The smartphone has killed boredom -- and that's a wonderful thing
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 January 2019)

Traffic is stalled for the moment and some of the drivers on this corner transfer their attention to a beautiful woman on the sidewalk who is listening carefully to someone on her iPhone as she waits to cross with the light.

And then, surprisingly and happily, it happens. Something wonderful that she's just heard causes her to unveil a radiant smile, a full-lipped visual celebration of a feeling that warms everyone lucky enough to glimpse it. In an instant this unknown woman becomes part of the poetry of the streets, the ebullient result of technology, passion and imagination.

What in the world did she hear that caused the flowering of her smile? We'll never know. This street poetry is impressive but impossible to explain. Still, when we walk or drive, we can encounter it everywhere, an established part of the daily spectacle that many of us choose to notice. The fact that some of the same people are taking pictures for distribution to family and friends tends to enhance the feelings of community.

In recent times -- 11 years since Steve Jobs announced "Apple reinvents the phone" (and Time magazine called it the Invention of the Year) -- the smartphone has transformed the tone of city life. Urban crowds no longer seem grim and relentless as they walk. Often they are animated by what they're hearing and saying. Dreary silence has been replaced by frequently excited conversation.

In making this device and investing $150 million for development, Jobs once again proved that he had the essential instinct of an entrepreneur: he knew what the customers wanted long before the customers did. His iPhone sold a million copies in its first few days and there were long lineups of eager buyers at Apple stores for weeks.

When a director was making a recent documentary film about Chicago he came upon four Buddhist monks standing together, glorious in their saffron robes. As the camera recorded their existence the director changed the angle and the audience revealed what they were doing. Each of them was checking his phone, not exactly what you expect with Buddhist monks but a memorable image nevertheless.

Not everyone is as delighted as I am about this development. Any change in the environment, especially when it's caused by an advance in technology, is certain to have enemies, people who claim it's too much change too fast.

There are those who consider the iPhone an empty, hollow way of keeping in touch, of tethering people to distant speakers rather than allowing them full access to the moment. For instance, Philip Roth in his novel Exit Ghost created a character who returns to New York after a long absence. Watching phone users on the street, he wonders what has happened to so many people that they have so much to say. He can't imagine how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence "by talking into his phone for half his waking life."

The late Oliver Sacks wrote that people peering into little phone boxes are totally out of touch with their surroundings. He saw it as dehumanizing, a way of avoiding interest in culture and science. In his posthumously published book, Everything in its Place (due out this spring), he wrote: "What we are seeing resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale."

On the contrary, in my view. What we are seeing is one of technology's swiftest blows against a major drawback of modern urban life, boredom.

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