At The Atlantic, Ian Bogost asks (and answers) the question, “How did we occupy ourselves during bits of extra time before we had smartphones?”
Before smartphones, people didn’t invest their in-between time into forging social bonds or doing self-improvement. They mostly suffered through constant, endless boredom. So let us not lament or malign the time we waste on smartphones, at least not so much. It is bad to be seduced into argument or conspiracism, to shop or lust or doomscroll, to bring one’s job into the dentist’s chair or the living-room recliner. But it was also bad to suffer the terror of monotony. Now there is too much happening, but before, ugh, nothing ever happened.
There’s no question that smartphones outcompete nearly everything else around for our attention, sometimes problematically. But I don’t disagree with Bogost’s claim that we used to squander much of our in-between time on pointless activity. I’m constitutionally incapable of ignoring text within my sight, so I remember reading cereal boxes at breakfast, magazine covers in checkout lines, display ads on public transit, out-of-date magazines in doctors’ offices, in-flight Skymall catalogs, and posted signs (however irrelevant) of all types. And no, I didn’t generally strike up conversations with strangers, practice mindfulness, or draft articles in my head. How about you?