In a comment to an earlier post that I should have replied to long ago, scritic wrote:

But most people don’t have the kind of tastes you do, they don’t want to read Tolstoy and then blog about it; but they do have other interests. So they participate in discussion forums about TV shows, they post pictures to Lolcats or Flickr, etc etc. I’m just saying that someone posting to Lolcats is still doing something more productive (for society) than someone who reads Proust and keeps it to himself.

That last sentence got a good reply from Michael Straight:

1) Someone who spends 99% of his time reading to himself and 1% writing about it might be contributing more to society than the person who makes a LOLcat everyday.2) Someone who only reads without ever blogging about it or otherwise producing anything directly related to their reading might, as a result of being formed by their reading, become the sort of person who contributes more to society than the LOLcat artist.3) I value the intrinsic worth of some reading more than I value making a personal “contribution to society” in the sense you are talking about.

I endorse all three of those points.I also want to add this: that I don’t think that Tolstoy vs. lolcats is just a matter of taste. To be sure, not everyone needs to read Tolstoy; most people don’t need to read Tolstoy. It would be nice if more people did, but it’s not socially or personally necessary.What is necessary, I think, is for all of us to be engaged in some activity that challenges us, that tests our intellectual limits. For some people that might be reading Tolstoy, while for others it might involve writing code or learning Klingon. But as Lanier says, “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself,” and being somebody is an achievement. It requires intentional labor, and a degree of personal ambition — and anyone can work and strive, though some have farther to go than others. But a lot of fooling around on the internet is just that, fooling around: it doesn’t test our resources or stretch our capacities. In many cases that’s fine, because we shouldn’t be working all the time: but even if fooling around on the internet really does somehow increase social creative capital — which I have no reason to believe — it doesn’t achieve a damned thing for the person doing it.


  1. I do agree with Michael's 3 exceptions. But I can easily come up with another exception:

    4. Someone who spends his spare time making lolcats (and has not the slightest interest in high literature) but works on molecular biology (insert any field of your choice here) during the day still contributes more to society than someone who reads Proust in his spare time.

    And we could go on and on. I was making a more general point but yes, there are and will always be exceptions.

    But I see your point, Alan. I am not sure I agree, but any response will have to wait because I have to get to work!

  2. Someone who spends his spare time making lolcats (and has not the slightest interest in high literature) but works on molecular biology (insert any field of your choice here) during the day still contributes more to society than someone who reads Proust in his spare time.

    Still don't see why lolcats are better than Proust! Would the molecular biologist do his work less well, contribute less to society, if he were reading literature in his spare time instead of making lolcats?

  3. Well, this post inspires me to unplug and sit down with John Gardner's Freddy's Book, which I picked up from the library a week ago and have yet to start.

    It also casts the upcoming movie The Social Network, about (based on what I glean from the trailer) the legal and personal shenanigans of the creators. I now see that entire endeavor as a multi-million, if not billion, dollar empire that "doesn't achieve a damned thing."

    By the way, I really enjoyed your article in The New Atlantis about Iain M. Banks' "Culture" novels.

  4. I see where you are coming from now, Alan, but FWIW, let me try and explain why I disagree with you philosophically.

    I always understood what you were saying as a "quality of attention matters and not just the social or communal nature of an activity (like, say, lolcats)" argument. But I see now that underneath it is something deeper. You are in favor of activities that lead to one becoming a better person. And by your definition, one becomes a better person by trying to challenge himself, by testing his intellectual limits. By that definition, writing captions for lolcats does nothing for a person, doesn't lead to what Nietzsche called "self-overcoming."

    This is all very coherent. But from my perspective I don't see why an activity needs to be judged this way. First of all, we are talking about most peoples' spare time here. We can agree that most people lead full lives: they work at their jobs, take care of their children and families. Should they spend the rest of their time trying to better themselves? Some do — and maybe more should — but I don't see why they have to. I certainly don't see why a lack of ambition in how one chooses to spend one's spare time should lead Jaron Lanier to say that person hasn't really achieved himself. Who are we to judge them? I guess what I am saying is that I am uncomfortable telling people (in finger-wagging italics, no less!) to stop fooling around and be somebody.

    I would rather focus on the artifacts that get produced and whether those artifacts are accessible to others. And as PEG wrote in a post on TAS, can these artifacts be a gateway to something bigger and better? I think the answer to these questions are, at least tentatively, yes and yes (although I'm sure you disagree).

    Of course, philosophical disagreements can't be settled by arguments. I think you'll find what I say condescending whereas I am just uncomfortable telling people how they should spend their (spare) time. By the way, I also think this may be a good pointer to our political views. E.g. I come down on the side of a bigger welfare state whereas you probably would opt for a smaller welfare state (yes? no?)

  5. Good response, scritic. About spare time, I think how we evaluate our use of spare time depends on what we get to do during working hours. If we have jobs that are meaningful to us and that feel like a genuine contribution to society, then whatever we do during our spare time is fine (assuming no harm to others and the other usual caveats). But for a great many people who were raised as I was, in the social environment I come from, work is meaningless drudgery, and spare time is where meaning gets made. I don't want to wag my finger at such people, but rather to tell them that there are real possibilities for personal development — and therefore personal satisfaction — for those wo want to take them.

    About both the "gateway drug" argument — which my friend PEG is endorsing over at The American Scene this morning — that's a strictly empirical question, and I just don't see the evidence for it yet. But it would be great if it turned out to be true.

    (How much money a society should devote to its chronically underprivileged, and how it should disperse that money, is also an empirical question, but one with no clear answers, as far as I can tell. I have no real knowledge in these matters and no strong philosophical predispositions.)

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