A poster on the Tube urges the bored traveller to “make every second count”.
And how are we meant to do this? If the accompanying picture is to be believed, the answer lies in giving all your attention to a smartphone or tablet. I think the aim of the advert is to alert us to the presence of Wi-fi connections in underground stations. I could be wrong because my attention wandered before I’d read the smaller type.
But in any case it seems an unnecessary message. A look along the platform showed I was already in a minority in not having my gaze glued to a little electronic screen.
For most people, it seems, there is no longer any escape from the darned things, wherever you happen to be.
While waiting to cross the road outside the station I was passed by two drivers who appeared to be giving more attention to their phones than to their driving. Which is a little frightening when you realise that the slightest slip of the wheel could send their vehicles right in your direction.
For so many people a train trip, a meal out, a walk in the country are all just different backgrounds to ignore while a phone absorbs their attention.
I had to ask someone a little while ago to stop using their smartphone in the theatre. “Silent mode” is all very well, but it doesn’t prevent a brightly lit moving image from distracting those around you. And making me wonder why someone who has paid for a theatre ticket can’t pay attention to what’s happening on the stage.
And that wasn’t a one-off. It seems to have become normal.
But whether you’re being bothered by work in what should be time off, or just browsing Facebook or YouTube, is this screen-fixation really making “every second count”?
Count for what?
It seems no one’s attention span is what it used to be. I worry when I see a teenager “multi-tasking” – TV on in the background, smartphone in the foreground, homework on the side – that no task is being attended to as it should.
And I worry that boredom has been all but eradicated. Unless it’s boredom with some mind-numbing “game” or ultra-trivial social media page.
No one, it seems, allows themselves the time any more just to gaze out of the window or stare at the ceiling.
But boredom is vital. The capacity to be bored is key to human development.
Every great work of art, every brilliant invention, had its origin in somebody doing something to combat boredom. You fiddle with this, you question that, you try something out.
Without boredom there is no human progress.
The world divides now into the few who alleviate their boredom by inventing ever more ingenious machines – and the many who do so by playing on them endlessly.
It’s become common to worry about the seemingly inexorable rise of “artificial intelligence” – machines that think. Think Terminator Arnie Schwarzenegger and ponder the doom of humanity.
I suspect that apocalyptic scenario is as far-fetched as it’s gripping. But I do fear that the cleverer our technological devices become, the stupider we grow.
And it’s not just a problem for everyone else. It’s affecting me too, even though my phone does nothing but make and receive phone calls and text messages. And even though I still regard a walk as an opportunity for looking around me, and for doing my best thinking.
Like nearly everyone else I’ve become so reliant on the fact-checking possibilities of the internet that I no longer trust my own memory – or give it the exercise it probably needs. Like the rest of us I’ve out-sourced an important part of my brainpower.
But at least I still get bored enough on Tube journeys to notice the posters on the wall.