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Smartphones: kicking the habit

George Pendle tries an experiment in abstinence

George Pendle | March 4th 2015

One of the least mourned casualties of the smartphone revolution has been boredom. Whether we are queuing up for coffee, waiting at a doctor’s surgery, or even stopped at a red light, our smartphones can now fill any dead moment with instant distraction. But are we losing something vital by not allowing ourselves to wallow in what Tolstoy termed “the desire for desires”?

This is the question behind a campaign called “Bored and Brilliant”, launched recently by the New York radio station WNYC. It encourages people not only to rethink their relationship with their digital devices, but also tries to overturn the negative preconceptions surrounding boredom itself. The campaign used as its theoretical basis a groundbreaking experiment in boredom studies first carried out by the British psychologists Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman in 2014. In this experiment, subjects who were asked to perform boring tasks like reading the phone book subsequently showed more imagination in performing creative ones. Boredom, in other words, was beneficial. So “Bored and Brilliant” sought to squeeze boredom back into our lives by squeezing our smartphones out.

Last month, along with 18,000 other people, I signed up to receive daily smartphone proscriptions. We were also asked to download an app, Moment, which monitors smartphone usage. I have never thought of myself as being a particularly heavy user. The ability to be contacted at any moment of the day is not something I treasure. Nevertheless the first day’s challenge gave the lie to my ambivalence. It seemed innocuous at first. Participants simply had to keep their phones in their pocket while they were travelling: no talking while walking, no texting while strap-hanging, no browsing while waiting on a train platform. I thought it would be a cinch. Yet throughout the day I found myself instinctively reaching for my phone: to check my email, to weigh the reviews of a new restaurant, to map the fastest way to a friend’s house. I had always thought of myself as analogue at heart—slow food, record players, face-to-face conversations. I had not realised quite how digitally integrated my life had become.

The next day’s challenge—no photos were to be taken with your smartphone—was easier, since I treat my phone’s camera less like a visual journal than a large-format camera, only to be used on exceptional occasions. But the third challenge—to delete a favourite app—was a little harder. I had long felt that my Twitter and Facebook apps were the Scylla and Charybdis that stood between me and full life-efficiency. Whether sucked down the hyperlink whirlpool of Twitter or run aground on the indifferent voyeurism of Facebook, I suspected that using these two apps was less productive than simply onanistic. Now I had a chance to test my theory. So I deleted them, and a weight far greater than their combined 98MB of memory was lifted from my shoulders. Of course I wasn’t giving them up altogether. I could still access both products on my laptop or desktop. But not having them immediately to hand felt freeing, the equivalent of putting a safety clip on a handgun. I felt the liberation of restraint. Admittedly I did not feel the immediate increase in inspiration that the professors of boredom anticipate, but perhaps that was because my ennui was so unfamiliar, so exciting. I could hardly wait to do nothing! I imagined I would have to grow tired of it before the real benefits would kick in.

So far so good, but things were not being helped by Moment, my data-monitoring app. Every half-hour it would tell me how long my phone had been used for. Some days the amounts were staggering: could I really have been on my phone for 300 minutes in 24 hours? Denial is, of course, the first sign of addiction, and I worried that if this level of anxiety had been caused by really quite minor restrictions, what would happen if I tried to turn my phone off for a whole day, or left it at home for a week, or locked it in a metal box and dropped it into the ocean for ever? The very idea suddenly seemed far too serious for even whimsical consideration. Like Tolkien’s ring I felt it in my pocket, whispering its siren song of infinite information: “I can tell you the weather tomorrow. I can tell you the name of the tune that’s playing. I can tell you the capital of Eritrea.” How could I rid myself of such a precious commodity?

It seems I was not alone. During the week of challenges and monitoring, smartphone use amongst participants—which before the test averaged approximately two hours—dropped by only six minutes. People wanted to use their phones less; they just couldn’t seem to do so. But the success of the campaign was the ease with which it highlighted how compulsive our use of phones has become. There are only two types of people who call their customers “users”, so the old joke goes—drug dealers and technology companies. Should we be treating our phones in the same manner as our drugs? The attempt to repackage boredom as a positive mental necessity, one that smartphones are denying us, seems to be coyly suggesting exactly that. Perhaps we actually need proof that our phones are harming us, causing us to live at a sub-optimal level, before we can truly feel comfortable in giving them up. 

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