Opiates of the Masses

Recently I read an article talking about how the eight hour work day is somewhat unnecessary, an artifact of outdated notions about employment. Despite various evidence that people tend not to be productive for more than three hours in a day, workplaces will settle for no less than a 40-hour week. The ensuing tiredness that your average worker feels upon returning home from one of these workdays then bolsters our consumer culture, because who wants to do anything besides sit and watch television and eat some easy-to-prepare food after such a long day?

I’ve also heard it said that our millennial generation is the generation of apathy. That the prevailing attitude about the great problems of our times is that there’s nothing you can do about it, so the best approach to take towards these topics is one of stoic acceptance. Putting these two things together, I began to wonder what else might be combining to reduce our culture’s ability to innovate, to create, to break free of its stale assumptions. I’ve written recently on my bad habits that keep me from being the creative and productive person I’d like to be, and I’m sure my experiences are not terribly unique. Recently I crested 80 hours of gameplay in the digital collectible card game Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, and I have to ask myself: if I’d spent those hours on my creative projects, how far along would I be by this point?

So many influences upon us in our daily environments are sedative in nature. We eat a diet high in carbohydrates that makes us sedentary and listless. Moreover, that diet is high in the psychoactive proteins found in modern dwarf wheat, putting us into a cycle of greater consumption and sluggishness of mind. Alcohol is cheap, widely available, and widely felt to be necessary to a good time or useful in escaping stress and other unpleasant feelings. Entertainment available at all hours spits out harsh blue light that diminishes our abilityto sleep, piling ever further on to the daily feeling of drowsiness and lack of ambition.

I’m no tinfoil hat wearer, but if there were some conspiracy to keep, say, the American public docile and compliant, it could hardly have come up with a better cocktail of influences. Sure, we can imbibe caffeine to give us back a bit of our lost energy and alertness, but it’s been my experience that this doesn’t entirely restore the cognitive faculties buried under the rest of this. Individually, one of these ingrained habits would be difficult enough to overcome, but in aggregate, they are overwhelming. Personal energy is crucial for fighting through frustrations and overcoming hurdles of motivation; our environments are all but tailored to afford us as little of that precious resource as possible.

I must marvel at the thought of what apotheosis we could attain if people the world over could break free of these things. If we weren’t narcotized by our food and our entertainment, how many more brilliant creative works would appear? How much easier would it be to enact political change, fight against kyriarchal systems, or pursue our “unrealistic” dreams? For those people who do manage to get out from under these widespread dulling factors and create something amazing, what is the secret sauce that enables them?

I can hope to make some dents in these things in my own life via the Zen Habits or other little insights I’ve picked up along the way, but it isn’t easy. When I get home from my standard eight hour shift, I feel a malaise that reminds me of the anhedonia of depression. I don’t want to so much as wash the dishes, much less write a novel or attend a rally. And so I play my computer games, and my life slowly ebbs away. Can I break free somehow, or will I be musing upon these same observations 20 years from now?

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3 thoughts on “Opiates of the Masses

  1. dandylions says:

    Hi, great job on HabitRPG, found your blog from there. My friends sent me that article too, and it just reminds me of Parkinson’s Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. So sure, I don’t think anyone denies that there is a lot of time-fat that can be trimmed from a 40-hr workweek without sacrificing actual output.

    Side point: I agree with you insofar as the exhaustion does feed a consumerist culture, but you make a tacit assumption that it’s the environment (society, government, companies, etc) that made people choose consumerism. But what if it’s the other way around? What if people are choosing the environment?

    • SabreCat says:

      Always a good sniff test to do! I’m sure it’s both: a feedback loop of people (e.g.) seeking narcotizing entertainments, which feeds profits into the producers of those entertainments, who then have more resources to sink into shaping the environment via marketing, etc. so that people participate in/buy those things and they become more ubiquitous, etc. etc.

  2. rosewoodpip says:

    80 hours isn’t that much! I lost, quite literally, three or four years to an MMO. And years after that, getting out of that mindset and learning to read and use my mind again.

    As you may have noticed, I’m about at the spot that you talk about in that last paragraph, or a ways beyond! For me it’s been all too easy to delay, to think, even well into middle age, that it isn’t too late and I can start any time. But no art comes without practice, and inspiration means nothing compared to craft. There are opportunities that have definitely been lost in that desire to escape you talk about. I could have written five, ten trunk novels in the time I spent in FFXI and playing other games. (Rather than three, all unfinished.)

    Following a number of SF/F writers on their blogs and twitter, I’ve seen many of them who have day jobs in addition to their work as novelists. And I’m surprised to see how many first novels even in the limited field I pay attention to are by folk in their 30s, 40s and even 50s. And SO many people in comments who are even older who are writing away on that novel. So there’s hope, too.

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