Oh look, a cat video!

JK. Shame on you if that got your attention though. This is not about the 10 cutest cats of the internet, how to tell if your boss is a leader or just a manager, 15 dogs dressed as babies, how to get buff for summer in 12 easy steps, or that time when Barack Obama’s face-swap with Kim Kardashian broke the internet and was the best thing ever.

Even if one pet food company’s assertion that cats feature in 15% of internet content is pure urban legend, isn’t it a little uncomfortable to think how much of our spare time is taken up sifting through rubbish like the above?

What we do with our leisure time seems to fall under two headings: diversion and culture. In the past, high culture was associated with the aristocrats who alone had the leisure to practice it and the money to patronize it; later on, diversion came to be associated with industrialised societies whose tired workers needed respite from the cotton mills.

Diversion and instant gratification

Videos of cats, dogs, babies, celebrity face-swaps, and the ad-infested slideshows behind such titles as ‘This woman discovered her husband was cheating – with her granny! What happened next will blow your mind’ pop up and grab our attention instantly. They are a diversion, or a distraction, because they take us away from our other pursuits (distraction ← Latin distrahere, draw away; diversion ← Latin devertere, turn away from), and since the video of the 12 cats that think they’re turtles is only 7 seconds long, this doesn’t feel like a particular problem.

Our propensity to jump up at the slightest diversion is characterised by Tim Urban as the instant gratification monkey, who, while you’re trying to write your university thesis, tells you, ‘Actually, let’s read the entire Wikipedia page of the Nancy Kerrigan Tonya Harding scandal because I just remembered that that happened’ and ‘Next, we’re gonna go on a YouTube spiral that starts with videos of Richard Feynman talking about magnets and ends much much later with us watching interviews with Justin Bieber’s mum’.

Procrastination, by indulging whatever opportunities for diversion come our way, is a familiar scenario when a difficult task is at hand, although it’s obviously unhelpful; we should be careful about how much we indulge the monkey, as I’ve written before. However, diversion can also come in useful as a leisure occupation that faintly and briefly amuses the mind rather than taxes it – perfect for the stressed worker come 6pm.

For we are still incredibly wearied by our nine-to-fives, despite our progress from feudal near-slavery through industrial revolution child labour to unions and working hours directives. We haven’t quite got it down to the 15-hour week that John Maynard Keynes predicted we’d be working by 2030 (although we live in hope), as quoted by Rutger Bregman. As a result, we are tired and stressed, and our headspace is already too full of deadlines, performance appraisals and the difficulties of navigating the high seas of office politics for us to want to engage with anything more time-consuming or effort-requiring than the Daily Mail’s ‘sidebar of shame’. It is for this reason that we ‘demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid’, according to Bertrand Russell. Bregman’s call for a reduction in working hours also aims at reducing social inequalities by redistributing the available hours of labour to, for example, the elderly and post-partum women who might not be able to or want to work the long and inflexible hours demanded by most employers. Everyone wins.

click bait.PNG
Non-clickable examples of passive and vapid amusement

YOURTIME Inc: +4% on the NASDAQ

Long, productive working hours would be all very well if we had unlimited time. Since we don’t, we’re engaged in a constant bartering of time for money, back and forth: working longer hours for more money to end up with less time to spend the money; working overtime into evenings and weekends for the triple pay; buying and selling annual leave from HR. The stock exchange where your personal time trades will take a huge spike the day you freak out over a lump in your boob, and will dip into recession the day you’re made redundant.

This is why ‘optimisation’ has become the word du jour, because wasted time is wasted money, and we’d all rather be at home watching Eastenders than not delivering solutions because our team uses inefficient brainstorming methods. Even our thoughts must be streamlined now:

To which I indignantly replied that I would not be optimising my thoughts, because my mind is not for profit, thank you very much. No one retweeted me, but I know I’m not the only one who has resented the lunch hour hunched at my desk as time stolen from the book in my handbag.

So, since our leisure hours are so precious, we simply cannot afford to spend them watching cat videos and not, for example, thinking about #Brexit or going to life drawing or hashing out conflict with a friend on the phone. If we didn’t do these things, civilisation would quickly die. And yet web companies are also trying to monetise this limited time of ours, by diverting our attention from these needed pursuits onto their ad-ridden pages. Web companies thrive on ad revenue, which means they need eyeballs on pixels for as much time as possible, which means they need to get our attention; and the instant gratification monkey really isn’t intelligent enough not to respond to the promise of its mind being blown because of how Miley Cyrus responded to her h8ers on Twitter. As Jesse Weaver says, ‘time spent shopping, eating, talking, playing, or sleeping is time that you are not looking at ads’: that’s a lot of pies for the web companies to stick their dirty fingers into. Over in the developing world, there are hours and hours of unmonetised time simply slipping away as non-internet users grow older; why else is Facebook trying to ‘connect the world’ by providing internet services to these ‘disadvantaged’ populations?

Our free time consists of those few hours that we have not already sold to our employer; do not let the instant gratification monkey be wooed; do not pimp out those precious moments to another big company. Every click on a sponsored post is a nod back to the Facebook servers that your mind is to let.

Culture cultivates

In the optimum scenario, we will need less diversion because our jobs will be less stressful, and we can therefore look to the other arm of leisure pursuits to fill our time and our minds. Culture doesn’t have to be just the fine arts: sports, fishing, reading, stamp collecting, museum-hopping, and philosophy lectures all come under the umbrella of pastimes that require us to sow in order to reap.

Sam Neill wrote that ‘Culture […] is perhaps the result of a deep need in all of us to be distracted. Distracted from the things that make us fearful — once it was tigers and Neanderthals […] The telly is, of course, the fire we all huddle around these days’. I think he is talking about diversion rather than culture. Taking the time to practice hard and think deeply about something allows us to face and engage with our demons, rather than taking us away from them. A friend recently wrote, beautifully, that after stumbling upon a videoed ballet rehearsal, he came to see the practice of art as practice, shining a light on the problematic instinct to analyse and compare one’s life against the perfectionist standard of the finished product, rather than allowing oneself the iterated, rehearsed/repeated process of becoming oneself. This is just one example of what these efforts can give back to us.

Lana Jones in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty by The Australian Ballet – source

How do we, as a society, cultivate this form of leisure? The Greek word for leisure was skole, the Latin scola, from which we get ‘school’, and I do think our schools could do more to expose us to opera, stately homes, philosophy, figure skating, critical thinking, and the mysteries of the universe. I do not think the trend towards teaching to the exam and funneling us towards someone else’s definition of a career is beneficial; we should reclaim the etymological meaning of ‘school’ as the place we learn how to live.

I came across the ancient etymology of school in a 1950s article by Willard C. Sutherland, who also suggested that ‘The community must discover criteria for determining ways of employing leisure’, which means we need ‘creative elites, small groups of connoisseurs who create and mold taste’. Nowadays this view appears old-fashioned and elitist, but it doesn’t have to mean that only aristocrats can be artists, as previously. A concerted effort to form culture, perhaps on the part of a group of people we democratically delegate to be exempt from the necessity of work, might ensure that we are left with something more than cat videos with which to employ our spare time.

Lurk-Wife Balance

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that ‘we work/are busy that we may have leisure’. This formulation puts work and leisure in contrast, makes one dependent on the other. However, looking at the Greek, ἀσχολούμεθα γὰρ ἵνα σχολάζωμεν (transliterated: ‘ascholoumetha gar hina scholaszômen’), we can see that the word for business and the word for leisure have the same root; work is defined as ‘not leisure’ (the ‘a’ prefix is like the English ‘dis-‘ or ‘im-‘). The Latin otium and negotium follow the same pattern, with ‘neg-’ as the negative prefix. So ‘we unleisure ourselves that we might have leisure’; there is a neat circularity about it that casts the two activities as two sides of the same coin. But perhaps this yin and yang view, which considers them as two opposed faces of life bound never to look each other in the eye (hence ‘keeping your work and personal lives separate’), might be unhelpful.

Are not the people we most envy those who make negotium out of their otium on their own terms, those who collapse the dichotomy of work vs leisure that makes us the prey of distraction and that induces either the fraught bartering of time for money or the passive acceptance of wage slavery; those who pursue their art, their cultural and intellectual interests for a living: the young adult fantasy novelists; the video game reviewers; the Hawaiian island caretakers; the actors; the opera singers?

This article reminded me that the Prousts of our day will retire with greater cause than ever to wonder where their lost time has gone; but instead of outputting 7 volumes of inner life, meticulously remembered or reimagined, all they will be able to muster is a series of blithe poo emojis that represent both the content of what’s been fed to them and its expressive form:

apple poo
I’m faeces and I know it

I’ve written before about how the government sees people as units of productivity; where formerly we were the ‘subjects’ of the monarchy, we are now ‘taxpayers’ under the state: our relationship to our rulers is financial, no longer communitarian. The big corporations, and not just the web giants, see our precious free moments the same way: as opportunities for ad revenue to be snatched from us using click-bait – a bit like the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, promising sweets and delivering a cage. Thorstein Veblen famously described leisure as ‘non-productive use of time’. For goodness’ sake, let it stay that way.


Acknowledgements: @conalgrealis for the Ancient Greek help!

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