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People look at their smartphones and tablets at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City in September 2013.
People look at their smartphones and tablets at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City in September 2013.
Jose Antonio Maciel/Moment Editorial/Getty Images

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Bored and lonely? Blame your phone.

Our emotions today are radically different from what 19th-century Americans felt. That’s partly due to technology.

Most people assume social media is making us more narcissistic, more compulsive, and lonelier. But is that really true?

A new book titled Bored Lonely Angry Stupid tries to answer this question by looking at the past. The authors examined diaries, letters, and memoirs of a broad cross-section of Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries, trying to capture their inner lives as closely as possible. Then they conducted interviews with modern-day Americans in order to understand how their emotions are being transformed by technological change.

The idea was to see how our views of boredom, loneliness, selfhood, and community have evolved over time, and how technologies have sparked those evolutions. And what they found was striking: We don’t merely develop new devices for expressing our emotions — our devices actually alter what emotions we express.

I reached out to one of the book’s authors, Susan J. Matt, to find out more. Matt is a cultural historian at Weber State University.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

I want to start by asking about the people who make up the basis for your research — both the people you interviewed today and the people from the 18th and 19th centuries whose memoirs and diaries and letters you looked at. Are we talking about a broad cross-section of people? Is this representative of the broader population? Or was it a narrower demographic that you looked at?

Susan J. Matt

Certainly for the 19th and 20th century, we cast as wide a net as we could get. And, of course, who leaves diaries and memoirs is somewhat contingent upon their social class and their literacy.

But we were able, for example, to get enslaved people’s memoirs about being lonely, among the many other problems they faced in slavery. We were able to get factory workers’ experiences of boredom, and gold miners’ experiences of the first telegram they received.

Our oral histories of the experiences of 21st-century Americans probably skew middle class and white, but 20 percent of our interviewees were African American, Asian American, or Latina. And we tried to include as many different walks of life as we could, from ages 18 to 87, so we have truckers and we have poets and nurses aides and retired people.

We can’t say everybody in America is experiencing what we describe, but it seems like a very big, mainstream emotional style that we’re watching emerge.

Sean Illing

Okay, so let’s go back to the past. What did it mean to be bored or lonely in the 18th or 19th century?

Susan J. Matt

Very different things. The word “boredom” didn’t even exist until the mid-19th century. When people experienced empty moments, they described them as dull or monotonous or tedious. Boredom wasn’t a category of experience yet.

People expected feelings of empty time and accepted them as part and parcel of being human. It doesn’t mean they enjoyed dull moments by any stretch of the imagination, but they weren’t surprised by empty times. And in fact many thought that’s how God had laid out the world.

Just as 19th-century Americans accepted monotony as inevitable, they also accepted loneliness — or as they called it, “lonesomeness” — as part of the order of things; they thought it was unpleasant but not unexpected and that everybody was going to experience aloneness in their lives.

Sean Illing

And how do you distinguish boredom from loneliness?

Susan J. Matt

I think today we generally call being alone “loneliness.” Often in the 19th century, people talked about it in terms of solitude, and it was generally seen in a more positive, redemptive light. Just having that different language gave the experience of being alone a different meaning and value.

The study of the history of emotions suggests that although we may use the same words for feelings across centuries, in different eras these words are embedded in different cultures and end up having very different connotations.

As a result, the words mean something different and the feeling itself may be different too. Not only because of language, but language surely affects how we think about how we feel.

Sean Illing

So for most of human history, loneliness or boredom were just accepted features of the human condition. But now we never have to be alone; we can always plug in and distract ourselves from what’s right in front of us. That seems like a monumental shift in consciousness.

Susan J. Matt

It is. The rise of the smartphone certainly has meant constant companionship — or at least the promise of constant companionship. We don’t always find it. But the phone’s always there, beckoning us with the promise of fulfillment and excitement. It promises instantaneous entertainment and variety.

But it’s not the first technology that people turned to in order to relieve boredom and loneliness.

Sean Illing

Can you give me an example?

Susan J. Matt

Sure: the radio. We found many people in the 1920s and 1930s thinking the radio was transforming their lives and times, often voicing the sentiment, “Thanks to the radio, I don’t have to sit in solitude in my house.” We found evidence of that in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.

The smartphone has amplified that experience because it’s not just listening in to whatever the local station offers; now with online media there’s choice, and of course, smartphones offer visual entertainment as well as instant two-way conversation.

So the smartphone represents a pretty dramatic shift in our expectations of companionship and entertainment — and a shift in how we respond to feelings like boredom and loneliness. Because of the promises of the digital age, when we experience those feelings, we’re more surprised and alarmed than our ancestors were.

Sean Illing

What do we lose by losing our ability to be alone without being lonely?

Susan J. Matt

I think there are lots of things that people are giving up when they lose the ability to be alone. Unfilled moments, moments where you don’t have entertainment, or moments where you don’t have companionship, may actually spawn creativity. Certainly a lot of 19th-century romantics thought that.

Being still with yourself can give access to all sorts of ideas and musings that wouldn’t otherwise occur. So perhaps in our quest to end boredom our creativity is being stunted, and we’re actually becoming more boring.

In some ways our dependence on the phone also makes us less independent. Americans always celebrate self-reliance as a value, but it’s very clear we don’t — even for a moment — want to be by ourselves or on our own any longer. I have mixed feelings about the whole mythology of self-reliance. But certainly, while the myth that we’re self-reliant lives on, our ability to be alone seems to be going by the wayside.

And 21st-century Americans are developing all these expectations of having a kind of limitless, completely fulfilling, sociable life at all times, which make us really unequipped to deal with the moments that aren’t like that.

Sean Illing

Is social media making the people who use it angrier and more narcissistic?

Susan J. Matt

We certainly found that, among the people we interviewed today, they talked about how they felt new and growing pressure to express, celebrate, and brand themselves.

People talked about consciously trying to edit their images to present a perfect self; they realized others were doing so, too. The net effect is that Americans who spend time online definitely have a sense they should be out in the internet public square, happily showing themselves off. This has given people a bigger sense of their self and that self’s importance.

We also saw people who talked about how they thought there was a connection between narcissism and anger; that people felt eager to get attention on the internet, and that having really strong and sometimes aggressive opinions on social media was one way to bring more business, more traffic to your tweet or to your update.

So this larger sense of self, and the increasing pressure to promote it in the online world, seems to be increasing both self-celebration and anger.

One person we interviewed, a nanny from Florida, told us she thought there was a connection between the two feelings. People got so used to getting endless affirmations from friends and relatives on Facebook or Instagram that when they didn’t get that, they didn’t know how to handle it, which as a result heightened their anger.

Sean Illing

It seems like we’ve created a psychological crutch for ourselves, and now we can’t walk without it.

Susan J. Matt

I mean, we’re all hungry for attention in a disturbing way, right? And then we’re very disappointed when we don’t get it. And our new hopes for unlimited affirmation may fuel our anger when we don’t actually receive that affirmation.

Of course, that’s not the only reason people get angry on the internet. I don’t want to minimize some of the socially momentous and just causes people are pursuing online, where anger is a very legitimate tool for social change.

Sean Illing

How is this pressure to perform, to brand ourselves, changing our personalities, apart from simply making us more narcissistic?

Susan J. Matt

One thing we found interesting was how 18th- and 19th-century Americans viewed the self. From childhood, people were constantly warned against self-celebration and self-promotion and told to always remember they were mortal, frail, and flawed. Keeping this idea of human frailty in mind was all part of avoiding the sin of vanity; those teachings were designed to make people aware of their human limits.

Over the course of the 19th century and 20th centuries, these older senses of vanity, of the vain futility of life, fell away. And as a result, what we see today is that when people post on social media, there’s no sense of their own limitations as humans. There’s often little modesty, or little fear that one could be going too far in self-promotion. So certainly 19th-century moralists would have been puzzled by our self-disclosing and self-promoting behaviors.

Sean Illing

In the book, you say that the “new American self” is torn between individualism and community, between selfishness and sociability. Can you explain what you mean?

Susan J. Matt

Narcissism is a great example. On the one hand, the old myth of Narcissus was about someone who stared at himself and wasted away as he gazed lovingly into his reflection in a pool. Today, Americans are often accused of that behavior, but there’s an important difference.

While constantly uploading selfies could be understood as selfish, deep down what’s often motivating it is a longing for affirmation from one’s community. What you’re looking for when you post all this stuff is for your friends and family to like you. Right? And that’s a very sociable and communitarian instinct.

And lots of bloggers we interviewed said the same thing. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter, where we’re looking for the “Likes” or the thumbs-ups or the hearts. Bloggers told us they wanted to express themselves, but it only meant something to them if other people liked it.

So the tension between individualism and communitarianism is a longstanding one in American life. And it’s playing out anew in social media, as people try to get their individual voices out there while seeking the affirmation and approval of others.

Sean Illing

It’s an interesting point about the digital communities we form, but at the same time this is the most vacuous, unfulfilling community imaginable. It’s online, it’s distant, and it’s based on mutual self-gratification. Human beings need more than this, don’t we?

Susan J. Matt

Absolutely. And that was something that was very apparent when we were studying anger. In the book, we describe 19th-century “indignation meetings,” which were remarkably widespread.

They were occasions where people would come face-to-face and gather in the town square, building a sense of community around a shared cause or grievance. One historian estimates there was one indignation meeting every five days in 19th-century America.

In contrast, today we see much more isolated expressions of anger, and a lot of times people are just looking for the “Likes” for their position. That doesn’t build the strong bonds of past social movements. That’s something Zeynep Tufekci raised in her 2017 book Twitter and Tear Gas: that the bonds in these online social movements aren’t as durable, and that this limits their success and staying power.

Sean Illing

How do you know that it’s technology that’s changing our attitudes and not some other force or aspect of culture?

Susan J. Matt

We certainly don’t want to say it’s all due to technology. But there are some devices — whether it’s the 19th-century camera, the telephone, the radio, or the smartphone — that have reshaped Americans’ inner lives. These devices don’t do it alone, though.

Changing religious theologies are reinforcing these patterns. Changes in our capitalist economy are undergirding them, and these devices are both products of that culture and shapers of that culture. So it’s very much a reciprocal process; technology is a driver, but it’s not the only driver.

Sean Illing

If you’re right, then it seems like technology possesses us, not the other way around.

Susan J. Matt

Well, that’s one of those classic questions: Are we masters of our tools, or are our tools masters of us?

One thing we all could be more conscious of is the understanding that both emotions and technologies are historical artifacts, that they’re shaped by humans. That realization makes it clear that we do actually have the power to collectively change them.

And as my co-author Luke Fernandez often says, technological design is a kind of legislation. Some want to regulate technology in order to control its cultural, social, and political effects, but we should also talk about redesigning technology to bring a different kind of emotional culture into being.

Sean Illing

Do you worry that we’re attributing too much power to our machines — that our inner lives haven’t really changed much and that we just have more tools to express ourselves today?

Susan J. Matt

I really do believe emotions change over time, not just because of technology but as a result of a whole set of cultural and economic changes. Yes, we have more tools with which to express ourselves, but we have new feelings to express that are distinctive to our time and place. Emotions don’t just hold steady and get expressed through new devices. Devices transform them — teach us new habits, nurture new expectations, and model new behaviors, too.

Sean Illing

What’s the upshot of a book like this? What do you want the reader to walk away with?

Susan J. Matt

We wanted readers to understand that so many of our concerns about Facebook making us lonely or Google making us stupid or selfies making us narcissistic were questions that need a longer historical perspective. And that they couldn’t be answered just by measuring loneliness in the 1980s and measuring it today.

We want people to understand that these are questions about our fundamental psychologies changing over time. The big pattern we see as we trace the intertwined histories of emotional and technological change over the last two centuries is the rising American hope for a limitless self.

Whereas 19th-century Americans perceived limits on how many people they could know, how much they should self-promote, how much excitement they should expect, 21st-century Americans are coming to expect that endless affirmation, unfettered anger, infinite cognitive power, unending entertainment, and constant companionship are our due as humans. Our technology is giving us these hopes, although they’re not always realized.

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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