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June 30, 2010, noon

Not all free time is created equal: Battles on “Cognitive Surplus”

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He’s reading and reacting to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be running Matthew’s ongoing twin review; here’s part one. — Josh]

Putting The Shallows into dialogue with Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, the latter book seems like the one with an actual idea. However smartly dressed, Carr’s concern about the corrosiveness of media is really a reflex, one that’s been twitching ever since Socrates fretted over the dangers of the alphabet. Shirky’s idea — that modern life produces a surplus of time, which people have variously spent on gin, television, and now the Internet — is something to sink one’s teeth into. Here’s his formulation:

This book is about the novel resource that has appeared as the world’s cumulative free time is addressed in aggregate. The two most important transitions allowing us access to this resource have already happened — the buildup of well over a trillion hours of free time each year on the part of the world’s educated population, and the invention and spread of public media that enable ordinary citizens previously locked out, to pool that free time in pursuit of activities they like or care about.

I remember reading an early essay Shirky wrote about this idea and finding it enormously compelling. Perhaps that’s because like Shirky I grew up in the 1970s, whiling away many a half-hour in front of Gilligan’s Island reruns. If only I had been able to pursue activities I liked or cared about, rather than burn off my extra cognitive cycles by consuming mass-market drivel…

Only hang on — I did pursue such activities, as I recall. I played in the woodlot near my friend’s house, fished in an actual river, worked a paper route, watched ant colonies go to war in the backyard. I rode my bicycle to the library.

Child’s play, right? Cognitive Surplus is about a specific kind of free time: not the Hundred-Acre-Wood or the endless summer, but the stock of leisure hours produced by modernity, and the rise of technologies that make it possible to spend that time in engaging ways.

And yet the notion of free time itself should be suspicious to us, shouldn’t it? “Free time” is something born of an industrial economics of time, a commoditized temporality. Leisure is a boon granted by the system — a perk, a benny. Compensation. And as long as it helps us recharge our batteries and never keeps us from being productive, high-performance workers, free time isn’t free.

What if this enormous new resource — billions of hours of “free time” — might actually be a product of a machine that’s constantly reproducing and extending itself through us? Gin at least was a release from the shops and trades of early modern life; TV too provides counterpoint to the workday. But with the Internet, for creative-class types at least, we entertain ourselves with the very tools we spend our work time using.

This is a good time to name-check Herbert Marcuse. It’s also where Nick Carr’s understanding of intellectual and creative work begins to seem more attractive. Because for Carr such things are not leisure-time activities; they’re at the heart of the human enterprise.

I’m still excited by Shirky’s idea. But I want to bring Carr’s highbrow concern for the vital uses of cognition, contemplation, and communication to bear upon it. The technologies Shirky celebrates present us with a choice: do we use them as the means of liberation, or as Skinner boxes to while away the off-hours? As liberators they can be incredibly powerful; as producers of auto-stimulation, they’re highly efficient, and incredibly seductive.

This choice — between labor and work, between alienation and freedom — is an ancient one. And in facing it, technology is only a means, and never an end or answer.

POSTED     June 30, 2010, noon
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