In response to my post last week in which I favorably cited Albert Borgmann's notion of "focal activities," Rob Long spoke up for Ricochet's Whiggish Wing:
There is something a bit twee and fancy-pants about the items Professor Borgman chooses as "focal things" -- fly fishing; guitar; cooking -- and I think Trace has a point: if you're 14 years old, XBox Live probably fits that bill, too. It involves the body, the mind, and a worldwide community you're playing with. It's the modern version of those parks where people are playing chess.
Rob's response came to mind as I read Ross Douthat's terrific post on this essay by hyper-connected, oversharing New York novelist Gary Shteyngart, who complains that he can't just sit down and read a novel unless he cuts himself off from cell phone signals and goes on a twee, fancy-pants vision quest in the Upper Apparatchik mountains or wherever. Says Douthat:
...Consider Shteyngart’s escape through the lens of class for a moment, and think about what the world of constant connectivity means for the reading lives of people who can’t take Amtrak upstate to stay at “a sturdy summer cottage rebuilt by an ingenious Swedish woman” for weeks or months on end.
Ross is right to warn us that reading could become the next fly fishing: something certain rich people do to assure themselves and their peers of their own refinement while other people -- no less rich, perhaps -- express their calculated disdain so as not to be mistaken for that kind of snooty bastard. The class atmospherics alone could drag novels into irrelevance. One can, after all, have a great time fly fishing with gear purchased entirely at Walmart, but that's not the mythology.
Reading fiction rather than updating one's attention drip will probably come to be seen as a precious, conspicuous indulgence, like playing chess instead of XBox Live or eschewing day-glo PowerBait in favor of a Quill Gordon. Maybe even as retrograde as (per Rob's comment) preparing one's own meals.
As it happens, Shteyngart's essay hits awfully close to home. While trying to write this brief post, I refreshed my twitter feed approximately seven million times, hoping that some small pellet of novelty would drop down the chute into my tasteful luminescent Skinner Box (designed by Apple in California). I reloaded my Tumblr dashboard a few times too, and lo the Lord in his goodness did provide me with Bounteous Distraction. Bring it on home, Paul Graham:
The next 40 years will bring us some wonderful things. I don't mean to imply they're all to be avoided. Alcohol is a dangerous drug, but I'd rather live in a world with wine than one without. Most people can coexist with alcohol; but you have to be careful. More things we like will mean more things we have to be careful about.
Most people won't, unfortunately. Which means that as the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of "normal" is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.
These two senses are already quite far apart. Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don't think you're weird, you're living badly.
I had more to say, but I'll leave it there.