February 16, 2011
A decade ago, those times were just a fact of life: time ticking away, as you gazed idly into space, stood in line, or sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Downtimes were unavoidable, yet also a primordial soup for some of life’s most quintessentially human moments. Increasingly, these empty moments are being saturated with productivity, communication, and the digital distractions offered by an ever-expanding array of slick mobile devices. Even Motorola began using the word “microboredom” to describe the ever-smaller slices of free time from which mobile technology offers an escape.
“Mobisodes,” two-minute long television episodes of everything from “Lost” to “Prison Break” made for the cellphone screen, are perfectly tailored for the microbored. Cellphone games are often designed to last just minutes — simple, snack-sized diversions like Snake, solitaire, and Tetris. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook turn every mundane moment between activities into a chance to broadcast feelings and thoughts; even if it is just to triple-tap a keypad with the words “I am bored.”
But are we too busy twirling through the songs on our iPods — while checking e-mails, while changing lanes on the highway — to consider whether we are giving up a good thing? We are most human when we are disconnected. To have downtime is to stop reacting to the external world, and to explore the internal one.
Public health officials often bemoan the obesity epidemic, the unintended consequence of a modern lifestyle that allows easy access to calories. Technology seems to offer a similar proposition: a wide array of distractions that offer the boon of connection, but at a cost. Already, mobile technology has shaped the way people interact and communicate. People no longer make plans in the same way; public spaces have become semi-private bubbles of conversation; and things like getting a busy signal or being unreachable seem foreign, even quaint. Today, distraction from solitary thinking is not just merely available; it is almost unavoidable.
In a way, the entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on the small moments of spare time that are sprinkled through modern life parallel the pharmaceutical industry. A growing chorus of mental health specialists has begun to question whether normal sadness and social anxiety are being transformed into disorders that people believe need to be cured — by the companies offering elixirs. The tech industry may be doing the same thing with disconnection.
Many of the original arguments for having a cellphone — safety, security, emergencies — never figure into the advertisements. Like the commercials that show frowning people transformed into smiling, kitten-cuddling normality, technology companies project a happy world of connection where to intentionally disconnect seems freakish, questionable, an ailment.
Society has accepted connection so well that it takes a step back to see exactly how far things have come. Instead of carrying their entire social universe in a pocket, people used to walk out of their houses and into the world. Today, not picking up the phone for an hour is an act of defiance.
Perhaps understandably, downtime has never caught the attention of the psychological world. Emotions like anxiety, fear, or anger have been subjected to a much more thorough examination than merely feeling drab.
In one of the most famous scenes in literature, Marcel Proust describes his protagonist dunking a madeleine cookie into his teacup.
Marcel’s senses are recalibrated, his experiences deepened, and the very nature of memory begins to reveal itself. But it is only through the strenuous process of clearing his mind and concentrating that his thoughts begin to unfurl completely, immersing him in memory. Had Marcel been holding a cellphone in his hand instead of the delicately scalloped cookie, perhaps he could have quieted the feeling with a quick game of cellphone Tetris. And had Proust come of age with an iPhone in his hand and the expectation that his entire world fit in his pocket, he may never have written a single word.
I friend said that he refuses to carry a cellphone precisely because, “Every time I venture out into the confession booths that our public spaces have become I hear these stupid conversations. . . ‘I’m almost there, I’m turning the corner right now’. “Help!”
Connectivity, of course, has serious advantages. Parents can check in with their kids. Friends separated by hundreds of miles can have a conversation almost as if they were walking side by side. People feel safer.
Still, there has been surprisingly little public discussion of the broad sociological and psychological impact the technology will have. Like much change, it has crept up on people and radically changed behavior and expectations in ways we could have predicted.
Bu,t as it becomes more difficult to imagine a world without constant connectivity, the very concept of “microdowntime” may begin to lower people’s tolerance for even a second of empty time.
Perhaps steeping in uninterrupted time may be the first step toward feeling connected. There’s a level of knowing yourself, of coming back to baseline, and knowing who you truly are.
Or, just go ahead. Your phone is vibrating with a message, your e-mails are piling up…