The Surplus of Time

by Mike Shea on 3 May 2008

Clay Shirky wrote an interesting article where he compares three periods in history and how it affected those who lived through them. First was the industrial revolution:

"The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London."

In the 20th century, he argues, the social lubricant that took us into the information age was the sitcom:

"We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat."

I'm in the middle of calculating out some major financial planning and deciding at what point I can retire (one of the beauties of not having kids is reducing your working life by 10 years). A lot of the retire-early guides point to one of the bigger problems people choose to ignore: what the hell do you do with all that time?

I have a fair amount of free time already. I am lucky to have a job that leaves my nights and weekends open. I have a lot of hobbies, but I manage to fit them in. I have the time I want to spend with those I love and the things that are important to my life. What if that free time suddenly doubled?

Likely I'd spend a lot of time on Ebaum's world or buying so much crap that I would have to go back to work to afford it.

We all have a lot of big ideas about what we want to do. Some of my bigger goals, like writing a novel, I've actually done. Though I'd love to follow the Ray Bradbury philosophy of writing 1,000 words a day, every day, and I'd have 52 short stories a year. That's not realistic. I'm a lot more likely to watch "Cranky Geeks" and surf Digg than I am likely to do anything productive.

People think about retirement and talk about traveling or relaxing on a beach or learning a musical instrument, but what then? I figure I'd have three weeks of retirement before I'd be bored out of my mind. It's not just a matter of finding something to do but finding something you'd want to do that takes up a lot of time.

Clay Shirky's article talks about the Cognitive Surplus - the extra brain power we all have as a people and how the internet has connected us. I'm burning clock cycles right now writing about this topic while you're burning excess cycles reading it. We all learn from it and grow. You might talk about it with someone or post the idea to a forum and the idea grows.

I spent seven years dug into a deep online community; I'd likely do that again with either Warcraft or D&D or whatever my topic of choice would be. I remember the guy in "King of Kong" who was retired in his 20s and spent his days watching grand-masters of retro arcade games compete for the best Q-bert score.

Is it a waste of a life? Maybe, but we are lucky enough to have lives easy to waste. Why not enjoy it?