Monday, June 20, 2011

The Quality of Your Distractions

This is one of those "find the common denominator" posts. I'm sure these ideas all will fit together into a cohesive whole if I can just connect them somehow (or keep babbling long enough)

Idea 1:
Someone recently convinced me that the greatest challenge facing humankind in the 21st century is not global warming, or tsunamis, or terrorism, or economic challenges. The greatest challenge facing us is boredom. Idle hands, idle minds, idle souls...these pose the most sinister threats. How to fill the empty hours that technological advances have given us (such that we're not spending so many hours each day hunting or gathering or simple walking to do so) is a real problem.

Idea 2:
There was much ado about nothing in the press just last month when, again apparently, "experts" were baffled by the fall in the national crime rates despite the recession. The conventional wisdom obviously being that desperation drives people to crime.

As Adam Serwer noted last year, this is not supported by evidence:
UCLA professor Mark Kleiman grumbles that reporters continue to write as though "crime naturally rises and falls with the unemployment rate. It doesn’t." Indeed, as OMB head Peter Orszag explained last year, sometimes crime rises with recessions. And other times it doesn't, particularly when it comes to homicide.

In his book, When Brute Force Fails, Kleiman explains that a number of historical and social factors combined to create the crime boom of the latter part of the 20th century, the biggest factor was demographics.

"People commit most of their crimes between the age of 15 and 30, and so periods of time when there are more people in that age range have more crimes,” Kleiman explains. "In addition, a particularly big birth cohort like the Boomers, and to some extent, the Echo Boomers, tend to have a higher individual per-person crime rate.”

Idea 3:
Personally, I suspect it's more than simply a lower birth rate (and few people in the 15 to 30 age range) that explains the unexpected non-rise in crime. Ride the subway in New York, for example, an arena in which 15-30 somethings have traditionally been comfortable acting out and stirring up trouble, and today you're more likely to see most of them completely absorbed by whatever game or music they're playing on their smart phone, even when traveling in groups.

Idea 4:
Bambino, Ondine, and I saw "Page One" yesterday, the documentary on The New York Times that apparently got panned by one of the Times' film critics (which is perhaps the height of irony because I thought the movie was great and particularly good at arguing how strong [and right] the opinions are at the Old Gray Lady). The film centers on how the Times (or any newspaper) must evolve to survive the digital revolution.

The single best moment of the film comes when NYTimes Media Columnist David Carr illustrates for the somewhat arrogant founder of Newser, Michael Wolff (who condescends to the mainstream media, and the nation's legacy newspapers in particular, at a panel discussion), what Newser and the other "curators" of news would be left offering their readers should their ambivalence toward legacy news institutions end up contributing to their total demise. He holds up a printout of Newser's front page and then holds up the same page with all the legacy institutions' stories cut out. You can see essentially right through the second version.

Attempt to synthesize the previous ideas:
The one point Wolff made that I think deserves more consideration, though, is how the argument that we'll lose something of real value should the legacy papers disappear is more than a little arrogant itself. Years ago, someone convinced me that all news is entertainment (and more and more so all the time). It's simply one more option you have to help fill up those empty hours.

Consider your Sunday morning routine. Whether you fill it up reading the Times or catching up with friends on Facebook or gardening in the backyard...they're all simply time fillers. They don't make the difference between survival or not that punching in at your job does. (Yes, you might eat something from your garden, but if you add up the man hours it took to grow that food, especially if you live in the city, you'd more likely find it wasn't as cost efficient as buying it at the local grocer.)

Oh, I know the argument that an well-informed citizenry is essential to a well-functioning democracy, but how much of the "news" you read daily truly informs how you vote or participate as a citizen versus how much of it deals with sports scores or your travel dreams or your restaurant recommendations? I'll bet, if you're the average citizen, it's a fairly small percentage that actually changes your opinions on issues.

So, for me, it really boils down to a choice about the quality of your distractions. Do you fill the empty hours entertaining yourself (i.e., distracting yourself from that ticking sound your clock is making) playing Angry Birds, reading Proust, watching American Idol, playing Halo 2, attending the ballet, updating your profile, or reading the Times?

Personally, I find the Times to be second to no other newspaper in filling the empty hours. In fact, it was the fact that I had reached my 20 free online articles so quickly after they began their pay-wall system that convinced me it's worth paying to continue to access it. The idea of waiting for my next free 20 articles next month was unbearable.

I love The New York Times.

But I don't think I'm a better citizen because I read it versus some other paper. It's simply, IMHO, a higher quality distraction from the empty hours I too need to fill.

Labels: digital age, traditional media


Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I have the solution to the world's big problem:
Shorten the workday to 5 hours. Employ more people to take up the left-over work, and raise the payrate across the board while lowering the loan fees and interest rates, also lower or put a ceiling on the pay rate for financiers and CEO's. Break all big power monopolies in order to allow small business and start-ups a foothold, but put a size limit on how large any corporation can become.

More money will be around for more people to spend on leisure activities that can enlighten, and the people formerly unemployed will now have jobs to take up some of their idle time.

World Crisis solved.

6/20/2011 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Ed, thoughtful post.

The one thing I would add is that for many people, working 2 or 3 jobs and commuting long distances leaves them with very little time and I'm afraid that is becoming 'normal' when it should be anything but that in this country.

Loved "Page One" and David Carr!


6/20/2011 12:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Sunday morning i drank a monster pot of coffee and ate a box of oat meal cookies while i googled all of the art basel galleries and checked out their art. that was quality time for me.

I also like to look at silly shit on you tube these are my current favorites.

things i check daily
james kalm
joanne mattera

6/20/2011 01:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Saskia said...

It's simply one more option you have to help fill up those empty hours. ...they're all simply time fillers. They don't make the difference between survival or not...

Ok granted I took some liberties with cut an paste on that quote above, but uggh!, how depressing. If that was consistent with my world view I'd definitely go out and kill myself for the futility of it all.

And by the way, could you please send some of those empty hours my way? I seem to be out of them & could really use a refill... seriously, I can think of a million and one v. meaningful ways to use them...

6/20/2011 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

You have no empty hours? Never commuting, never waiting in line at the DMV or in your doctor's office, never traveling by air or train, when you're required to simply sit tight until reaching your destination? Really?

You're rather unique among the humans who have easy access to computers, then, Saskia.

By the way, I would consider the time it took you to read this post counts as "empty hour" time.

Perhaps you're interpreting that phrase as more drastic than I mean it. Simply put, it's time you have left over after taking care of your basic human needs (eating, sleeping, working, etc.). Extra time. Time you fill up doing what *you* choose.

It need not be so depressing as you're reading it, unless you're not satisfied with the quality of what you're doing with it. In other words, unless you're bored.

I don't find considering such matters boring, myself. Different strokes, I guess.

6/20/2011 03:20:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I find reading the paper to be part of my continuing education. If I read a good one, like the NY Times, I'm receiving an allover good education, if I read my local rag, I'm not - in fact, on a regular basis, it would probably take me down a notch intellectually. A good read about current events engages me with the world. It's important for people to be engaged, to feel a part of the larger discussion.

That brings me to the boredom topic. When my kids were little and out of school for summer break I would often hear. "I'm bored." as though it were my problem to solve. After a number of years I developed the retort: "Boring people get bored." then I'd order them out into the yard to dig worms and such things as would eventually engage them. Desperate moves to give me a little peace and quiet

I don't know if boring people get bored more than non boring people but I do think that giving up on being engaged with the physical world and the imagination is a problem. An over reliance on technology causes us to substitute the richness of the world for a cheap imitation of it.

6/20/2011 05:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Saskia said...

No, I'm raising kids, so I have essentially no empty hours. Not maintaining my own basic survival, but that of others. My time is almost never my own. That doesn't make me unique, just a typical parent. Your sunday morning sounds ideal, I hardly remember what that is like.

perhaps you failed to read the humor in my post?

6/20/2011 09:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Frank Steineck said...

Alright Edward, you are on the way with that observation! It is, when it comes to a problem, a problem of digestion. The whole system is built on being able to assimilate all that comes in. The ability to be pursued then should emphasize "digestion". Excesses happen though and that is a problem of digest or die if it can't be coped with in other ways. So, we do not need frank and free art unbounded perhaps, which I advocate, but the run of the mill almost overwhelming challenges for the artists in order to continue to be interested in production and we are at the beginning of the process with this insight of course.

11/08/2011 03:50:00 AM  

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