In general, I live under the idea that one of the most serious problems which human beings face in the world today is a lack of free time. However, for me, this is a problem with the sub-problem that how I think about this problem and its manifestations and solutions is different from how most people probably think about it. I think that if you ask most people around the world today, they would readily agree with my assessment: yes, they have too much to do and too little time, and yes, they would certainly appreciate having more spare time. However, what people actually fill their time with, and what I imagine them ideally filling their time with, are two quite different concepts.
I was struck by this idea again recently, as I so often am when I walked into a bookstore. There’s really so much wonderful stuff that you can see in a bookstore. You can read books about history and learn about how people’s ideas from hundreds of years ago in contrast with people’s ideas today. You can read biographies and discover all the fascinating little details of historical people’s everyday lives which we never hear about in the one-paragraph summaries that their lives are always remembered by. You can read books about philosophy and learn about how people’s concepts of the underlying meaning of our lives have changed through the centuries. And yet, who has the time to read all these books?
One of the greatest tragedies of our modern world, one of the greatest deficiencies of fast-paced modern life, is how little time it leaves us for such learning and reflection.
How can our populace ever become educated, how can the people who form our societies ever become learned and aware, if they do not have the time to avail themselves of these volumes of knowledge which are so tantalizingly piled up on the bookshelves, so near and yet so far, so close at hand and yet so outside the scope of what we have time for?
I have lamented in the past that this is precisely how modern financial power ensures it continued power: it keeps people ignorant not by preventing them from having access to knowledge and information (because that would cause protests from the general public), but rather by drowning them in so much knowledge and information that they will never be able to take it all in, and keeping them so busy with their “work” that they lack the time to benefit from the information which they have access to. I too wish that I had the time to properly read all those books, but as a fully occupied student myself, I also have the majority of my days crushed out by the homework and college applications and exams which I must devote my time and attention to. Surely if there were a way for us, the general public, to have more time to educate ourselves, we’d have a more aware, more wise, more socially responsible and productive civilization… right?
Well, that’s one theory. But reality, as usual, seems to differ somewhat from idealized expectations. The idea of a self-educating populace seems less convincing when you observe what people actually spend their spare time on. You can get a clue to this if you take a broad look at what books are actually in most bookstores and what that implies about what people are buying. In nearly every general-purpose bookstore I’ve been in in my life, the focus is primarily on novels, usually written and selected for entertainment value more than for what they can inform us about. I don’t wish to denigrate novels or claim that novels can’t be enlightening, but most of the novels that I usually see in bookstores are clearly written for entertainment, and reviews likewise focus on how exciting or otherwise viscerally reactive the novels are rather than what they can teach us.
Non-fiction books in bookstores tend to broadly focus on cooking or other aspects of food, travel, and the major fields of visual art and popular culture. These are all relevant subjects as well, but the problem is just that there’s so much of it that it tends to overwhelm everything else. In our pop culture today, there is such an endless stream of media about big-budget movies, music stars, TV series, comic books, fashion, design, and similar pop entertainment that people could consume it for the rest of their lives and still never be done with it. I realize that this is the point:
this pop entertainment serves a commercial and practical function, namely to entertain people in their spare time, and so people want all of this endless deluge of entertainment to be available to them–in the same way that people never want to run out of water and always want to have it available on-tap whenever they decide to use it–so that they never have to feel bored for lack of something entertaining to stimulate themselves with, but this does make for a rather stupid and unaware populace if that’s all that people ever focus on.
It’s well known that people hardly read books today in the first place; I think it is pretty well established that the number of people who regularly go to libraries or bookstores today is pretty low, and the problem of an ignorant public is naturally made worse when even when they do go to book establishments, they’re looking for something to entertain themselves with rather than something to enlighten themselves with. People aren’t actually interested in learning something or making themselves more aware; they just want to gorge themselves on the non-stop, orgiastic buffoonery that is modern pop media.
Add this to the reality that most people seem to do a lot of things in their spare time which they are convinced they have to do but don’t really have to do. People are convinced that they have to go to the gym regularly, but this is actually not a requirement, and it takes away more of their scarce time and money. People with children or pets burn up an enormous amount of time and money on taking care of these dependents, and I’m not denigrating the idea of having a pet or a child, but it’s kind of a given that doing so will leave you with much less free time since you have to spend a lot of time looking after both. And then there’s then the insane amount of time which most people spend simply “socializing” in mentally unconstructive ways, lounging around in bars or restaurants or other hangouts and just talking to other people about unintelligent subjects. And they do this because, of all things, they don’t like the feeling of having too much spare time and nothing to fill it with. While millions of people around the world work in hard-labor conditions just to earn pennies a day and are thus so overworked that they have no hope of ever getting out of their economic prison, there are also millions of people who do very little with their lives but go to work and then go home to wait for the next workday to start. This is a possibility which our modern capitalism has brought us: the possibility of full-time workers who still have several hours of free time in the evenings to use however they want, and yet there are so many people who dislike this time because they feel like there isn’t anything to do with it, and so they try to distract themselves by watching television or playing video games. These people could be taking that time to educate themselves and make themselves more consummate citizens. Instead, they’re trying to distract themselves from that spare time as much as possible.
All of this being the case, then, it becomes apparent that what’s needed isn’t just more free time for people. More free time would be great, in a way, but it can be seen that most people wouldn’t use it wisely. What’s really needed is not just more spare time for people, but for people to want to educate themselves, to want to become consummate citizens of an intellectually vibrant nation, to willingly spend their time reading books that will actually fill their heads with a classical liberal education instead of just consuming endless amounts of glossy entertainment. And this leads me back to the question of how to change what people want, which is a question I’ve repeatedly answered by simply saying: you can’t. You can’t control what people want. The problem of more free time is that people wouldn’t use it well. Perhaps our need to spend most of our lives working exists as a check to balance out people’s natural hedonism, a way to force people to remain grounded instead of descending even deeper into their spirals of manufactured pop culture.
The people who really want to educate themselves will find a way to do so; they will find the time and resources to do so, even if it causes them to struggle. The rest of the people will continue to live exactly as the world does now.