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How Did We Fill Our In-Between Time Before Smartphones?

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so I remember reading cereal boxes at breakfast, magazine covers in checkout lines, display ads on public transit, out-of-date magazines in doctors’ offices, in-flight Skymall catalogs, and posted signs (however irrelevant) of all types.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?

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Comments About How Did We Fill Our In-Between Time Before Smartphones?

Notable Replies

  1. 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.

    I’d tell Ian speak for yourself. When I get a moment, I have plenty to think about. I’ve never been bored with just my thoughts. I’d hope that’s the case for many more people. It must be an awful world if being stuck with a moment to just ponder bores you, or if the only stuff you can think about in such a moment bores you. Being bored with oneself sounds like quite a plight.

  2. I’m perfectly capable of thinking my own thoughts as well, but there’s a difference between being out on a long bike ride, say, and being stuck in a holding pattern at the dentist for what might be 30 seconds or 3 minutes or some unspecified amount of time where I can be interrupted at any moment. That’s what I see as the “in-between” times, and where I find doing something useful on my iPhone preferable to wandering around the waiting room looking at things.

  3. Ray

    I remember sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and just sitting and clearing my head. Humans seem to always be searching for something to do, but doing Nothing, and doing it consciously, can be beneficial. I have recommended to my anxious patients to just sit for 5 minutes a day, breathe, and try to think of nothing.

    Probably the same as meditation or praying, so I didn’t invent it. But doing nothing can be good.

    I just have to make time for it.

  4. It’s not just about long thinking. 30 sec is perfectly adequate to sort your thoughts. There’s no need to be constantly bombarded by input - being at rest with just a few thoughts is perfectly fine. I think @raykloss got to exactly that above. This restlessness that so many people feel and this urge to constantly “check” their smartphone for some new input is perhaps merely a sign that folks have forgotten what it feels like to just be in the moment with your own thoughts. If that doesn’t come natural, it might be worth practicing.

  5. I read a lot more. I’d always have an easy-to-carry paperback with me. I spent a month toting a huge networking protocols book around with me back in the late 90s (then returned it because it was so hard to get through I couldn’t imagine using it for reference)

    I still read but not as much as I used to and I miss it. I try not to touch my computer on the weekends - at least not the email.

    I’ve also removed most of my email accounts from my phone. Of course I can still surf the web in a waiting room but I honestly find doing that painful on the phone.


  6. Depends how you define “productively,” I suppose.

    In my case, I did my best to have a good book with me anytime I wasn’t with interesting people. Got a lot of reading done in those days during trips for work.

  7. I read a lot. I always carried a rucksack with several books. It was very rare back in the day having a rucksack to work. People used briefcases. I remember people asking me if I was going hiking. But I did not care. I had to have the book I currently read and the next with me since I am a quick reader. “Reading” even more now, doing boring things as I listen to audiobooks.

  8. I’m another reader. Before the mobile devices (and I’ll have to go back to my Palm Pilot here), I would always carry a book with me - usually a mass-market paperback, but sometimes bigger books. I’d read it during all my free time - while eating dinner, waiting in doctors’ offices, in the restroom, etc.

    I think I’m reading just as much today, but it’s now mostly on-line blogs and news sites, whereas it used to be magazines, comic books and novels.

    I don’t think that much has actually changed, just the media we use to do it.

  9. I think this is correct. I try not to use my phone at every spare moment - I did without one for 50 years so it’s not that foreign to me. When I do use it I tend to look at Apple News where I can catch up on news, sport and my preferred magazines (although I’m not a huge fan of the way Apple News presents magazines). Occasionally I’ll use it to Google something that pops into my mind when I’m pondering my fleeting existence.

    I don’t play games, watch videos or mindlessly scroll on my phone.

    For me it’s just reading without the book.

  10. As an artist, I used to carry a sketchbook around with me along with some simple tools like a pencil, eraser, pen, and maybe a small watercolor set. Now my trusty iPad goes everywhere with me, and it gives me a nearly limitless selection of art tools using Procreate. So, not much has changed… it’s just gotten way better!

  11. I have to say I disagree with Ian Bogost’s assertion that “how little there was to do before we all had smartphones”, “despair that accompanied this dead time”, and “before smartphones, people didn’t invest their in-between time into forging social bonds or doing self-improvement”. I may have felt that way because I was (and am) an introvert and lived a fair bit in my head :sweat_smile: Maybe he said all that to shock and elicit responses from us?

    I was another reader - I used to carry books and even atlases (heavy!) and did a fair bit of armchair traveling. Sometimes the bus conductors - remember them? - had to chase me off the bus (with a smile) because I had to finish the chapter, and I was known as the boy who read. I struck up conversations with strangers - people who were a lot older than I was. Sometimes I relaxed, let my mind loose, or gathered my mind. In many ways those were better than staring at the phone. And in any case, I was never bored.

    I think our attention is a valuable resource and we should have effective control over it. Boredom seems to be a symptom of lack of interest, and that could be a result of how we decided - or not decided - to live our lives. We can fill up our time and not be bored by looking at the phone - but that is just passively letting others control our attention. What happens when the phone is out of power, and what happens when we have to confront ourselves?

    Since we mentioned reading so often in this thread, I could not help but recommend two books:

    How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (Overdrive link here):

    Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (Overdrive link here):

  12. Decades ago, I’d carry a little booklet with me, one with no lines, and draw in it. Sometimes, I’d write a bit of poetry. Now I have an archive from when I was younger filled with impressions and abstract designs. That’s the sort of thing that filled some of my off-time before iPhones.

  13. I think time certainly stretched out in front of us a good deal more.

    That, I find, is a good thing. For creative purposes, as Judith and others note, or for stillness and meditative needs as yet others say.

    The stimulation and constant input takes a toll. Time whizzes by for one. I’ve taken tech Shabats over Christmas and Summer breaks and I’ve noted how much longer these vacations have seemed. This have been key in my disengagement from social media, Facebook, Twitter have been cut and Instagram is down to about a once a week, posting about once a month.

    I do use my iPhone as my main audio, especially spoken word, source. That I see as an extension of my first media love, world radio stations.

  14. Out of curiosity I just checked the daily screen time history for my phone.

    Drum roll please…

    I average 7 minutes a day.

    Most used items: Health (I track swimming and running), Stocks (I’m retired so my income relies on the share market), Weather (just because) and Messenger (I’m in a private group of friends).

    My son (19) and daughter (25) would be over 10 hours I’d guess. Constantly on YouTube, TikTok and whatever else kids look at.

  15. Adam wrote:

    “And no, I didn’t generally strike up conversations with strangers, practice mindfulness, or draft articles in my head. How about you?”

    I did and I still do all three: I talk to people next to me in a restaurant, I meditate while waiting, and I draft mails, letters, articles and programs in my head. This seems to be quite normal to me.

  16. Impressive—sounds like this is a much more intentional group than the friends I’ve asked about this in person. Personally, much as I probably read about 100 books per year, I’ve never cared for reading on the go. I don’t like carrying things in my hands or in a bag, reading while standing up (as in a grocery store line), or dipping into a book for just a few minutes at a time.

  17. There’s also a question of safety. When your nose is buried in a screen, you likely have substantially reduced your situational awareness and increased your chances of an accident or being the victim of a crime. I like to think of myself as reasonably “street smart,” but the one time in recent memory I placed myself in a vulnerable situation, I was sitting in a park car, taking longer than I realized to look up some information on my iPhone, and I was completely unaware of a dangerous change in the situation immediately outside my vehicle until someone tried to open the vehicle door.

  18. When I’m out and about, I read books; I chat with friends; I engage with the world.

    I do all that with my smartphone, but I’m not sure why that’s a problem.

  19. I’ve never used a smartphone, and when I’m walking around I don’t usually wear the reading glasses I need since cataract surgery. It I’m going to be waiting a few minutes, I’ll close my eyes, lean back and relax. If there’s a convenient window, I look out it. And when there are other people around, as there were when we were waiting at our favorite seafood restaurant, I sometimes strike up a conversation.

  20. I cannot just sit and do nothing. That will drive me nuts! I’ve seen lots of people just staring off into space in doctors’/dentists’ offices. They’d just sit there without moving until their names are called. I don’t know how they do that. I used to always carry a magazine to read before a smartphone came along,

  21. Magazines. Used to subscribe to a lot of them (Smithsonian, Scientific American, Nat. Geo., Macworld, etc.). Took one or two whenever I anticipated wait time somewhere. Still prefer that format from an esthetic perspective, despite the advantages of their digital counterparts.

  22. Newspaper, usually. After I’ve read it, I’ll try the crossword: The Times’s cryptic usually keeps me occupied for long enough.

  23. I always have had a book in my purse (a kindle now). Would have never gone anywhere without one!

  24. Absolutely with you Adam about compulsive reading. I’ve also always found it very difficult to skim books and articles, and not read every word.

    But what I wanted to ask: when you’re in a country whose language you don’t speak do you find it annoying that you can’t understand all the text you see in public places? If the language doesn’t even use the Roman alphabet—say in Greece, or Japan, or Arabic countries—so I can’t even make the sound of the words in my head, I actually find I’m in a continuous state of frustration.

    Am I truly weird, or does anyone else suffer from this condition? Do psychologists have a name for it?

  25. Since there are a lot of readers here (including me): one great thing about physical books is that you can often see what others are reading. I have often asked strangers about their books or whether they liked the book they are reading, which lead to a number of interesting conversations.

    With phones you don’t see what people read and if people play games (which we do see) I am not interested in talking to them :roll_eyes:.

  26. I’m usually a control freak; not being able to manage what I do, and what is done to me, disturbs me. In France, I can get by reasonably well, both reading and speaking. In Italy, Spain and other European countries, I have rather more difficulty but as you observe, being able to read text is reassuring and allows educated guesswork (all that Latin I learned at school wasn’t entirely wasted).

    In Japan a few years ago, I found myself totally at sea: not only could I read none of the text (Roman script is scarce to non-existent outside the largest of cities), but I had no cultural anchors either. I found it strangely liberating.

  27. I’ve never traveled in a country where I don’t at least recognize the alphabet—Greece was the closest, but since I was a Classics major at Cornell, I can at least sound out words, even if my ancient Greek from 30+ years ago wasn’t all that helpful for understanding.

    But when I’m in places where I don’t understand the language, I still stare at the words, trying to figure them out. I simply can’t not look at text.

    Someday we’ll get to Japan or another place where the script is completely foreign, and I’ll see if it’s troubling or liberating. :-)

  28. Same for me. I’ve been a book reader since I first learned to read.

  29. I listen to books more rather than read nowadays. But I don’t use Twitter or Facebook etc. I really don’t need to know what anybody I know had for lunch, or where they are standing at that moment. I like thinking instead of always reacting to other people’s thoughts.
    But that’s just me.

  30. Absolutely yes. When I was on a business trip to Beijing, this was very frustrating.

    When I took a Baltic Sea cruise that stopped in St. Petersburg, the cruise line offered an “intro to Russian” session. Couldn’t read the language, but we got a quick rundown of the alphabet, so I could pronounce the words on signs, even if I couldn’t understand them - and that definitely felt better.

    And this led to some interesting questions. I noticed, for instance that there were a huge number of small shops with signs saying “ОПТИКА”. Being able to pronounce it (“optika”), I assumed that these were opticians and immediately asked our guide “why are there so many opticians all over town?”. And got the answer that it is a colloquial term for a quickie-mart, much like the phrase “drug store” in the US.

    Being able to pronounce words on signs lead to learning a bit of local culture that you probably can’t find in a book anywhere.

    And on a parallel question: How do you feel about seeing web pages with missing characters (often rendered as squares)? I always want to see the intended characters, even if I can’t read a word of the text. So I made a point of installing at least one CJK font long before it was a standard part of system software. I felt much better seeing a screen of Chinese instead of a screen of squares, even though both convey equal meaning to me.

  31. Japan is a very easy country in which to travel. Many signs - at least in the bigger cities - will have multiple language signs and English is prominent. There is also a significant part of the population who speak at least some English.

    Definitely go, it is a truly wonderful place with beautiful people.

  32. This has been an interesting discussion, and I find, at least for myself, that it doesn’t matter what we use to fill those idle moments, for we all seem to find ways to do so. Years ago, when I was teaching and using my old Apple IIe, students and parents would ask what kind of computer to buy, and my answer was always, “A computer is a tool. Decide first what you want to do with it, then find out which one does that or those things best and go with it.” We still do the same. Since my idle moments thing is reading, it doesn’t matter whether it is a book on paper or a digital one; it’s just whichever one is handy and available. It may seem odd to think of a paperback book as a tool, but it is just another way to get at the text I want to read.

  33. One option used to be to read a book, although that is difficult in any high distraction environment. Which is pretty much anywhere in public, therefore I gave up on that. Magazines were sometimes a viable option, but were always astronomically expensive even compared to the high price of books. Otherwise before little portable computers I’d typically play a handheld game like the Game & Watch models or alternatives from other manufacturers. Or I’d just listen to music on tapes.

    I can sit meditatively, either thinking or not, and have plenty of practice at doing so, but I really don’t need more time for thinking. It is something I’ll do when in a quick line, e.g. at the supermarket, post office, even the doctor, but for a longer wait I’ll take out my phone. My usual preference is to play puzzle games. I still enjoy quick twitch games, but when playing that sort of thing I want real buttons. The main thing I’m looking for is something that will make what seems like an interminable wait seem shorter.

    Audiobooks have never been something I found a use for. If I’m listening while doing something else I invariably end up missing chunks of the text, and if I am actively focussed on the audiobook I might just as well be reading.

  34. Hi David

    Good to know I’m not alone. You’ve made me feel a bit more normal!

    It’s been a long time since being confronted by a web page with rectangles for missing characters, so I don’t recall my reaction to it. Because the rectangles signal missing characters, rather than containing any information that I can’t understand, I don’t think I’d react with my usual frustration. But who knows?


  35. I’m starting to think the reply’s here may be more indicative of the type of people that read TidBITS.

    It seems a lot of us enjoy filling our time with reading everything from a long running online Mac based weekly :wink: to newspapers to books in our spare moments.

    You can count me among those who likes to pass the time when waiting reading. In the days before ready internet access I would almost always have a physical book tucked away somewhere to pull out and as needed :slightly_smiling_face:. Now I typically catch up on online articles but am not above reading a novel in Apple Books especially when internet access is sketchy.

  36. I think this about most of the things I read on here. We’re quite the discerning bunch :slight_smile:

    Yesterday I took a train to the city for something to do. For 30 minutes I just watched other people on their phones whilst leaving mine in my pocket. It felt good to just take in the scenery without feeling compelled to ‘entertain’ myself.

    As I walked around the Opera House I was taken by how many people were using phones, selfie sticks and tripods to record themselves giving (quite lengthy) commentary on their visit - rather than simply enjoying the magnificence of their surrounds. It’s a tik tok world I guess.

  37. Ray

    That is my main concern. That people have increased the need to record or broadcast the world they are in, instead of experiencing it. And then conflate the two to feel that if they saw a video of something, it represents the real thing. Conversely, if something is not documented, it is not real.

    Videotaping a concert and experiencing it through the little screen on your phone is not the same as being at a concert.

  38. You don’t think that they are enjoying themselves? Saying ‘look at me, I am here, and I have these feelings’?

    It’s not something that I would do, but it seems like a harmless way to have fun to me

  39. I guess it is all about striking a balance and deciding what is more important - I think there is nothing wrong with taking photos and making videos in addition to immersing in the experience, but IMHO it is quite another matter if these are done in substitution of the experience. I am making it a point to savour the moment before I place the viewfinder in front of my eye.

    The sad thing is that this is now far too common - not just during (classical) concerts, but at the conclusion when appreciation and applause should be offered. Instead many people are taking photos of the soloists/musicians bowing. IMHO it is much better to leave the photographing to the professionals and being present in the moment instead - the photos will usually be published on social media and webpages, anyway, and will be almost certainly of higher quality than smartphone photos. So far the only prominent (classical) musician who forbids this (and that I am aware of) is Krystian Zimerman.

  40. My wife and I were at a light show in Europe. The moment it started the first few rows became a sea of arms holding phones blocking everyone else’s view, people complained but to little avail. I found it sad folks cared more about feeding their social media than being with their fellow participants.

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