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Time Is Not On Our Side

By Matthew Yglesias on February 9, 2010 at 9:14 am

"Time Is Not On Our Side"

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There’s a lot going on in George Packer’s condescending post about Twitter, but I think this is his core point:

Here’s another: Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic’s very good politics blogger, was asked by Michael Kinsley to describe his typical day of information consumption, otherwise known as reading. Ambinder’s day begins and ends with Twitter, and there’s plenty of Twitter in between. No mention of books, except as vacation material via the Kindle. I’m sure Ambinder still reads books when he’s not on vacation, but it didn’t occur to him to include them in his account, and I’d guess that this is because they’re not a central part of his reading life.

And he’s not alone. Just about everyone I know complains about the same thing when they’re being honest—including, maybe especially, people whose business is reading and writing. They mourn the loss of books and the loss of time for books. It’s no less true of me, which is why I’m trying to place a few limits on the flood of information that I allow into my head.

This is all correct, and yet despite his protestations to the contrary, it just amounts to Packer offering a luddite argument. The life of a prosperous American man circa 1960 was pretty good. No risk of starvation, no idiocy of rural life, decent job stability, etc. For your leisure time you have many books to enjoy, can listen to records (or the radio), go to the movies, or watch one of three television networks. Plenty of social problems around, but nobody was writing about “the crisis of the under-entertained American” or anything like that. And yet just consider the volume of new books that have been written in the past 50 years. Just consider the volume of new good books that have been written in the past 50 years. And yet the earth still revolved around its axis in 24 hours and around the globe in 365 days. All those new books represent a loss of time available to read all the great pre-1960 books. Less Hamlet, less Great Gatsby, less Moby Dick, less Crime and Punishment, less Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and we mourn the loss of these great works!

Obviously, though, the publication of new books is progress rather than regress. A person who chose to never read a single piece of post-1960 fiction could still live a rich and full life. He could even adopt a sneering attitude toward people who insisted on reading new novels. And people who subscribe to cable television (later: DVRs). And people who buy VCRs (later: DVD players). And people who read blogs (later: Twitter feeds). But what does it really amount to? To take advantage of new opportunities to do new things means, by definition, to reduce the extent to which one takes advantage of old opportunities to do old things. One shouldn’t deny that the losses involved are real—of course they are—but simply point out that it’s unavoidable. To say, “aha! this is the thing—this Twitter, these blogs—that’s crowded books out of my life” is a kind of confusion. Life is positively full of these little time-crunches. The fact that something displaces something of value doesn’t mean that it has no value, it just means that it’s new. To displace old things is in the nature of new things, and to cite the fact of displacement as the problem with the new thing really is just to object to novelty.

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