il. Robert Ball / Flickr CC


BY Marek Krajewski

The term ‘smart boredom’ rose to popularity in 2012 primarily – and tellingly – in the context of marketing. What was idle becomes occupied, and what was annoying becomes absorbing

3 minutes reading left


In 2006 we shot a short film titled Przystanek (Stop) [1]. Out of the several hundred public transportation stops in Poznań, we randomly selected eighteen – the number of hours of service provided every day by the city’s mass transit system. At each of these stops, we installed a static camera and recorded for one hour the behaviour of passengers waiting for their buses and trams. What did our subjects do? They paced, looked around, studied the schedule, performed minor maintenance on their hairdos and clothing, glanced at their watches and others, talked, drank, read books and periodicals, listened to music, and talked on their mobile phones. But above all else, they appeared stuck in a state of suspension or lethargy.

Breaks in our everyday routine – when there’s nothing much to do because there’s very little we could influence with our actions – occur more frequently the more complex our lives are. Complexity requires an increasingly advanced degree of coordinated action, which in turn requires us to wait our turn, be it for coffee and a meal, a ticket machine, the dentist, a green light, a cab, the beginning of a class, or to make our way through a traffic jam. There are things we can do to shorten this wait: we can employ force, make a request, resort to bribery, or break the rules, but such shortcuts run counter to the intended consequences, in the long run. Chaos only prolongs moments of anticipation. Most people choose to wait.

The anguish of vigilance

Waiting need not be unpleasant, but it usually is. This is no coincidence. When we wait, we as useless as idle objects, as things that are of no use to anyone. Waiting is more unpleasant the more we hear that we are masters of our own fates, that we hold the future in our own hands, that we should be productive, that time is money, and a good life is an interesting one – an eventful life full of novelty. Waiting evokes a sense of wasted time, and that feeling is just as ubiquitous as the conviction that life is a stretch of opportunities to take advantage of, and that we ought to be active, lively, plugged in, and in a constant state of vigilance.

Despite the promises of lifestyle experts, the unpleasantness of waiting is not tempered by “slowing down”. The source of the suffering isn’t in the speed of our lives, but in the fact that we are dependent on others, that we have to coordinate the rhythms of our actions with them, and that forces us to wait. We could just give up – move out to the countryside, get off the grid, live according to nature’s clock, and simplify the complexity in our lives – but before that can happen, we have to suffer a bit, be productive, and coordinate with others enough to make the cure for the anguish of waiting worth taking. Such books as the ones by the Mátés, offer an amusing take on this myth of “dropping out”. A myth that hides the fact that in order to drop out, we must first work hard, and that in order to live the lives we want, we must first give up on ourselves. The myth is essentially capitalistic in its glorification of accumulation as the prerequisite for idleness and in its idealisation of the latter as a goal in life.

Waiting is humiliating. Why do we have such shortcuts as VIP zones, personal banking, concierge services, and delegating time-consuming tasks to assistants if not to to emphasise inequality? Why do people play the lottery if not to pass the time and soothe the pain of waiting for a shift in fortune? Is there anything more humiliating that waiting for those who need our help (as employees, partners, and co-workers)? Is there a better indicator of inequality than the number of days separating us from an appointment to see a specialist doctor? Or the number of people waiting in line to buy a discounted product?


Waiting objectifies us. The boredom associated with it is just one of the reasons why. Boredom comes from the discrepancy between our expectations and reality. Boredom occurs when a movie is less exciting than we had hoped it would be; when a conversation with someone we respect isn’t going very well; when we have to wait, even though we expected the immediate fulfilment of our needs or desires. Boredom happens whenever we expect something to be unique and it turns out to be mundane. Boredom is disappointment drawn out in time: not only do we not get what we expected, but the undesired won’t go away, either.

Boredom, as its apologists and critics both convincingly argue, is a relatively new state. [2] In order to experience it, we must believe deeply that it is our moral duty to use up all available to the greatest possible degree. This conviction (as well as the critique of the conviction) has its source – and plays a role in – modern methods of organising production. An interesting life is analogous to the short life cycle of a product, and the efficient use of time is the rule that organises factory work. The apparent paradox lies in the fact that the more capitalism responds to the experience of boredom, the more it becomes a ubiquitous state. Yet this paradox is only an illusion, as the market has perfected the technique of getting us to despise that which we had desired just a moment earlier. New products inevitably become obsolete as soon as we bring them home, and that which we had hoped would make us unique instead makes us uniform. It is precisely these small, everyday dramas that keep the economy moving forward.

We could of course, as Brodsky [3] proposes, simply submit to boredom and look at it as an encounter with oneself and with time. But this a proposal for the more audacious. Every non-operative reflection is irrational, after all. It reduces our efficiency, causing a hiccup in the complex social machine, and makes us a nuisance to others. That’s why we choose the simpler solutions – killing boredom.

Extreme solutions and buy one, get one free

There are two ways of killing boredom. The first method is to do something unprecedented, extreme, and radically new. This way of slaying the wretched beast of boredom is difficult to practice while waiting for a tram or a train, in line at the post office or the bank, but it is possible. The best examples are violence, vandalism, public sex, or the kind of pranks that have recently grown in popularity thanks to the internet (owling, planking, mannying, teapotting, coning, etc.). Another way to kill boredom is to try the buy one, get one free method, whereby one attempts to pack as many actions, activities, experiences, and sensations into the shortest possible time. The best example of this strategy is, of course, multitasking: watching a film while eating, listening to music while writing; talking on the phone while knitting, texting while driving, taking pictures at a party, second screening, etc. This strategy of coping with boredom seems much more common nowadays, and its perfect implementation is what is known as smart boredom.

You’re alive and you matter!

The term smart boredom rose to popularity in 2012 primarily (and tellingly) in the context of marketing. It is used to describe clever ways of coping with the moments of “minor boredom” experienced in public places, on the bus, in line, and during breaks at work or school. The cleverness of it lies in occupying downtime by texting, playing games, watching movies, listening to music, browsing email and websites, reading ebooks and newspapers, taking pictures, checking the weather and exchange rates, online banking, etc.

The list is endless, but all of its elements share a common result: what was idle becomes occupied, and what was annoying becomes absorbing. They also share a common source: mobile devices, particularly smartphones. Though invented in the 1990s, it is only in recent years that the smartphone has become the dominant variety of mobile phone on the market. Even the name itself points to the devices’ superiority over their predecessors, hinting that regular mobile phones are lesser beings by comparison – primitive, unintelligent, more like plain, everyday appliances. Smartphones act as magical objects, the use of which makes us better – no longer “dumb”, but “smart”. [4] What’s most important, though, is that these devices make us productive again, and that they soothe the feeling that we’re wasting our dormant potential and that our passiveness makes the world that much poorer.

A smartphone in our hand lets us generate online tides, set the internet connections in motion, increase the numbers of hits and likes, reward and punish, argue and hate. We start to matter. This fact is confirmed by the blinking LED signalling the device’s state of readiness, and the smartphone itself, with its notifications, updates, status messages, reminders to come back to a game we’ve put aside for a while, and news of offers, opportunities, sales, and freebies. You’re in the middle of it all, and the incoming stream of personalised information is there to prove it. And though we know perfectly well that there’s no one on the other end of the line, just (ro)bots and autoresponders, we let ourselves be carried away by the interactive ecstasy that testifies to the relevance of our existence.

What makes smartphones so clever is that they have managed to become the indexes of our existence and ultimately prove that they can become indispensable. What more, in contrast to imperfect humans, these devices are always ready to provide convincing evidence that we are among the living. Even when most of what the phone spits out is spam, rather than exciting offers, it still gives us a certain pleasure, an odd kind of fun that comes from sparking the flow of information. It must be exciting to be a router – an egalitarian kind of fame – that places us in the very centre of events. Jaron Lanier may complain that we’ve become reactive rather than interactive, [5] but the pleasure of keeping on top of things is too great not to submit to it. And since it also feeds into the needs of the market, everything around us tells us that we should experience it as much as possible.

A pause for humanity

It’s hard to resist the temptation of confirming that someone needs us. The temptation has its roots in our basic human needs: being part of communities, belonging, acceptance. Fulfilling these needs has become very problematic, because the focus has shifted to the individual, the unique, the independent and autonomous, and away from the collective and uniformising. More importantly, the contractual nature of interpersonal relations clearly defines the extent of our participation in them, making their authenticity the object of the contract. That is why the need to be with others and to be needed by others has to be realised in a different manner, one that doesn’t pollute the formality of our relations with others. Pauses, breaks, and short moments of coasting in neutral are excellent opportunities for that.

The paradox therefore lies in the fact that we are most human when we are bored, when we have to kill that unpleasant moment of anticipation. It is then – when the normal rhythm of activity is suspended, when we have to cope with the notion that we’re dispensable – that our primal urges come to the surface. Because we realise that the state is only a short break, we don’t invest much attention and emotion into it, we don’t attempt to nurture the experience that comes with it, and instead confirm its currency by connecting with that, which confirms our existence.

Waiting and/yet happy

As I mentioned above, the term smart boredom was born in the context of marketing. It was discovered that there exists a crucial yet undeveloped niche that can become relevant and fully valuable as a space for clever, intelligent activities. This niche is the brief period of time in which the individual is left to his or herself, suspended between work and home, between one meeting and another, between two sources of pleasure, in anticipation, while traveling, in a non-place. Early attempts to take advantage of smart boredom were very primitive: neon signs, posters, billboards and bus stop ads on which passengers could fix their gaze; fliers and free newspapers handed out on the street and at train stations; screens installed in public places, hypnotising passers-by with their twitching streams of light. The problem with these forms of distraction and attention focusing was that they formatted individuals, telling them that they were all alike with identical needs. The perfect tool with which to confirm the individual’s desire to be needed came with the smartphone, which was capable of fulfilling our desire to be with others and was also discreet and non-absorbing, pleasant to the touch and easy to use, understandable and full of mystery. And while it might be somewhat unhygienic and not particularly healthy, that doesn’t matter when the confirmation of one’s existence is at stake.

Stop 2013 would feature slightly different footage than the original version. The bulk of the images would still be of people waiting for something, but they would no longer be lethargic. On the contrary, they would be lively, involved in their interactions with their devices, talking to people who weren’t there. Human routers, delocalised and abstract, nodes on the network spreading information. Needed people.

[1] Produced at the Visual Sociology Laboratory, Institute of Sociology, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, by Małgorzata Kleban, Mateusz Leoński, Łukasz Rogowski, and myself. The film was published on DVD and attached to the book Wizulaność Miasta (The Visuality of the City, Krajewski, M., ed., Poznań, 2007).

[2] See, for instance, Essays on Boredom and Modernity, Dalle Pezze B.; Salzani C., ed,, Rodopi, Amsterdam , New York 2009; Svendsen L., A Philosophy of Boredom, Reaktion Books, London, 2005; Czapliński P., Śliwiński P., Nuda w kulturze (Boredom in Culture), Rebis, Poznań, 1999, and many others..

[3] Brodsky, J. In Praise of Boredom

[4] For more on “smart” objects, see Code/Space. Software and Everyday Life,  Kitchin R., Dodge M., MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011, p. 99.

[5] Lanier J. You Are Not a Gadget : A Manifesto, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010

translated by Arthur Barys

The series of articles on boredom is published in cooperation with Goethe-Institut portal and transmediale – festival for art and digital culture.