, to notice things I might otherwise have missed. My mind is free to wander, to make random connections and follow pathways other than those designed by an app developer. It feels liberating — almost subversive in an age when we’re supposed to be constantly available — to know that nobody can reach me. That no one even knows where I am.

I’m not a luddite. I can see the benefits of smartphones. But I believe we could all benefit from taking a more mindful approach to technology. So the next time you find yourself reaching for your phone, why not leave it in your pocket and just, you know, try being bored for a change.


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Duncan Jefferies writes about tech and digital culture for the Guardian, How We Get To Next and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter, and find out more about him on his website.