Wrestling with the always-on social web, and trying to relearn the value of boredom

Sometimes I try to remember what it was like to be bored — not the boredom of a less-than-thrilling job assignment or a forced conversation with someone dull, but the mind-numbing, interminable boredom I remember from before the web. The hours spent in a car or bus with nothing to do, standing in line at the bank, sleep-walking through a university class, or killing time waiting for a friend. Strange as it may sound, these kinds of moments seem almost exotic to me now.
I was talking to a friend recently who doesn’t have a smartphone, and they asked me what was so great about it. That’s easy, I said — you’ll never be bored again. And it’s true, of course. As a smartphone user, we have an almost infinite array of time-wasting apps to help us fill those moments: we can read Twitter, look at Instagram or Facebook, play 2048 or Candy Crush, or do dozens of other things.
In effect, boredom has been more or less eradicated, like smallpox or scurvy. If I’m standing in line, waiting for a friend, or just not particularly interested the person I’m sitting with or the TV show I’m watching, I can flick open one of a hundred different apps and be transported somewhere else. Every spare moment can be filled with activity, from the time I open my eyes in the morning until I close them at night.

“Neither humanities nor science offers courses in boredom. At best, they may acquaint you with the sensation by incurring it. But what is a casual contact to an incurable malaise? The worst monotonous drone coming from a lectern or the eye-splitting textbook in turgid English is nothing in comparison to the psychological Sahara that starts right in your bedroom and spurns the horizon.” — Joseph Brodsky, 1995

Finding value in doing nothing

Of course, this is a hugely positive thing in many ways. Who wants to be bored? It feels so wasteful. Much better to feel as though we’re accomplishing something, even if it’s just pushing a virtual rock up a metaphorical hill in some video game. But now and then I feel like I am missing something — namely, the opportunity to let my thoughts wander, with no particular goal in mind. Artists in particular often talk about the benefits of “lateral thinking,” the kind that only comes when we are busy thinking about something else. And when I do get the chance to spend some time without a phone, I’m reminded of how liberating it can be to just daydream.
I’ve written before about struggling to deal with an overload of notifications and alerts on my phone, and how I solved it in part by switching to Android from the iPhone, which at the time had relatively poor notification management. That helped me get the notification problem under control, but it didn’t help with an even larger problem: namely, how to stop picking up my phone even when there isn’t a notification. That turns out to be a lot harder to do.
But more and more, I’m starting to think that those tiny empty moments I fill by checking Twitter or browsing Instagram are a lot more important than they might appear at first. Even if spending that time staring off into space makes it feel like I’m not accomplishing anything worthwhile, I think I probably am — and there’s research that suggests I’m right: boredom has a lot of positive qualities.

Losing the fear of missing out

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not agreeing with sociologist Sherry Turkle, who believes that technology is making us gadget-addled hermits with no social skills. I don’t want to suddenly get rid of all my devices, or do what Verge writer Paul Miller did and go without the internet for a year. I don’t have any grand ambitions — I just want to try and find a better balance between being on my phone all the time and having some time to think, or maybe even interact with others face-to-face.

“Lately I’ve started worrying that I’m not getting enough boredom in my life. If I’m watching TV, I can fast-forward through commercials. If I’m standing in line at the store, I can check email or play “Angry Birds.” When I run on the treadmill, I listen to my iPod while reading the closed captions on the TV. I’ve eliminated boredom from my life.” — cartoonist Scott Adams

The biggest hurdle that there’s just so much interesting content out there — and I don’t mean BuzzFeed cat GIFs or Reddit threads. I’m talking about the links that get shared by the thousands of people I follow on Twitter, or the conversations and debates that are occurring around topics I’m interested in. I have no problem putting away 2048 or Reddit, but Twitter is more difficult because I feel like I’m missing out on something potentially fascinating. Why would I choose to be bored instead of reading about something that interests me?
What I’m trying to do a bit more is to remind myself is that this isn’t actually the choice that confronts me when I think about checking my phone for the fourteenth time. The choice is between spending a few moments reading through a stream or checking out someone’s photos vs. using those moments to recharge my brain and maybe even stimulate the creative process a bit. Even if it somehow seems less fulfilling, in the long run I think it is probably a better choice.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Chalabala