Both Bored and Boring
Technology has given us more free time and choice than at any point in history, but we don’t seem to know what to do with it.
The writer Michael Easter is under the impression that boredom went the way of the dodo with the advent of the smartphone. “Finally, on June 29, 2007, boredom was pronounced dead, thanks to the iPhone,” Easter writes in his 2021 book, The Comfort Crisis. He also laments that “our imaginations and deep social connections went with it.”
Regrettably, I feel increasingly compelled to accept Easter’s view of the smartphone’s downside. However, when it comes to his claim that boredom died upon its arrival, I’m not so sure. We may have more distractions at our fingertips than ever before, but it’s not at all clear how interesting we really find them.
Merriam-Webster defines boredom as “the state of being weary and restless from a lack of interest.” Having watched many people whiling away their time on their smartphones and having spent more than my fair share of time doing so myself, it’s obvious that an escape from weariness and restlessness is often the aim. That said, it’s equally obvious the goal is rarely realized.
Boredom isn’t a new experience or concept, but it is a young word. It didn’t come into use until the mid-19th century when Charles Dickens first popularized it in his novel Bleak House. Before that, others throughout history had described the experience in so many words, though it appears to have been a condition peculiar to the upper classes. For the poor, survival took up too much time for something like an occasional bought of boredom to be a problem.
But today, heaven be praised, even the poor can afford a smartphone. Even in the developing world they are readily available. In 2021, there were over 6 billion smartphone users on the planet. By 2027, that is projected to exceed 7.5 billion. Keep in mind, it was only a few weeks before this essay was written the planet reached a population of eight billion.
If we see distraction as the opposite of boredom, as Michael Easter and, I think, many others do, it follows that the 2007 announcement of the iPhone was in fact the final nail in boredom’s coffin. But “lack of interest” is the driver of the…