Journalist Manoush Zomorodi is the formidable mind behind Note to Self, an engaging podcast focused on the intersection of technology and humanity, and the book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. The latter is an outgrowth of an early experiment on the podcast that was successful beyond Zomorodi’s imagination.
The Bored and Brilliant project was a series of simple, but not-so-easy challenges that were designed to help listeners get their smartphone use under control. The premise for the project was that an idle mind is fertile ground for the seeds of creativity, but our endless swiping, tapping, and digital interactions ensure that our minds never have an opportunity to drift into this “default mode,” where fresh ideas germinate.
When they launched the Bored and Brilliant project on the podcast, Zomorodi and her team expected a few thousand people to participate. Ultimately, more than 20,000 people signed up to participate in challenges like tracking the amount of time they spent with their technology, and deleting the apps they found to be the greatest time sucks from their phones — even if for just one day. (For Zomorodi, the latter was a game called Two Dots, which she found so addictive that she even missed her subway stop one day because she was busy swiping dots.)
The book Bored and Brilliant takes the same premise and challenges and expands on them. Zomorodi begins by making a case for the benefits of boredom, citing copious research, expert interviews, and quotes from podcast listeners about both their concerns about technology use, and their experiences with the Bored and Brilliant challenges.
The book is not an anti-tech screed; it is quite the opposite. Zomorodi acknowledges both the benefits of technology and the reality that it is an immutable fact of modern life. As such, the goal is not to give up our smartphones, but to make sure that we don’t allow them to hijack our brains and time. After all, technology designers are not in it to improve the quality of our lives; they’re in it to make money, and that means ensuring that we tap, swipe, and interact with their products as much as possible. Zomorodi credits Google design strategist Golden Krishna for the observation that, “the only people who refer to their customers as ‘users’ are drug dealers—and technologists.”
As a good journalist, Zomorodi presents the issues with balance. For example, she gives fair representation to both experts who view technology as addictive and those who scoff at the characterization.
Is technology addiction a true addiction? Maybe, maybe not. But have you been seduced into giving away your idle time to the entertainment center in your pocket (or, more problematically, in your hand, always)? Found yourself ignoring your kiddos for your Facebook feed? Succumbed to the surprising phenomenon of “self-interruption”? Needlessly checked email when you should be concentrating on a job? If you answered yes to any of these questions then you have probably felt that nagging worry that your phone has wormed its way into your life in some unhealthy ways.
Zomorodi backs up her arguments with persuasive research. In discussing how reading on a screen may be damaging our ability to deeply process the written word, she cites research in which fifty adults were given the same short story, with half reading it in a paperback and the other half on a Kindle e-reader.
“The Kindle readers performed significantly worse when asked to place fourteen events that happened in the story in the correct order…Basically, we are losing our ability to slow-read by giving up the practice of it,” writes Zomorodi.
Although we believe the thousands of photos we upload to Instagram will help us remember our lives better, it turns out that taking photos actually ensures we remember less of our experiences.
“Cameras, as amazing as they are, can’t compare to what the brain is capable of with input from the eyes and the ears. Cameras are a lesser version of the human information processing system,” says psychologist Linda Henkel.
One strength of Bored and Brilliant is that it doesn’t just bemoan the problem and the changing world, but also provides seven challenges to help readers become a conscious user of technology, rather than an automaton swiper and tapper.
Zomorodi suggests reading the entire book first — which is no hardship, since her writing voice is as friendly, down-to-earth, and accessible as her podcast voice — before trying the challenges.
She doesn’t ask for miracles, but Zomorodi hopes readers will try each challenge for one day. For one day, track your usage. For one day, keep your phone out of sight whenever you are in transit. For one day, don’t take any photos. For one day, don’t use the app that has an insidious way of sucking you in for longer than you intended.
The idea is less about drastic change as it is about awareness; of how much of your precious life you are allowing to be monopolized by your technology; of what you are not producing during the time you are devoting to apps; and of what your mind is capable of when given the chance to wander at will.
In fact, when the podcast challenge ended Zomorodi was disappointed to find that collectively, participants shaved only six minutes off their phone use for the week of the challenge. But the voices of participants suggest that the result was more than the sum of its minutes.
“I feel like I’m awakening from an extended mental hibernation,” one said.
And, Zomorodi writes, “writers finally finished their manuscripts, entrepreneurs solved those knotty problems at work, teachers had more eye contact with students in class.”
Bored and Brilliant is the right information at the right time, presented in the right way. It’s important, easy to digest, and interactive. It should come packaged with every new smartphone purchase.
Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self
St. Martin’s Press
Hardcover, 208 pages