No More Boredom

The smartphone turns five. It has already changed our perception and use of time.

The summer is drawing to a close. Heavy rain drops are falling in Berlin from a gray and cloudy sky, and the city’s commuter trains are filled with expressionless faces. Most commuters instinctively reach for their smartphone to pass the time. Gone are the days when coffee drinkers and beer drinkers squared off, staring at each other from opposite sides of the train cars. This daily contest has been replaced by an almost democratic climate of commuter equality: one hand clinches the drink of choice, the other hand holds the phone. All eyes are fixated on little screens.

The train slows down and pulls into the station. During the morning rush hour, it resembles a beehive, with people dashing back and forth across the platforms. Smartphones disappear into the pockets of rain coats, and the mass of commuters sets into motion. Only one other person remains in the car: his head is almost hidden behind the daily paper, and neither the rush of people nor the dark clouds seem to distract him from his study of the day’s news.

The news cycle was abuzz last week with coverage of the patent lawsuit between Apple and Samsung, but it’s hard to see the newsworthiness of it. Everyone sues everyone else, and there’s no discernible end to that trend. Electronics manufacturers have engaged in patent lawsuits for years; only the number of customers affected by these decisions has increased. The smartphone has become ubiquitous.

It matters less which company stole from which competitor: the differences between individual smartphone models and brands are often negligible. Their success story isn’t based on some cryptic feature or nicely rounded casings, but on the smartphone’s ability to satisfy a desire that was previously unknown: the desire for permanent connectivity, coupled with the provision of constant entertainment.

We are rarely alone anymore. Even in an empty waiting room at the dentist, one’s “friends” are only a swipe and a tap away. Indeed, the whole terminology of the waiting room is becoming increasingly obsolete: waiting areas have been turned into layover rooms where people rest to read and work between two appointments. The possibilities are endless: social networks, live blogs from big news websites, Instagram impressions from around the globe. Compared to the days of the printed paper, even “waiting” is a remarkably dynamic activity today. We are always connected, thanks to the smartphone.

Smartphones are everywhere: held by the shoppers in the grocery store checkout line; at the bus stop; pulled out in cafés as soon as one’s companion disappears to the restroom. It becomes grotesque when two smartphone users continue to fuel each other’s obsession: one answers a text message, which encourages the other to surf the web, and leads to updates via email and Facebook for both. It’s not uncommon to see couples lost in their separate digital words for minutes at a time, staring at their respective screens but not talking to each other.

No more waiting, no more boredom. The smartphone promises the triumph of efficiency, and thus fits well into the spirit of our times. When I leave the newsroom for my lunch break, I enjoy the change I pace. Walking through the city, letting my gaze wander as I wait for the food to arrive – even a passive awareness of one’s environment is refreshing after several hours in front of a computer screen. At the Italian restaurant around the corner, I observe the lonesome business man, who is shoveling lasagna into his mouth with one hand while typing out messages on his smartphone with the other.

Five years ago, the first smartphones appeared on the market – and I am not sure whether Steve Jobs would have welcomed the trend that his product helped to spark. Ironically, Jobs himself once said: "I am a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, and out of curiosity comes everything.”

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