“People today who still have time for boredom and yet are not bored are certainly just as boring as those who never get around to being bored,” pronounced the social critic Siegfried Kracauer in 1924, during our last great age of pre-fascist decadence. I wonder what he would make of the newest vogue in boredom-avoidance: the omnipresent fidget spinner, and its moral mission to free us from our inattentiveness.
I had been seeing the mysterious trifold blobs for months, arrayed for sale on folding tables in SoHo or in the windows of bodegas, never knowing what, exactly, they were. Then one of the students in the writing seminar I teach at Columbia was fiddling with one, flipping it gyroscopically on his finger, as the others filed in for class. They eyed it covetously. One mentioned that his girlfriend had given him a Fidget Cube, the six-in-one Cadillac of twiddly gadgets, for their anniversary. Incredulous, I asked if they really needed these devices to occupy their loose energy. Hadn’t they heard of biting their fingernails? Or, at the very least, smoking?
But my warning came too late: fidget toys had already colonized American life, from the elementary classroom to the Silicon Valley open-form office. In late May, all 20 of the best-selling toys on Amazon were “time-killing” or “stress-relieving” fidget widgets.[i] Demand is so great that one distributor has resorted to air-lifting them in from China.[ii] They’ve already been banned in schools across the country.[iii] And the makers of the Fidget Cube raised over $6.4 million on Kickstarter to bring their project to the anxious masses.[iv]
Of course, people have always twisted paperclips or doodled in margins or bounced the silver balls of those executive ball-bouncing things. The new fidget gurus, however, package their wares in unprecedented ethical claims about health and productivity. The Fidget Cube Kickstarter observes that fidgeting has been “stigmatized and mocked as unbecoming or inappropriate,” but that we should instead see it as “a process that, with the right tools and outlet, can have positive and real-life applications.”[v]
They cite recent studies suggesting that fidgeting can help children with ADHD or autism focus on problem-solving tasks and maintain composure in the classroom. (In response to the aforementioned classroom bans on fidget toys, parents of ADHD students have equipped their children with notes from doctors and neurologists to demonstrating the medical necessity of twirling.) Other fidget proponents suggest that encouraging workers to fidget might help combat the 120,000 yearly deaths linked to stress.[vi]
Fidgeting, then, could help students learn more effectively, boost workers’ productivity, and even save lives. What rattles me about this claim is not its hugely inflated sense of smug self-importance. It’s that it could well be correct – and that fidget spinners might bring an end to boredom as we know it.
I mean, take a look at that study demonstrating the utility of fidgeting in solving mental tasks: the students were asked to memorize series of numbers and letters and arrange them in numeric or alphabetical order.[vii] Such a pointless pursuit requires a zero degree of mental effort. So isn’t a fidgety boredom precisely the legitimate response to such a demand? The squirming body of the frustrated child, I think, registers a silent human protest against the inhumanity of the stupefying chore.
The Victorians were first to raise the self-discipline necessary to do repetitive, uncreative tasks without fidgeting to the level of a moral good, seeing control of attention as part of an overall self-control of the will. Only then did fidgeting become a mark of poor character. Perhaps not coincidentally, this ethical rebranding of inattention-reduction came exactly when the rise in industrialized and mechanized labor was making work more repetitive, uncreative, and – in a word – boring.
Fidgeting may indeed make workers and students more efficient, but only if their work and learning requires only attentiveness in place of creative thought. Cleaning up code and mining data sets, responding formulaically to formulaic emails, memorizing lists of science-textbook information: these tasks, since they demand us to abandon originality in favor of robotic accuracy, are most easily imperiled by any distractedness in the worker. And by reducing the stress we (understandably) feel when we’re reduced to performing such mechanical tasks, fidget toys can help us stay happier and healthier for longer. I’d say it’s a win-win for the managerial class, but they’re probably busy fidgeting away their despair and frustration as well.
In my time as a student and scholar, many of my best ideas came from being bored in a lecture or seminar, when I’d be forced to amuse myself by coming up with novel interpretations of a text or by re-reading the pages the instructor wasn’t droning on about. The sociologist Max Weber observed that the best ideas come to us “when smoking a cigar on the sofa” after we’ve bored ourselves to tears “brooding and searching at our desks”; it seems like a sorry comment on the bureaucratization and standardization of university learning that my students would, in pursuit of a false idol of “efficient learning,” willingly deprive themselves of the opportunity to daydream and discover.
The very form of the fidget spinner, which twirls endlessly on its ball-bearing core, looks like a metaphor for this nightmare world of pure efficiency, in which all potential friction – all potential resistance – has been minimized. In a world where technologized entertainments (Netflix streaming, 24/7 Twittering, subway Candy-Crushing, FitBit step-counting) have fully colonized our free time, our on-the-clock fidgets might be our last remaining form of unconscious protest against the dullness of our efficient, mechanical lives. And once the fidget spinner pinwheels away our final quiver of bored resistance, well, how boring will we all be then?