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Making hard work of leisure, part 2

Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia quoted a diatribe against the universal basic income from a character in Philip José Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage (1967). This character contends that very few people receiving the eponymous purple wage (basic income) were able to produce any art of much interest, and got bored of their hobbies, and so they ended up amusing themselves with alcohol, television (a present-day writer might have said internet) and sex. Having written a bit about uses of leisure time last week, I thought now would be an appropriate time to comment on this argument.

One might contend, as Economics of Utopia said of Iain M. Bank’s Culture milieu, that’s there’s nothing wrong with alcohol, surfing the internet or sex given that one has the time, resources and desire to do these things—though presumably one could get bored of these as well. And even when I’ve heard of people tiring of one hobby it’s typically because they’ve moved on to another one. But I think a more fundamental objection to the character’s argument is the supposition that people must or should produce something “worthwhile” according to whatever standards of art the character adheres to.

I vividly recall a section of Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community (2000) in which he refuses to go down the rabbit hole of what might be considered a “proper” use of time (the internet being thought to be an “improper” use in some circles at the time). Farmer’s character presumably did go down this rabbit hole—or thought he did—and found his compatriots’ uses wanting. I take Rheingold’s position to be that if an activity (surfing the early internet, in his case) keeps someone amused then on what grounds could that person be told otherwise? My cooking, say, may not win awards or delight millions of restaurant customers, but if I enjoy doing it and it keeps me fed, so what?

Perhaps at the other end of the spectrum was some of the hyperbole surrounding user-generated content in the early-to-mid-2000’s. Thinkers such as Lawrence Lessig (The Future of Ideas, 2002) and Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody, 2008) championed the contributions of ordinary users, and some more enthusiastic proponents of user-generated content spoke as if that amateur production would de-throne Hollywood studios, major record labels, and the like as the sources of our entertainment. Hollywood studios and major record labels are still around—and just as popular as they were before, as far as I can tell—but that’s not really the point in a more measured assessment of user-generated content: the point is to do something that satisfies one’s desire to create rather rather than sit back and wait for Hollywood and the like to do it. (That user-generated content is now best known through behemoths of a different sort is a topic for another blog.)

In one section of his book, Shirky makes the point that critics of user-generated content sometimes complain that such content seems mundane or inane because they are looking at material that was never intended to be of interest to them, as someone who read one of my dinner recipes might think it rather dull unless he or she is intending to eat at my place. Farmer’s character, I suspect, has fallen into something like this trap: he is looking for art worthy of hanging in a gallery but finding only hobby projects intended only for the enjoyment of the artist and his or her friends.

For that matter, I don’t suppose that much of what most of us do at work is worthy of an art gallery or Nobel prize either. Yet, if our work is worth anything at all, we do it as part of a larger system that provides us with what we want. Why demand more of our leisure activities than we do of work?

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