The Quality of Your Distractions
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.
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.”
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.
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 Chemistry.com 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.