Dialog/For its own sake
V 1 — Excuse me. I hope you won't find it offensive if I ask a delicate question.
R 2 — I doubt that I would. Whatever you want to ask, go ahead, ask it.
V 3 — You've taken quite some trouble with A Place to Study and I don't see really what your purpose is. Facebook says Hallmarkish things about its purpose, but we all know it serves to sell ads and information about its users so its employees and owners make lots of money. Other so-called free sites do that too. You don't have ads or a pay wall or even a pro version we can bump up to for a price. And you don't appear to be the digital façade furthering the purposes of some large organization — academic, religious, philanthropic, or governmental. What is the purpose behind A Place to Study?
R 4 — Hmm. Will I satisfy your curiosity if I say simply that the purpose behind A Place to Study is to construct and use a place to study to disclose the commons by advancing liberal learning and self-formation?
V 5 — Not really. There's always some other angle. What is it?
R 6 — Right, and sometimes even an angel! OK. Let's look behind A Place to Study, but it may take a bit and I'll have to ask you some questions. Let me start asking, what's the tell?
V 7 — What's the tell? I'm not understanding your question.
R 8 — It's common for us to always think there is something behind something, but if it isn't apparent, we usually don't ask about it unless something specific triggers the question. A good bluff passes unnoticed unless the bluffer does something that tells others that maybe he's bluffing — that trigger is "the tell." What triggers your question?
V 9 — Well, it isn't very subtle here. Look at what you say about what you aim to do. Are they commands? More likely exhortations. "Learn liberally, Study deeply, Think ... Educate ... Value...." There's a purpose at work here! You can't miss it! Learn, study, think, educate, value — what is all that for?
R 10 — Great question! But need those activities have ulterior purposes? Can't we do them simply for their own sake?
V 11 — Maybe, but it seems to me that built into the idea of serving a purpose is the understanding that the purpose is for something. When I hear, "for its own sake," something in me goes, "Oh, really?" That phrase, itself, becomes a tell.
R 12 — OK. It's good to push us on this. Perhaps we can start this way. Do you remember as a kid seeing a grown-up do something and asking them why?
V 13 — Yeah. Sometimes the answers were gobbledygook, words I couldn't understand. Sometimes I'd understand the words, but not the why, so I'd ask the why again—
Because, V, it's the right thing to do.
But Mom. Why's that the right thing to do?
Well, V. Because. . . . Just because.
The exchange might go on through more cycles, but it and others end in a "Just because."
R 14 — Do you remember how you felt about the "Just because"?
V 15 — Well, I think sometimes I felt that mom was getting impatient and I better not push it further, or at least, when the kid next door quizzes me about why I like practicing scales on my sax, I feel that impatience. After a couple rounds I just say, 'I want to get better.' She says, 'Why?' I just say, 'Because . . . ,' tailing off in uncertainty more than impatience.
R 16 — Do you have any sense what the kid is thinking then?
V 17 — Umm, she seems pretty uncertain too, sort of that guess-I'll-have-to-wait-and-see attitude, sort of like mine. There's a kind of ambivalence — it could go on, but it also stops. I can think of many mundane reasons why I want to get better — to get good enough to play in a jazz group, possibly to make a little money while having fun with friends — lots of reasons. But then — it's a bit strange — sometimes when I'm just doing scales, I like doing it, kind of loosing myself exploring little nuances, much like I feel when I'm lost in really making music, fully absorbed in it.
R 18 — Interesting. We seem to have differentiated two modes of thinking about why we do things, one in which we look at ends in view, all the different things that doing something might lead to, and the other pointing to the immediate fulfillment we may feel through doing what we are doing. In one, we are doing what we're doing for some external purpose that we try to bring about by what we are doing, and in the other the purpose of what we're doing seems to be in doing what we're doing, and we describe that as doing it for its own sake.
V 19 — Yeah, but there's still the problem of the tell. A lot of stuff out there seems to be there for its own sake, but if you ask Why? hard enough, it doesn't end in a Just because, but in some slick scheme to sell stuff and commodify our hopes and ideals. I'm getting cynical on principle.
R 20 — Get skeptical, not cynical. Acting for a purpose and acting for its own sake are not mutually exclusive. They are actually quite different reasons for acting, ones which we can possibly combine constructively.
V 21 — That's right, exemplified by what I said about practicing my scales. I do it in order to get good enough to play professionally and it helps a lot that I can sometimes lose myself in it, doing it for its own sake. So what are we objecting to, then, when we object to commodification?
R 22 — It's not an either-or, categorical problem, but a conditional one; like most of life, a matter of striking the right balance.
V 23 — OK, but that doesn't help much. What's the right balance and how do we strike it? I began saying I had a delicate question. You're not creating A Place to Study simply for its own sake. You're doing it partly for something and partly for its own sake, and I want to understand the mixture. Frankly, superficially, it seems out of balance to me.
R 24 — How so?
V 25 — I don't understand your decision to forego all the incentives associated with formal education in developing A Place to Study. Look at all the resources consumed through the educational system motivated by many-sided, complex incentives. What you propose must either be disastrously unrealistic or a thorough deception!
R 26 — You speak of our decision to forego the incentives. It is "our decision" only with reference to a very large, long-lasting historical collectivity which has grown up over millennia as an effort to use the energies of human leisure`— leisure being the capacity to act autonomously for self-set goals — for the sake of developing and perfecting human capacities.
V 27 — Oh, that's right, "school" came from the ancient Greek for "leisure," that time when men and boys who would join together outside the workplaces to consider things as they pleased. But still, you have to deal with the question of incentives. In ancient Greece some men had leisure thanks to a slave economy.
R 28 — You're right, but slavery did not create leisure in the ancient world. It conditioned who had it and who didn't. Even in extreme conditions of subsistence, leisure exists as an aspect of human life. Anthropologists find it everywhere, conditioned in different ways. In developing A Place to Study, we want to create alternative conditions for leisure in contemporary life. We think there is a whole lot wrong and missing in the way we currently condition leisure in both public and private life.
V 29 — Let's go slowly. I want to understand the alternative you envision, but there is still this delicate question and I'll put it as bluntly as I can, not to be nasty, but to better understand. When you start talking about creating alternative conditions in contemporary life, I need to cross a big threshold of disbelief before I can consider your alternative thoughtfully. Face it — you're a little old man, perhaps with a few friends and some scanty material resources, proposing to forego all the established incentives to create alternative conditions for leisure in contemporary life. Let's get real!
R 30 — Sure, as a policy proposition, it is a loser of pathetic and comical proportions. But I'm not sure that the makers of policy propositions are very good at initiating historical changes. Historical change is not causal, a series of changes effected by discrete causes. It is ecological, transformations in patterns in the interactions of living organisms in and with their environments. What's going on with A Place to Study isn't a little old man cobbling together another website. We're just acting within a much bigger ecological change, and we are by no means in the vanguard of those acting within it.
V 31 — I'm listening. What's going on in this ecological change?
R 32 — Well, from inside ecological change, and all of us are inside it, we have no ground from which to chart precisely and fully how interrelationships are changing. Consequently, whatever we say about it will be a partial, subjective view. But we need nevertheless to determine a course of action as best we can from such perspectives.
V 33 — Just make it simple and direct. I'm trying to understand, not quibble.
R 34 — OK. The key thing introduced into the interaction patterns of human interrelations is not our particular initiative, but digital systems of communication in general. A Place to Study is just one of many efforts instantiating the new possibilities arising with those systems.
V 35 — What does that do to alter the conditions of leisure?
R 36 — It radically alters the material conditions, the constraints in time and space limiting social interaction, particularly leisured interaction.
V 37 — Explain that some, especially the part about "particularly leisured interaction."
R 38 — Well the great advances of modernity — roughly 1500 to 2000 — brought people together in cities, factories, offices, schools and had them work with high degrees of synchronization with powerful tools on materials, vastly increasing capacities for production. These affected the practices of work more significantly than those of leisure. Even the "school" lost its leisured character and became a vast mandarin system preparing personnel for the many offices of industrial states.
V 39 — So what's happening through the spread of digital technologies over the past 50 years or so? Social media 2.0? I don't see mandarin schooling contracting or mass leisure blossoming.
R 40 — Umm. Right, mass schooling is still growing. Mass leisure, too, has billowed as part of the consumption system that's become necessary to maintain demand for production. Constraining leisure to support consumption corrupts it, however.
V 41 — OK, a lot of people are consuming a lot of entertainment and online action. Me too, but without a great sense of fulfillment. Tell me more about what you see as problematic in it.
R 42 — Here we need some imagination with "Oh? Really?" at the ready. Take Facebook. "We build technologies that help people connect with friends and family, find communities, and grow businesses." "Oh? Really?" Or do they do that for the purpose of selling advertising and opportunities to influence opinion in order to enrich their employees and stockholders.
V 43 — Yeah. Facebook presents itself as a place where people can to act for its own sake. But we've said that we can do things for their own sake and for explicit purposes at the same time. What's the problem you see with how Facebook and services like it join extrinsic and intrinsic purposes?
R 44 — I think it is in the scope and quality of the resources it provides its users with which they can pursue their own purposes for their own sake. Facebook's extrinsic purposes within the consumption system subvert and corrupt the pursuit of intrinsic activity on it.
V 45 — You mean the way their procedures and algorithms draw users into repetitive, self-revealing activities allowing the company to place a lot of ads and aggregate all sorts of valuable information about consumers?
R 46 — Yes. For most users, Facebook proffers highly structured, rather simple-minded, self-generated activities, engaging but not particularly formative. Users autonomously generate a huge amount of repetitive activity on it, a vast amount of marginally meaningful communication.
V 47 — Well, it might not be a great cultural flowering, but is it harmful? Isn't the rationalization for it that 2+ billion people seem to want it? Are you going to say they may not or should not do so?
R 48 — No. I'm going to say that Facebook is a very clever system for expropriating the leisure time of billions of persons in order to commodify it for the profit of a few. But no material need drives people to give up their leisure to Facebook. They are free to join it and free to leave it. and I ask why they join it. And the best answer I can come up with is that they do it for want of good alternatives, and that's where ecological change comes it.
V 49 — So you are suggesting that we need to introduce better alternatives into the ecology of communication with which people can engage cultural resources for their own sake, without all the concomitant exploitation of their time and effort.
R 50 — Exactly. Facebook and the like demonstrate a huge desire shared by people around the globe for systems through which they can act for its own sake, to the point that they will allow their leisure time to be highly exploited for extrinsic purposes by those designing and providing the systems. People use it for want of better alternatives.
V 51 — So. To answer my original question. Here we aspire to develop a place where people can use the leisure they demonstrably have to pursue more fully its original goals of human self-development without subjecting their efforts to the exploitative overhead conventionally imposed.
R 52 — That's it. I think its worth a try. How about you?