Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren begin their new book, The Secret World of Doing Nothing, with a chapter on what they call the “microdrama” of waiting. This waiting takes place in doctors’ offices and mechanics’ shops. We wait in lines, at red lights, at the airport. We check our watches. We exhale theatrically. It can be quite a show.
The choreography of waiting is rich. Depending on personality and circumstances, people stand or sit still, balance on their feet, lean against walls or pillars, squat, lie down, or walk to and fro; some people whistle, hum, sleep, or close their eyes. They wait alone or in a group, in an orderly line or randomly dispersed, with their arms folded or hanging loosely, hands in pockets or in their laps. For an ethnographer there is, in fact, much to observe. The dominant impression of passivity is contradicted by all the small movements and diversions.
This was true, maybe, a decade ago. But hasn’t the smartphone, the iPod, and now the iPad changed waiting, at least among those wealthy enough to afford such gadgets? Now people check their e-mail, watch videos, text incessantly, read the news, and do a million other things on the magical devices they carry around. The authors mention technology, briefly, only to dismiss those activities as “mundane.” Maybe so, but that’s how most of us fill our time, whether we’re officially waiting or not.
Perhaps we should be talking about the death of waiting instead, about how future generations won’t have to develop a Zen-like method of coping with a trip to the post office (assuming the Postal Service is still around). It’s already starting to happen: Just notice how helpless people on airplanes look when they’re asked to switch off their devices during takeoff and landing. It’s like being asked to shut down your brain.
Incidentally, if you want to read more on the topic, check out Harold Schweizer’s 2008 book, On Waiting. If you order on Amazon, you can choose one-day shipping, or, if you’re an impatient Kindle owner, you can download it instantly.