Friday, December 18, 2009

Leisure Paper Finished

So, FLG has finally finished it.  This taught him that he is far better at writing short blog posts with profanity than a long academic piece.  The final product is a decent summary of FLG's scatter-shot thoughts on the topic, but he is less happy with the form the argument takes.  He feels like he simply repeats himself and the argument is nowhere as tight as he'd like.  He goes off on tangents that probably don't belong in an academic paper.  He also relies too much on quotation and doesn't offer enough of his own analysis.  Furthermore, his prose is, well, shaky.  Its success as a political theory paper?  FLG has no idea.  Probably mediocre.  He thinks it would make a good jumping off point for somebody who is smarter than him to write a quality paper on the topic.  Lucky for FLG, he is not a political theorist, nor an academic.

Anyway, a few people asked FLG to send it to them.  He decided that he'd just post it here.  If you don't want to read it, then don't read it. No skin off FLG's back.  In fact, he wouldn't read it if he were you.  Also, please don't point out any typos or grammatical errors to FLG. He doesn't want to hear them. He is, however, willing to hear complaints about the content.

How Technology Killed Liesure

Science and technology have provided numerous conveniences that save time, but the purpose for which that time is saved is unclear.   This paper examines the relationship between science & technology and leisure.   Once clearly delineated by the ancients, the distinctions between free time and leisure have blurred over time.   The philosophical underpinnings of science and the practical application of technology have both contributed to this distortion of leisure.  The changing understanding, one might call it a misunderstanding, of how one ought to spend free time has had vast cultural, social, economic, and political consequences.  Science and technology offer emancipation from the perils and burdens of the material world, but come with psychic and mental costs that are deleterious to leisure, and have profound implications for politics.
Ancient Leisure
Josef Pieper, in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, argues that leisure is one of the very foundations of Western culture.  It is, at the very least, an ancient concern in the Western tradition.  Discussions of leisure date back to Aristotle. 
It is probably best to begin an explanation of Aristotle’s conception of leisure (skhole) with what it is not.  First, leisure is not occupation, work, or labor.  Second, it is not play or amusement, which Aristotle argues is “for the sake of rest,” and if leisure were play, then it “would necessarily be the end of life for us.” 
Pieper makes three comparisons involving leisure and work.  First, he argues,  in contrast to work as activity, leisure is a form of calm that is required to apprehend the world in the same way that silence is required to hear sound.  Leisure contains“recognition of the mysteriousness of the universe and the recognition of our incapacity to understand it, that comes with deep confidence, so that we are content to let things take their course.”  Second, in contrast to work as toil, leisure is a form of celebration.  “Leisure is only possible, to recall what has already been said, to a man at one with himself, but who is also at one with the world.”  Third, in contrast to work as social function, leisure is the “power of stepping beyond the workaday world.”
A concise definition of leisure is a bit more difficult, but we will proceed under this one: Leisure is time spent engaged in serious reflection, appreciation, participation, or contemplation when free from necessity.  For Aristotle, it was the key to human happiness and a meaningful life. 
The root of Aristotle’s distinction between leisure and work is freedom.  Activity done for wages or under the yoke of slavery is unfree; whereas leisure, by definition, is undertaken freely.    In The Human Condition, Hannah Ardent illuminates an important consequence of this almost tautological definition that leisure is the opposite of necessity, and its consequence labor.  The abhorrence of labor and work by the ancients was not because slaves engaged in these activities, but the reverse.  The desire for leisure led to slavery.
Aristotle writes that slavery is “advantageous for the part and the whole and for body and soul, and the slave is a sort of part of the master – a part of his body, as it were, animate yet separate.”   The master has a better opportunity to flourish because of the leisure provided by transferring necessity onto the slave.   This transference creates a life of perfect physical necessity for the slave, and thereby dehumanizes the slave.  Ancient leisure had a steep cost.
It was a cost that Aristotle accepted because leisure was invaluable to human flourishing.   Indeed, leisure was not only the end of politics but of life.  Practical wisdom provided time for leisure.  Leisure provided life with meaning and happiness.  Therefore, the purpose of education was to prepare for leisure.  The liberal arts were enshrined over the useful arts.  Needless to say, this is vastly different from the modern conception of leisure.
Modern Leisure
Moderns recognize a labor-leisure dichotomy that makes no distinction between leisure, play, idleness, or even rest.   Anything that is not work is leisure.  The word leisure is commonly used as a synonym for mere free time.  Watching television, playing video games, and even sleeping are included under the rubric of leisure.   This is a much broader conception than the ancients recognized.  Describing time spent playing Xbox as leisure would likely have rendered Aristotle apoplectic.
Perhaps the most extreme example of the change in the understanding of leisure is the way in which the discipline of economics imposes a binary labor-versus-leisure choice when creating hypothetical consumers.   According to a 2006 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, “leisure is almost universally defined as time spent away from market work.”  The study attempts to move beyond this simple dichotomy because the authors understand that not all time spent away from market work is leisure.  Unfortunately, none of the proposed definitions adhere to an Aristotelian conception.  Nevertheless, Leisure Measure 1, the narrowest definition, which “includes time spent on social, entertainment, and recreational activities,” best represents free time with the potential for leisure.  The authors of the study found that this free time increased an average of 4.62 hours per week per individual between 1965 and 2003.
 The increase in free time is rather unsurprising.  Technological advances have removed the need for much drudgery and toil. The dishwasher, for example, permits its owner to engage in other activities during the time that would otherwise be spent washing dishes.  These innovations create free time.  It would be reasonable to assume that this free time would be used for leisure and that the lives of individuals with access to the latest technology would themselves be leisurely, but that assumption is incorrect.  Furthermore, while the less educated have seen large increases in free time over the last four decades, the highest educated and highest paid segments of the population, whom Aristotle would have us believe are best able to make use of leisure, have seen a decrease in theirs.  The answer to this seeming paradox lies, at least in part, within the origins and development of the scientific project itself.
The Scientific Project
Sir Francis Bacon was the first person to formally codify the scientific method and to give that method a purpose.  His goal is commonly understood as “the relief of man’s estate”, but it is worthwhile to look at the lines leading up to that famous quotation from The Advancement of Learning, Book I, v, 11:

But the greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge. For men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a terrace for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.

Bacon was not simply arguing that scientific project ought to conquer Nature to make man’s life easier and longer, but perhaps even more profoundly that men wrongly desire knowledge for private, solipsistic, and selfish purposes.  In response, he wanted to combine leisure and action into a new, hybrid form that would benefit mankind.   Bacon had little use for Aristotle’s leisure because, in his view, it benefited only a select few and even those few largely received uniquely individual benefits of personal happiness and fulfillment.  Bacon endeavored to spread the fruits of knowledge to all mankind.  This meant that knowledge ought to have a practical purpose.  Knowledge ought not be for knowledge’s sake, but to ameliorate the material conditions of man.   Knowledge was not to be a “courtesan” or “bond-woman,” but a “spouse” who offered “generation, fruit, and comfort.”

    David F. Noble argues, in The Religion of Technology, that what is meant by the relief of man’s estate is the transformation of man into a new Adam and the world a new Eden – redemption for the fall through mastery of the material world.  There is copious evidence for Noble’s assertion in Bacon’s writings, which draw explicitly upon biblical allusions and religious language. From book I, vi, 6, of The Advancement of Learning:    

After the creation was finished, it is set down unto us that man was placed in the garden to work therein; which work, so appointed to him, could be no other than work of contemplation; that is, when the end of work is but for exercise and experiment, not for necessity; for there being then no reluctation of the creature, nor sweat of the brow, man’s employment must of consequence have been matter of delight in the experiment, and not matter of labour for the use.

            This not only supports the theory that the goal of science is a return to Eden, but also demonstrates how Bacon turns the Aristotelian conception of labor, work, leisure, and contemplation on its head.  Contemplation undertaken free from the burdens of necessity for delight was by definition leisure, not work.   Bacon needed, however, to redefine these words because the scientific method introduced necessity and work into the world of contemplation.
            No longer could a philosopher leisurely contemplate the world and come to conclusions through the power of observation, reason, and logic.  The scientific method demanded that the search for knowledge include rigorous empirical verification, which itself required the gathering of data, experiments, and testing.  These impositions upon the philosopher created work and rendered contemplation unleisurely.  As a result, Aristotle’s conception of leisure was fundamentally irreconcilable with Bacon’s scientific method.  
Bacon’s utopia, which he describes in The New Atlantis, depicts the inhabitants of a small, isolated island who gather knowledge and technology from around the world and conduct experiments to improve upon them.  He explains in marvelous and reveling detail the plethora of gadgets and inventions the islanders possess, but at no point is anything like contemplation depicted.  The ideal for Bacon was not ancient Athens, where philosophers pondered the world, but one in which people busily and tirelessly gather knowledge and then tinker, experiment, and manipulate this knowledge into new contrivances and insights.
This transformation of leisure existed at the inception of the Baconian project, and only spread as the power of science and its offspring technology grew.  Bacon himself noted three technologies that changed the world, the compass, gunpowder, and the most relevant to leisure – printing.  As this makes clear, the advent of printing preceded Bacon, but it was the type of technology that he hoped science would develop and expand and so merits our consideration.  Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the Baconian project, with its goal of using knowledge to benefit all of mankind, without the existence of printing.  Bacon saw the potential that printing offered for the creation and propagation of knowledge, but it also had an impact on contemplation.  Consequently, printing also had an impact on leisure. 
             Printing affected contemplation quickly and deeply.  Before printing, one often had to choose between contemplating one text and becoming a wandering scholar with the inconvenience, cost, and risk that entailed.   Printing changed the dynamic.  Scholars soon had access to more texts than a wandering scholar a generation or two earlier could have accessed in a lifetime of travel.  This, in turn, shifted scholarship from deep and thorough contemplation of and comment on one text to “wide-angled, unfocused scholarship.”  Contrary to expectation, printing did not usher in a torrent of new theories, but led to wider dissemination and increasing examination of older theories. This may be what prompted Bacon to write in The Great Instauration, “Philosophy and the intellectual sciences, on the contrary, stand like statutes, worshiped and celebrated, but not moved or advanced.” 
Printing broke down the barriers of time and location to acquiring and sharing existing knowledge.  Knowledge could reach more people across greater distances through printing than was possible with illuminated manuscripts or oral speeches.  Postman writes, “In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press.  We had a different Europe.” In the intervening centuries, science and technology have created ever more powerful communication technologies. 
Communication Technology and Leisure
Developments in transportation expanded the reach and speed of printed materials and hand-written letters.  Eventually, the telegraph radically lowered the barriers to communication.   Television and radio ushered in an era of mass communication.  Contemporary developments utilize the Internet to make ever increasing amounts of human knowledge available instantaneously to the entire globe.   It would seem that Bacon’s dream of using our knowledge to dominate Nature to improve our lot has been successful, but it is not quite so simple. These technologies shape the message and by consequence the transmission of knowledge in subtle, yet profound ways.  
The format and means of printed books lend themselves to the careful crafting of a thoughtful message.  At the very least, the author and printer want to be sure that the text is free from as many mistakes as possible before printing numerous copies of an incorrect or error-filled book.  Certainly many types of books exist, some of which it may seem odd to consider thoughtful, but any medium that creates numerous, permanent copies of a text that are almost impossible to correct once complete encourages diligence.   It is therefore unsurprising that a society dominated by a communication technology that encourages caution would not develop a new technology that altered the “form, volume, or speed of information” for over two centuries.
The invention of the telegraph changed this. It removed the link between transportation and information, and consequently the link between distance and information.  News from anywhere in the globe was available without delay.  Again, however, the medium influenced the message.  The telegraph emphasized speed and small messages.  Information was boiled down to facts devoid of context.  Relaying information quickly became more important than analyzing it.   The telegraph commoditized information into something that “could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.” Perhaps nothing exemplifies the struggle between thoughtful contemplation and the telegraph as clearly as George Kennan’s “Long Telegram.”  It articulates arguably the most important foreign policy idea of the second half of the 20th century, but in many places possesses all the characteristics of a whale shoved into a sardine can.
Contemporary technology only reinforces what began with the telegraph.  The Internet and other modern communication networks transmit messages instantaneously to anywhere on the planet, but the content of those messages is becoming shorter.  For example, one of the more popular and recently developed communication technologies, Twitter, limits its users to 140 character messages.  Text messages to mobile phones are similarly limited.  David Crystal, in txting: The Gr8 Db8, explains that text messages are usually only a single sentence with an average length of six words.  He writes in response to this fact that “the routine content of text messages must be pretty limited, concentrating on everyday and largely ephemeral notions of who, what, where, and when (rather than on more profound and long-lasting explorations of how and why).”  Andrew Sullivan wrote of blogging, another new communication technology, in the November 2008 issue of The Atlantic:
This form of instant and global self-publishing, made possible by technology widely available only for the past decade or so, allows for no retroactive editing (apart from fixing minor typos or small glitches) and removes from the act of writing any considered or lengthy review. It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought—impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism. It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory. The consequences of this for the act of writing are still sinking in.
Communication technology has become more powerful, but its increasing power is almost indirectly proportional to its conduciveness to contemplation.  Although blogs are not limited technologically to short length, unlike Twitter or text messages, both Crystal and Sullivan use words like ‘ephemeral’ and ‘impermanent’ to describe the content distributed via these new communication media.   The speed and volume of communication renders each individual message correspondingly less meaningful.  The communication provided by these technologies is therefore less conducive to contemplation and leisure than printed books.  Indeed, it is comical to think of a scholar putting down his books to retire in contemplation with his cell phone or Twitter account.
Postman articulates the fundamental problem technology presents:
Technology increases the available supply of information.  As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained.  Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information.  When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information.  When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs.   Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficult imagining reasonable futures.
Communication technology deluges individuals with information and data.  Each technological development increases the amount and speed of data and information, but also provides less context for how that data relates to human beings.    Moreover, the flood of information dehumanizes communication.  People interact more with a disembodied and seemingly never-ending queue of tasks represented by their email inbox, Blackberry, or voicemail, and with less of a sense that people are sending them those messages. 
An important factor in the lack of meaning included with information provided by technology is the cost, whether monetary value or time.   Manuscripts, inscribed and illuminated by hand, were expensive and time-consuming to create.  This expense dictated that only the most meaningful texts would be reproduced.   In contrast, an email or tweet costs only the time it takes to type it.  Moreover, since an email can be sent to any number of additional people without cost, this encourages senders to distribute their messages to anybody who may find it even the least bit relevant rather than a carefully selected few.  Thus, individuals face ever more information and the percentage of meaningful information decreases.  While electronic communication is useful, both aspects of the technologies themselves and the incentives surrounding them are problematic.
Even worse, the ubiquity of mobile communication devices makes retreating from this inundation extremely difficult.     If he were alive today, Thoreau’s cell phone would probably ring incessantly while he was secluded at Walden Pond.  Given society’s expectation of instantaneously global communication merely turning off a cell phone or disconnecting from the Internet is a virtual version of hermitage akin to Thoreau’s physical retreat from civilization.  It rejects not just the technology, but society itself.
Unable to retreat, people are constantly swimming against the current to keep from drowning in the rushing stream of information.  Consequently, people have less time to contemplate how the information is relevant to their lives, and it becomes increasingly difficult to see a future that is meaningful and not simply day after day of processing information. 
Information and Leisure
Modern technology provides access to amounts and types of information on a scale and with such speed that people living only a few decades ago would have been astonished and for people who lived centuries ago would likely have been unfathomable or only understood as magic.  Yet, we are having increasing difficulty applying this resource to human purposes.  Postman writes,  “Information has become a form of garbage, not only capable of answering the most fundamental questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems.” Therefore, it should be of little surprise that one of the fastest growing companies of the previous decade attempted to provide a solution to this problem.
The primary service that Google provides to its users is some form of organization to the colossal amount of data available on the Internet.   It does this through a complicated algorithm that analyzes the byzantine web of links between information and attempts to produce results that are relevant to human beings.  Its growth implies that it has been more successful in producing relevance than its competitors.  Yet, the story is not so simple.
First, Postman’s assertion that technological solutions to the problem of too much information only lead to more information holds with the case of Google.  The company has constructed a massive network of computers to store and analyze the data that it gathers and generates.  Second, there are fears that this technology has a fault resulting from its efficiency, as expressed in a quotation from Sir Bernard Lovell, the founder of Jodrell Bank Observatory in Britain, “literal-minded, narrowly focused computerized research is proving antithetical to the free exercise of that happy faculty known as serendipity.”   Sir Lovell’s concern predates Google, but remains relevant.  
Google endeavors to offer relevant information.  This goal adheres one of the primary goals of science and technology, which is to be useful.  Indeed, relevance in this context is synonymous with usefulness.  But by offering only the most directly useful information Google eliminates the possibility that a distantly related piece of information will spark an idea in a person’s mind to combine two dissimilar concepts or pieces of data into a new and creative innovation.  As always, the technology affects the interpretation of the information it provides.
Technology increases the amount of and speed with which information is available and in the process creates more data and information.  Yet, technology does not help interpret the information in the most important ways, which is how the information is meaningful to human beings.  Google is always improving the search results it provides with respect to the relevance or usefulness to people, but usefulness is not the same as meaningful.  No technology yet invented has been able to determine the meaning of information.  Quite the contrary, technology seems to disconnect information from its context and by extension from its meaning to human beings.  Perhaps worst of all it may be deleterious to true creativity.
Technology, Leisure, and Free Time
Given the increasing amount of information and decreasing amount of meaning produced by technology, it would seem that free time created by technology’s reduction of drudgery would be used for leisure in the hope that it could create meaning.  Science and technology, however, intervene in free time as well.
According to the Census Bureau, Americans are projected to spend an average of 1,562 hours watching television, 984 hours listening to the radio, 203 hours on the Internet, and 96 playing video games. The average American spends 30 hours a week watching television alone.  Television provides the viewer with images and sound that require barely more than involuntary sensory processes.  If leisure is a calm acceptance and opening up to the world, then television viewing is as far from leisure as one can get without moving into the realm of work and labor.   Leisure involves contemplation.  Television offers an escape from serious intellectual activity.  It is mere idleness.
Entertainment technology has required less intellectual engagement and imagination with each new development.  Books demanded not only that the reader physically read the words off the page, but also use their mind to imagine the situation.  Silent films required more imagination than talkies.  Radio shows provided only the sound but listeners provided the visuals within their own minds.  Television eliminated this burden by broadcasting both the images and sound into homes.  Modern video games, when combined with a big-screen television and surround sound system, arguably the pinnacle of existing entertainment technology, offer an artificial environment so immersive and at such a speed that the player reacts almost entirely upon instinct and muscle memory.
Technology demands that people process information all day.  Therefore, they desire respite not from physical but mental toil.  People look to technology to solve the very problem technology created.  They endeavor to escape its pressures by yielding to it ever more fully.  Thus, technology distracts us from the larger problem by offering temporary refuge, but this refuge also diverts us from leisure into play and idleness.  This produces lives awash in information without context and people so mentally taxed by mere processing that they are too weary to engage in an activity that offers the potential for making sense of their lives and providing meaning – leisure.
Technology and Art
Various new technologies, such as digital photography, digital video, and electronic distribution, have revolutionized the creation and dissemination of artistic works.  Off-the-shelf computers replaced highly-specialized and expensive equipment and spaces.  The computer became the new dark room and video editing room. 
These technologies democratize the creative process.  While the amateur is not quite on equal footing with a professional he is able to create an end product that is similar.  To the extent that the creativity is involved in artistic endeavors one could conclude that electronic technologies enable and encourage leisure.  This is incorrect.
Engagement in and appreciation of artistic works is certainly part of leisure.  The result of these new technologies is to make the production of the final product easier and faster.  Notice the use of the word product.  Technology facilitates production.  Leisure is not the final product, but the act.  The act of artistic expression and appreciation is where leisure lies.  Therefore, technology is deleterious to the leisure of the person engage in artistic activity during their free time. 
The impact on art appreciation is not as clear.  To the extent that technology facilitates the dissemination of art it may have beneficial effects on leisure, but it also creates a situation where art may be commoditized.  File sharing programs are a good example of this phenomenon. 
File sharing allows individuals with access to the Internet the ability to freely share files, including ones that contain artistic works like music. This unprecedented access to music could theoretically lead to the emergence of a serious music connoisseur, which could be considered leisure, or a music consumer who samples and discards ever more music in pursuit of novelty and distraction.
So, in the world of art technology seems to ease the burdens of production and toil while disconnecting the art from meaning.  But the increasing ease of production has certainly not been limited to art.  Technology distorted the relationship between labor and leisure as it insinuated itself throughout the culture.
Leisure versus Labor
  Ancient slaves labored so that their masters could enjoy the delights of the mind.  It produced a clear distinction between work and leisure.  Scientific man’s mastery of Nature often replaces physical for mental toil.  The mind works while the body rests.  This gives rise to the idea of an “intellectual worker,” a description that encompasses a larger and expanding proportion of the modern workforce.   Pieper, writing over a half century ago, defines the intellectual worker more narrowly and writes:
the educated man, the scholar, too, is a worker, in fact an ‘intellectual worker’, and he , too, is harnessed to the social system and takes his place in the division of labour; he is a functionary in the world of ‘total work’; he may be called a specialist, but he is a functionary.  And that is what brings out the problem which really lies behind our question, in all its colours.
            What had once considered has been considered the end of politics and life itself, contemplation and leisure, has been redefined as merely another task that the division of labor will fulfill.  Moreover, this is reflective of a change in the relative value society places on work and labor vis-à-vis leisure.  According to Arendt, animal laborans and labor were elevated to the position previously held by animal rationale, and consequently the focus of thought, including Adam Smith and Karl Marx, shifted to the productivity of labor. This inversion from the traditional honoring of leisure over labor to labor enshrined, and the concomitant focus on productivity, has had profound social, economic, cultural and political consequences. 
            Bill Gates as Example
Bill Gates represents the epitome of the effects of science and technology on the culture.  Gates dropped out of Harvard, forgoing a liberal arts education, to found a technology company – Microsoft.  Microsoft was widely successful and Gates accumulated a fortune sufficient to provide a life of complete and utter leisure many times over.  Yet, Gates continued to work.  When he finally retired he did so to guide the charitable foundation he created.  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is imbued with the assumptions of the scientific age.  It has an almost zealous adherence to empirical measurement of the progress towards its goals.  In many ways the Gates Foundation is the final realization of Bacon’s dream to utilize the power of science and technology to ameliorate man’s material conditions.  The foundation’s goal of conquering malaria is both its most audacious and the most Baconian. 
This view is made explicit in the third of the foundation’s fifteen guiding principles, which reads as follows “Science and technology have great potential to improve lives around the world.” But one must acknowledge that this great potential is limited to material improvement.    As mentioned previously, science and technology have thus far been unable to provide meaning.  A longer or easier life that is devoid of meaning may not be a better life, but that question is ignored or dismissed in the zeal to make progress.
What makes Bill Gates such an interesting case study in the discussion of leisure and technology, besides the obvious fact that he personally had a tremendous impact on the spread of information technology, is that he, more than perhaps anyone on the planet, is free to engage in leisure, but never appears to have chosen it.
This may be in part to what Nels Anderson calls “The Do-Something Complex” or “The Protest Against Passivity.”  No longer must only knowledge and labor have a useful purpose, but also our free time.  It must accomplish something and even better if that something is demonstrable and quantifiable.  The distinction between leisure and mere idleness is difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate or quantify.  Neither has a useful purpose and therefore they are both to be shunned.  The ideal for the rich is no longer idleness.
Leisure and Class
Leisure was once the prerogative of aristocrats and ancient citizens who could command others’ labor to fulfill their own necessity.  Science and technology destroyed this monopoly.  They democratized leisure in two ways.  First, science changed contemplation so that it was more like work.  No longer could the mind simply wander.  There was a method that must be followed and knowledge must be useful. Second, technology removed much of the need for physical toil from daily life.  This democratization offered hope that the joys of leisure could be spread throughout the entire population.
            Arendt argues that Marx’s greatest hope was that the increasing productivity made possible by the Baconian project would eventually emancipate the laboring class from necessity and usher in an era of leisure without the need for slaves.  This view is partially expressed by Marx thusly in the Economico-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, that is, that it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel well but unhappy, does not freely develop his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.
This passage echoes many of the aspects Aristotle ascribed to leisure.  Only in freedom can human beings develop their capacities, affirm themselves, and find happiness.  One can read Marx as a critique of the Baconian project’s failure to deliver leisure to all of humanity.  It simply traded one form of coerced labor for another, and in this reading the alienation that Marx describes is a consequence of the lack of Aristotelian leisure. 
Arendt notes, however, that the laboring man is entirely unprepared for leisure.   A laborer labors or consumes the product of his labor, but never engages in leisure.  Pieper also questions whether workers can easily shift from work to leisure.  He writes, “A break in one’s work, whether for an hour, a day or a week, is still part of the world of work.” Free time is used as rejuvenation for more work.
The nature of the free time that technology creates only exacerbates this problem.  Most modern conveniences create free time in small portions – a minute or two here and there.   The sum of these savings may be substantial, but they are not distributed or apportioned in increments conducive to serious reflection, appreciation, participation, or contemplation.
But Arendt’s and Pieper’s points are larger than simply the nature of the free time created by technology.  The modern, technological economy orients individuals away from leisure.  Aristocrats and ancient citizens were prepared for a life of leisure from birth.  Their entire education was geared toward this end.   Aristotle believed education was to prepare men for leisure.  He writes, “That there is a certain sort of education, therefore, in which children are to be educated, not as being useful or necessary but as being liberal and noble, is evident.” Education was not intended to prepare people for productivity, but for non-useful leisure. 
Modern education, by contrast, is almost always justified by the economic benefits it will bring its recipient and society.  As if further proof of this was needed, we return to the point that launched our discussion of the origins of science; namely, that the highest educated members of modern society have the least leisure time.
This application of education toward work instead of leisure may be modern, but it is not recent.  Tocqueville writes:  
In democracies it is by no means the case that all who cultivate literature have received a literary education, and most of those who have some acquaintance with good writing go into politics or adopt some profession which leaves only short, stolen hours for the pleasures of the mind.  They therefore do not make such delights the principal joy of their existence, but think of them as a passing relaxation needed from the serious business of life.
It is important to note that Tocqueville was not referring to ancient democracy, which he regarded as “an aristocratic republic,” but to modern, liberal democracy.  It was evident to Tocqueville that individuals educated in the liberal arts within a democracy become workers and not leisurers.     Therefore, he advocated not that education should be geared toward leisure, but precisely the opposite.  Most schools ought to focus on the “scientific, commercial, and industrial” while “a few excellent universities” produce “true scholars” by teaching the classics. For Tocqueville, leisure was inherently aristocratic and could only exist in small pockets in a liberal democracy.
Leisure and Modern Liberal Democracy
            Liberal democracy was made possible by the Baconian project in countless ways.  For example, the American founding was the first debated and argued in print.  Indeed, it is difficult even to imagine how a country could be successfully founded upon abstract philosophical principles without the ability of print to articulate, debate, and disseminate those principles to the population.  It is even more difficult to imagine in the absence of print when those philosophical principles are premised on the consent of the governed.
            Yuval Levin argues that science and liberal democracy need each other.   Science flourishes with personal liberty and free markets, and in return provides ever higher standards of living, greater mastery over the material world, and acts as a liberalizing force in cultures it comes in contact with, all of which ensure the continuing existence of liberal democracy.
Postman wonders, however, if liberal democracy is enough when he writes, “It is an open question whether or not ‘liberal democracy’ in its present form can provide a thought-world of sufficient moral substance to sustain meaningful lives. Science and technology create material benefits, but come with psychic and social costs.  The abstract principles of liberal democracy offer little defense.  Liberty and freedom do not offer guidance or meaning in any appreciable way to the information provided by technology.  Quite the contrary, liberty and freedom are the opposite of guidance and meaning.  It is left to the citizen to determine what is meaningful to himself.   
What the modern, liberal democratic state does have to offer in response to the problems created by technology is bureaucracy, which in turn attempts to apply further technical means to solve them.   In the worst instances, these create more problems and more proposed technical solutions in a vicious cycle where the result is a technically created hell rather than a paradise manifested through human ingenuity.
Bacon and Eden
Bacon’s desire to make man a new Adam and the Earth a new Eden possessed a flaw from the outset.   Earlier, this paper quoted a portion of book I, vi, 6, of The Advancement of Learning.  The second half of that section contains the fundamental dilemma of the Baconian scientific and technological project:
Again, the first acts which man performed in Paradise consisted of the two summary parts of knowledge; the view of creatures, and the imposition of names. As for the knowledge which induced the fall, it was, as was touched before, not the natural knowledge of creatures, but the moral knowledge of good and evil; wherein the supposition was, that God’s commandments or prohibitions were not the originals of good and evil, but that they had other beginnings, which man aspired to know, to the end to make a total defection from God and to depend wholly upon himself.
            Bacon was so focused on justifying the project within the theological framework of his milieu that he missed, or perhaps purposefully ignored, the primary lesson of the Garden of Eden.  The concern was never knowledge of Nature.  Indeed, as he writes, knowledge of Nature did not cause the fall.  It was the knowledge of good and evil, which put another way, is the search for meaning.    Dissatisfied with the limits, purpose, and meaning provided by God to Adam and Eve in the garden, they ate the fruit in order to apprehend and recognize meaning for themselves. 
            Bacon seems to frame the goal of his project as circumscribed within the natural world and therefore don the cloak of piety and prudence while arguably, from an Augustinian prospective, being impious and imprudent.  Nevertheless, the lesson from Eden is that man is not satisfied until he finds meaning.  The scientific project was therefore doomed from its inception not only to leave man wanting but to torment him spiritually and mentally even as it emancipated him materially.

            A more kind reading would be that the extraordinary success of the scientific project led others to want to apply these powerful methods to solve problems in ways that Bacon never intended and would have deemed imprudent.  Others later trespassed with science on the knowledge of good and evil.  This more generous reading of Bacon is problematic because he explicitly attempted and was successful in overthrowing the reigning Aristotelian framework for understanding the natural world, and as has been shown the ancient conception of leisure with it.  To the extent that Aristotle’s ideas had been adopted and incorporated into Christianity, by Aquinas among others, it was conceivable that the damage from the attack would spillover.  If he had no fear or recognition of the potential that his project would leave man with increased knowledge of and power over the material world but poorer in meaning by undermining religious authority, which seems to be the case from his description of The New Atlantis, he ought have.

What the Ancients Knew
The ancients were not unaware of the problems created by technology.  Prometheus’ fire came with Pandora’s box.  Even more insightful may be a passage on writing near the end of Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus:
It will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it:  they will not practice memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.  You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.  Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.  And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.
            The Greeks knew that technology has a cost.  Writing communicates facts, but not wisdom.  Worse, it makes the appearance of wisdom harder to discern from actual wisdom.  Worst of all, technology creates political problems. 
The same issues apply today.  Substitute Google for writing and the criticisms still hold without a single change to another word.  Yet, it must be noted, that writing was a hugely successful invention.  Indeed, it is incredibly ironic, and certainly was not lost on Plato, that we have this story about the dangers of writing because of writing.  Google may be similar.  The danger lies not in technology itself, but in our understanding of it.
Perhaps Not All Is Lost
            There are several possible solutions to the dearth of leisure in the liberal democracy caused by the focus on the useful and practical results of technology and labor.   Unfortunately, none of them are particularly likely to occur. 
            First, Pieper concludes Leisure: The Basis of Culture with the hope that divine worship, particularly Christianity, will provide the impetus for people to break out of the toil of total work and reacquaint themselves with leisure.  This is always possible, but has not occurred in the roughly half century since the book was published.
Second, Pieper also mentions the deproletarianization of the masses, by which he means their transformation to something other than workers and laborers. This would entail creating meaning within even the most insignificant work or somehow providing education oriented toward leisure while still maintaining enough productivity that allowed free time for all.  This seems unlikely.
Third, technology is developed that can transmit meaning along with information and data.  So far technology has been unable to accomplish this feat and has actually become worse at transmitting meaning as it becomes better at sending information.  Recent technology, like social networking which provides information about friends and family, offers some hope.  Nevertheless, the chances are still slim as, just like Google, the focus is on relevance and not meaning.
Lastly, human beings could reject technology, or limit its uses, such that society is more conducive to leisure.  This would require a fundamental reorientation not just of society’s relationship to technology, but also its attitude toward work, labor, and even society’s relationship to itself.  Instant, global communication would almost certainly need to be limited.  Lives would become far more locally-oriented as a consequence.  The scale of the shift involved and the tangible benefits that would have to be given up in exchange for intangible, psychic benefits, like happiness and meaning, seem unlikely to be seriously considered.
            It would be foolish and incorrect to blame science alone for all the modern world’s ills, including modern man’s alienation from Nature and from each other.  Countless factors have influenced history and culture.  Many, including the Protestant Reformation, Communism, and Capitalism, to name a select few, had profound impact on the way in which we view leisure and work.
            Yet, one can discern the roots of many modern problems in the birth of the scientific project.  Technology undoubtedly has helped to alleviate the burden of physical toil and drudgery from hundreds of millions of lives and the number is only increasing, but this has come at a cost.  Where the ancient philosopher would willingly open himself up to contemplation of the world during leisure, modern communication technology rudely invades a person’s consciousness with both the relevant and irrelevant. This creates mindless drudgery of increasing and nearly continuous intellectual effort to receive, process, and interpret the stream of information.    Modern human beings act as data processors with little time or opportunity to engage in leisurely contemplation.  This leads to lives often devoid of meaning.
            Moreover, science is at least partial responsible for vaulting labor to a position of higher importance than leisure through both the demand that knowledge and activity be useful and the intrusion of empirical work into the domain of leisure..    This focus on usefulness and productivity is great for mere living but not living well because it precludes leisure.  Or, as Rousseau wrote, “The needs of the body are the foundations of society, those of the mind make it pleasant.”  In this view, technology provides longer and easier but less pleasant lives. 
            It may even be that leisure is a necessary causality of liberal democracy.  Tocqueville certainly thought so.  He viewed leisure as a largely aristocratic notion.   If liberal democracy needs science and technology, as Yuval Levin argues, then it seems that even Tocqueville’s proposal for small pockets of leisured scholars may even be too optimistic.  Our elite universities’ almost universal focus on adding value, economic benefits, and return-on-investment lend credence to that conclusion.
            We must recognize that technology simultaneously empowers and constrains us.  The difficulty in recognition lies with the nature of the empowerment versus the constraint.   The conquest of Nature and the benefits of technology are clear and relatively simple to understand.  The constraints these impose are more obscure and nuanced.  They reveal themselves only after contemplation, which is often made possible only by distancing one’s self from technology.
            In the final tally, Aristotelian leisure may be dead.   To the extent that it necessitated slavery, this is an acceptable cost.   Perhaps even the requirement for an aristocratic society may even be too steep to justify the re-emergence of classical leisure.  The difficulty facing science, technology, and liberal democracy is how to provide meaning or even happiness, not idleness and distraction, without leisure.  The solution does not appear to be forthcoming.


Robbo said...

Oh, look! A squirrel!

(I kid. I kid!)

Withywindle said...

Interesting. You're making me interested in the changing conceptions of leisure - although not so much in the technology aspects, which are less my bailiwick. Ann Blair has an article on Information Overload in the Renaissance you might enjoy. You've mentioned the effect on Protestantism on leisure - I'd want to know more about the effects of Christianity on leisure. Hmm, ponder, ponder. Thanks for posting the paper.

Withywindle said...

Does Aristotelian leisure aim to gain understanding/wisdom?

George Pal said...

Thales, walking at night with his eyes focused on the heavens, fell down a well. Was he involved in leisure? If so, Aristotelean or Baconian? Or was he a functionary in the world of ‘total work’?

Having no idea as to what inspired Thales to look to the heavens, but knowing only so much as is stated, all three are possibilities and each in turn possible on three successive nights of star gazing.

“The solution does not appear to be forthcoming.”

Perhaps not for society at large or some part of it but if you can’t save the world, just save one soul.

FLG said...


Perhaps he was just baked to the bejesus.

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