If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”
Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.
Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.
The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college - she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality - driven, cranky, anxious and sad - turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school - it’s something we collectively force one another to do.
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.
I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?
But just in the last few months, I’ve insidiously started, because of professional obligations, to become busy. For the first time I was able to tell people, with a straight face, that I was “too busy” to do this or that thing they wanted me to do. I could see why people enjoy this complaint; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon. Except that I hate actually being busy. Every morning my in-box was full of e-mails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve. It got more and more intolerable until finally I fled town to the Undisclosed Location from which I’m writing this.
Here I am largely unmolested by obligations. There is no TV. To check e-mail I have to drive to the library. I go a week at a time without seeing anyone I know. I’ve remembered about buttercups, stink bugs and the stars. I read. And I’m finally getting some real writing done for the first time in months. It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again.
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration - it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.
“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” This may sound like the pronouncement of some bong-smoking anarchist, but it was actually Arthur C. Clarke, who found time between scuba diving and pinball games to write “Childhood’s End” and think up communications satellites. My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays. The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.
Perhaps the world would soon slide to ruin if everyone behaved as I do. But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play. My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.
Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information.
These are a few of the many characteristics of the Slow Web. It’s not so much a checklist as a feeling, one of being at greater ease for the web-enabled products and services in our lives.
Like Slow Food, Slow Web is concerned as much with production as it is with consumption. We as individuals can always set our own guidelines and curb the effect of the Fast Web, but as I hope I’ve illustrated, there are a number of considerations the creators of web-connected products can make to help us along. And maybe the Slow Web isn’t quite a movement yet. Maybe it’s still simmering. But I do think there is something distinctly different about the feeling that some of these products impart on their users, and that feeling manifests from the intent of their makers.
Fast Web companies want to be our lovers, they want to be by our sides at all times, want us to spend every moment of our waking lives with them, when sometimes that’s not what we really need. Sometimes what we really need are friends we can meet once every few months for a bowl of ramen noodles at a restaurant in the East Village. Friends with whom we can sit and talk and eat and drink and maybe learn a little about ourselves in the process. And at the end of the night get up and go our separate ways, until next time. Until next time.
Catherine St. Louis writing for the New York Times:
Not long ago, estrangements between family members, for all the anguish they can cause, could mean a fairly clean break. People would cut off contact, never to be heard from again unless they reconciled.
But in a social network world, estrangement is being redefined, with new complications. Relatives can get vivid glimpses of one another’s lives through Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and Instagram pictures of a grandchild or a wedding rehearsal dinner. And those glimpses are often painful reminders of what they have lost.
When you pay $100,000 for a red-hot BMW M5, you expect the twin-turbo V8 to emit a mighty song. Those who drive this superbrutal version of the midsize BMW are not generally in search of silence. And a nudge on the accelerator fills the cabin with a richly satisfying ascent from low rumble to high scream. But it’s a recording, a virtual roar.
I was stunned when I first learned in the December issue of Automobile magazine that the sound you hear inside a 2013 M5 will be coming from its speakers, and, to judge by subsequent letters and Web chatter, I am not alone. “I don’t believe it! A car that lip-synchs!” moaned one correspondent.
The sound doesn’t even come from a microphone in the engine compartment, which would make some perverse sense, but from a digital recording: “a discreet soundtrack in keeping with the harmonious and assured characteristics of the V8 power plant,” BMW explains in its literature. Stomping on the gas pedal, the Bavarians continue, “prompts an immediate audible response to match the instantaneous — and typically M — burst of power from beneath the bonnet.” They call it Active Sound Design.
MORE people live alone now than at any other time in history. In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.
By international standards, these numbers are surprising — surprisingly low. In Paris, the city of lovers, more than half of all households contain single people, and in socialist Stockholm, the rate tops 60 percent.
The decision to live alone is common in diverse cultures whenever it is economically feasible. Although Americans pride themselves on their self-reliance and culture of individualism, Germany, France and Britain have a greater proportion of one-person households than the United States, as does Japan. Three of the nations with the fastest-growing populations of single people — China, India and Brazil — are also among those with the fastest growing economies.
The mere thought of living alone once sparked anxiety, dread and visions of loneliness. But those images are dated. Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space.
Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization — all prized aspects of contemporary life.
It is less feared, too, for the crucial reason that living alone no longer suggests an isolated or less-social life. After interviewing more than 300 singletons (my term for people who live alone) during nearly a decade of research, I’ve concluded that living alone seems to encourage more, not less, social interaction.
Paradoxically, our species, so long defined by groups and by the nuclear family, has been able to embark on this experiment in solo living because global societies have become so interdependent. Dynamic markets, flourishing cities and open communications systems make modern autonomy more appealing; they give us the capacity to live alone but to engage with others when and how we want to and on our own terms.
In fact, living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities.
Compared with their married counterparts, single people are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures. There is much research suggesting that single people get out more — and not only the younger ones. Erin Cornwell, a sociologist at Cornell, analyzed results from the General Social Survey(which draws on a nationally representative sample of the United States population) from 2000 to 2008 and found that single people 35 and older were more likely than those who lived with a spouse or a romantic partner to spend a social evening with neighbors or friends. In 2008, her husband, Benjamin Cornwell (also a sociologist at Cornell), was lead author of “The Social Connectedness of Older Adults,” a paper in the American Sociological Review that showed that single seniors had the same number of friends and core discussion partners as their married peers and were more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors.
SURVEYS, some by market research companies that study behavior for clients developing products and services, also indicate that married people with children are more likely than single people to hunker down at home. Those in large suburban homes often splinter into private rooms to be alone. The image of a modern family in a room together, each plugged into a separate reality, be it a smartphone, computer, video game or TV show has become a cultural cliché.
New communications technologies make living alone a social experience, so being home alone does not feel involuntary or like solitary confinement. The person alone at home can digitally navigate through a world of people, information and ideas. Internet use does not seem to cut people off from real friendships and connections.
The Pew Internet Personal Networks and Community Survey — a nationally representative survey of 2,512 American adults conducted in 2008 that was the first to examine how the Internet and cellphones affect our core social networks — shows that Web use can lead to more social life, rather than to less. “Social Isolation and New Technology,” written by the Rutgers University communications scholar Keith Hampton, reveals that heavy users are more likely than others to have large and diverse social networks; more likely to visit parks, cafes and restaurants; and more likely to meet diverse people with different perspectives and beliefs.
Today five million people in the United States between ages 18 and 34 live alone, 10 times more than in 1950. But the largest number of single people are middle-aged; 15 million people between ages 35 and 64 live alone. Those who decide to live alone following a breakup or a divorce could choose to move in with roommates or family. But many of those I interviewed said they chose to live alone because they had found there was nothing worse than living with the wrong person.
In my interviews, older single people expressed a clear preference for living alone, which allowed them to retain their feelings of independence and integrity, and a clear aversion to moving in with friends or family or into a nursing home.
According to research by the Rutgers sociologist Deborah Carr, at 18 months after the death of a spouse, only one in four elderly men and one in six elderly women say they are interested in remarrying; one in three men and one in seven women are interested in dating someday; and only one in four men and one in 11 women are interested in dating immediately.
Most older widows, widowers and divorced people remake their lives as single people. A century ago, nearly 70 percent of elderly American widows lived with a child; today — thanks to Social Security, private pensions and wealth generated in the market — just 20 percent do. According to the U.C.L.A. economist Kathleen McGarry: “When they have more income and they have a choice of how to live, they choose to live alone. They buy their independence.”
Some unhealthy old people do become dangerously isolated, as I learned when I researched my book about the hundreds of people who died alone in the 1995 Chicago heat wave, and they deserve more attention and support than we give them today. But the rise of aging alone is also a social achievement. The sustained health, wealth and vitality that so many people over age 65 enjoy allow them to maintain domestic independence far longer than previous generations did. What’s new today is that the great majority of older widows, widowers and divorced people prefer living alone to their other options, and they’re willing to spend more on housing and domestic help for the privilege. Some pundits predicted that rates of living alone would plummet because of the challenged economy: young people would move into their parents’ basements; middle-aged adults would put off divorce or separation for financial reasons; the elderly would move in with their children rather than hold on to places of their own.
Thus far, however, there’s little evidence that this has happened. True, more young adults have moved in with their parents because they cannot find good jobs; but the proportion of those between 20 and 29 who live alone went down only slightly, from 11.97 percent in 2007 to 10.94 percent in 2011. In the general population, living alone has become more common — in absolute and proportional terms. The latest census report estimates that more than 32 million Americans live alone today, up from 27.2 million in 2000 and 31 million in 2010.
All signs suggest that living alone will become even more common in the future, at every stage of adulthood and in every place where people can afford a place of their own.
RECENTLY my mother asked me to clarify what I meant when I said I was dating someone, versus when I was hooking up with someone, versus when I was seeing someone. And I had trouble answering her because the many options overlap and blur in my mind. But at one point, four years ago, I had a boyfriend. And I know he was my boyfriend because he said, “I want you to be my girlfriend,” and I said, “O.K.”
He and I dated for over a year, and when we broke up I thought my angsty heart was going to spit itself right up out of my sore throat. Afterward, I moved out of my mother’s house in Brooklyn and into an apartment in the East Village, and from there it becomes confusing.
So, a few days after the chat with my mom, when I found myself downtown drinking tea with my friend Steven, I asked him what he thought about dating. He has a long-term girlfriend, and I was curious how he viewed their relationship.
“The main thing,” he said, “is I don’t mind if she sleeps with other people. I mean, she’s not my property, right? I’m just glad I get to hang out with her. Spend time with her. Because that’s all we really have, you know? I don’t want her to be mine, and I don’t want to be anybody’s.”
I sucked my teeth and looked over at the next table, where two men sat opposite each other. One looked over his shoulder and gave me a closed-mouth grin.
Steven explained that it’s not a question of faithfulness but of expectation. He can’t be expected not to want to sleep with other people, so he can’t expect her to think differently. They are both young and living in New York, and as everyone in New York knows, there’s the possibility of meeting anyone, everywhere, all the time.
For the sake of brevity and clarity, I’ll say I’ve dated a lot of guys. It’s not that I’ve gone out anywhere with a lot of these guys, or been physical with most of them, or even seen them more than once. But there have been many, many encounters.
I’ve met guys in the park, at the deli, at galleries, at parties and on the Internet. The Internet idea came from thinking that if I could sift through people’s profiles, like applications, I could eliminate the obvious lunatics.
And that didn’t work out very well. One leaned across the table an hour into dinner and screamed: “You love me! I know you do!” Another stood outside my apartment with one finger on the buzzer and another covering the peephole, occasionally banging his fist, until he finally exhausted himself and left.
As for the guys I first met in person, there was the construction worker I ran into on the train twice before saying anything, kissed the third time, kissed the fourth time, got stood up by the fifth time and never saw again. Then there was the guy with tattooed knuckles, the young Republican, the Irishman on vacation and the guy who stole $300 from me to buy drugs. There was the activist, the actor, the librarian, the waiter and the bond trader.
So when my friends and I started having a conversation about the nature of monogamy, I thought I knew something about monogamy. Because, despite the fleeting nature of most of my encounters, and despite my own role in their short duration, I think what I have been seeking in some form from all of these men is permanence.
Sometimes I don’t like them, or am scared of them, and a lot of times I’m just bored by them. But my fear or dislike or boredom never seems to diminish my underlying desire for a guy to stay, or at least to say he is going to stay, for a very long time.
And even when I don’t want him to stay — even when he and I find each other as strangers and remain strangers until we stop doing whatever it is we are doing — I still want to believe that two people can meet and like each other well enough to stay together exclusively, without the introduction of some 1960s rhetoric about free love or other noncommittal slogans.
But noncommittal is what we’re all about.
There was the guy with red hair and big steaklike hands that walked with me arm in arm through Washington Square Park, kissed me on the stoop of my mother’s brownstone and said he wanted to be my boyfriend. Until our next walk, when he kept his hands to himself and said he meant boyfriend “in the theoretical sense of the word.”
Then there was the installer of soy insulation who cooked soggy pasta and made me watch football and whimpered and kicked in his sleep. In the spring there was the guy 12 years older than me who shared an apartment overlooking Tompkins Square Park with an antediluvian man who walked around in graying long underwear.
There was the guy who wore more makeup than I did, and the one who waxed his eyebrows clean off his face. And the one who slept with a guy when he was drunk, then with another when he was sober. (But he insisted he wasn’t gay, just curious, and since when was I so uptight anyway?)
Over the summer there was the Jesuit taking a break from the seminary who stopped calling after I said I wouldn’t sleep with him on our third date. In the fall, back at school, there was the banjo player from the woods of New England who took me home to meet his family, then moved away and told me to wait for him. And I did, for months, until he called to say he was falling in love with me, and oh, man, I had to come see him right away (“Buy your ticket tonight!”), before he called again to say it was moving too fast and he wasn’t ready.
And on, and on, and on.
Then this winter I met a guy while waiting to have my computer fixed. He had big blue eyes and a wide red mouth and delicate hands and greasy brown hair. He sat down and asked what I was reading and did I have a boyfriend because he was asking me out. He smelled like incense and clean linen, and I was overwhelmingly and instantaneously smitten. Among other things, I liked his indifference, confidence and knowledge of foreign film directors.
On our first date he explained his theory of exclusive relationships, which was that they shouldn’t exist. We talked about our (and all of our friends’) divorced parents, about how marriage was nothing but a pragmatic financial venture, and about the last time we cheated on someone. He said that his disregard for monogamy wasn’t a chauvinistic throwback, but quite the opposite: the ultimate nod to feminism.
On our second date we watched coverage of the Iowa caucus, and later, after listening to jazz at his apartment, he crawled onto his bed, leaned against the headboard and said he didn’t burn artificial light after dark. I sighed and edged into bed next to him.
During the night he kicked and snored, grabbing greedily at me with his well-moisturized hands like a child snatching at free candy.
We overslept. In the morning I watched him dress frantically, the way a drifter would (gray pants and shirt tucked in and tie and vest and brown wingtip shoes and gray sweater and red scarf and jacket: it was lovely). He looked up occasionally from his scrambling to give a big toothy smile. I made the bed and drank the orange juice he bought for me the night before. We left his apartment and tried to find a cab.
As we crossed Hudson Street, we waded through a passing stream of preschool children walking in pairs, holding hands. I watched their teachers — one at the front of the line, one in the middle, one at the back — while he hailed a taxi.
A week passed before I saw him again. I was about to go back to school in Vermont, and he was headed to Jamaica on vacation. When I entered the restaurant, he said: “The nice part about having a shoddy memory is I forget how pretty some people are. You look beautiful.”
As we ate, we theorized about the effects of pornography on romantic relationships. Dinner ended; he had to go pack for his trip. I asked casually when I was going to see him again.
He sighed. “That’s a loaded question.”
I asked what he meant, because I thought the question was fairly straightforward.
Then it came. The story. The long, boring, aggravatingly rehearsed and condescending story. It spewed, overflowed and dripped off our table and onto the floor and underneath the shoes of the other patrons and into the street.
He said he had just gotten out of a long relationship, and now he was single and didn’t really know how this whole dating thing works, but he was seeing a lot of other people, and he liked me; he thought I was special. Cross my heart, he actually called me special.
WHEN he was done, he asked: “That’s what you were talking about, right? Seeing me again and the nature of our relationship? Like, what are we to each other?”
I said I just meant to ask when we were going to see each other again, because I thought that was the polite thing to do after a few dates, and I wondered if he wanted to make time for me to come back to New York to see him. And he said no, that was “too much, too soon,” but if I’m ever in town I should call him. He would love to see me.
We left. It was raining, he hailed a cab for me, and we hugged without looking at each other. I got into the cab and rode away.
And tried to process it. And tried to remind myself that when we first met I thought he was an arrogant, presumptuous little man. I tried to think about my conversation with Steven. I tried to remember that I was actively seeking to practice some Zenlike form of nonattachment. I tried to remember that no one is my property and neither am I theirs, and so I should just enjoy the time we spend together, because in the end it’s our collected experiences that add up to a rich and fulfilling life. I tried to tell myself that I’m young, that this is the time to be casual, careless, lighthearted and fun; don’t ruin it.
We’ve won the war on boredom! If you have a smartphone in your pocket, a game console in the living room, a Kindle in your backpack and an iPad in the kitchen, you never need to suffer a minute without stimulation. Yay!
But wait—we might be in dangerous territory. Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative. I think they’re right. I’ve noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me. […]
My period of greatest creative output was during my corporate years, when every meeting felt like a play date with coma patients. I would sit in long meetings, pretending to pay attention while writing computer code in my mind and imagining the anatomically inspired nicknames I would assign to my boss after I won the lottery. […]
Lately I’ve started worrying that I’m not getting enough boredom in my life. If I’m watching TV, I can fast-forward through commercials. If I’m standing in line at the store, I can check email or play “Angry Birds.” When I run on the treadmill, I listen to my iPod while reading the closed captions on the TV. I’ve eliminated boredom from my life.
Now let’s suppose that the people who are leaders and innovators around the world are experiencing a similar lack of boredom. I think it’s fair to say they are. What change would you expect to see in a world that has declining levels of boredom and therefore declining creativity? Allow me to describe that world. See if you recognize it.
Scott then goes on to point out ‘evidence’ in real world - proof that this lack of ‘digestive’ period is indeed hurting us in all sorts of ways w/ far reaching implications. All these ring very true, unfortunately. Boredom and creativity are just two sides of the same coin. And as for the ‘conditions’ that allow one a chance to get bored to begin with: AKA ‘free time’ - is the ultimate luxury of modern day life.
“… there are dangerous, unintended consequences to filtering. In this new book, The Filter Bubble, Pariser argues that all this filtering is starting to isolate us. When websites show us only what we like, we get cut off from the diverse points of view that can enrich our understanding of the world. That might be relatively harmless when you’re searching for Ms. Cyrus’ latest single, but what about when you’re trying to find information about pending legislation in Congress or news about revolution in another country?”