Plain Text Transmissions

Smartphones and embracing boredom

Nov. 6, 2019, 10:14 p.m.

Raleigh, USA

From time to time I have a vivid desire to take my expensive smartphone, carry it to a jigsaw (I always envision a jigsaw, although a circular would work, too), and slowly push the jigsaw's blade through the device. I envision the phone will cut in half cleanly, like a smart knife through an ice cream birthday cake, and just like that, a cross section of the phone's electronics will expose themselves. I'd take the two half-slices of the phone, place them in a bag and put them on display, to remind myself that "I did this; I dealt with the problem."

The times that I most feel like I might just murder my phone are times when, for whatever reason, it's not around, like when the battery has run out or I've put it in a bag out of reach. When it's charged and in my pocket, spare moments between thoughts devolve into mere occasions for phone-provided micro simulacrum. Without a phone, I find myself looking up and at the world around me, though what I typically see is everyone else staring at their phones! At a bus stop, I notice about 90 percent of passengers waiting with me are idling away the wait on their phones; walking down a busy street I notice that about half of the drivers whizzing by are holding their phones in a sightline with the windshield to alleviate the tedium of the commute. I stare at these people, simultaneously wondering if they've become digital zombies (we're getting there) and whether I look as dumb as they do when I have my phone out (why wouldn't I?). The targets of my curiosity never notice; luckily for me they're too distracted by their phones.

Perhaps the most valuable thing that we've lost when we started carrying digital society around in our pockets is an ability to relax into and embrace a sense of boredom and idleness. Whenever there's a moment of downtime, out comes the phone. What might have filled that time if there wasn't a distraction--perhaps a reflection on a feeling, an observation about our surroundings, or even a novel thought? When we reach for smartphones, what we're reaching for is an escape from the reality of where we are and what we're doing. Yet I can't help but wonder, if where we are and what we're doing needs so much distraction, maybe we ought to get to the root of the matter and change what we're doing?

There are many conveniences that smartphones provide that, for the time being, prevent me from introducing it to the jigsaw, such as traffic and weather reports, and the ability to quickly call a taxi. To try to maximize its benefits and minimize its downsides, I usually keep my phone on silent and out of reach. While not a perfect solution, it does reduce the amount of time I spend on my phone. I also employ the "Digital Wellness" app on Android to limit the amount of time I let my favorite apps run per day. I'm a news junkie, but under no circumstances should I be on the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal apps for more than ten minutes a day--there are more important things to do! I have my phone enforce that limit, and if you find yourself wasting too much time on your phone, I suggest doing the same.