Beware of the utilitarian trap

I know a lot of people who do not have any real interests or hobbies.

Looking back, this seems to be somewhat of a recent trend, at least within the environments that I grew up in. During my high school years, for instance, many of my classmates were involved in various forms of sports clubs – soccer, volleyball, gymnastics and such. In fact, Vereine of this sort have always been popular in Germany.

Then, life happened, I suppose. University. Work. One had to learn the intricacies of time-management now, all alone and without the overzealous help of helicopter parents. That’s what it means to grow up. Around that time – I remember vividly how in 2011, when I was 16-17, Twitter was still seen as this novel and strange experiment among some people in my school – social media took off. And with that, many people my age stopped to pursue any sort of interest or hobby.

They spent their leisure time scrolling through various social media websites like Facebook and Twitter instead. I suppose there wouldn’t be so many drawbacks associated with this if it were just a fleeting activity to pass the boredom of waiting for the bus to school or work. But people in my age bracket seem to spend a lot of time starring at their screens: If you have an iPhone, you can easily check out just how much time you spend being glued to your phone.

This article mentions the results of research that indicates an average time of 3 hours and 15 minutes, with the top 20% spending upwards of four and a half hours. I know of people who sometimes even spend around 10 hours on their phones. (I know this for sure because I was once annoyed that a friend of mine kept scrolling through social media incessantly, so I took a look at that friend’s screen time recorded in the iPhone settings – with permission, of course.)

Some people believe that concern about this tendency to spend countless hours glued to screens, often becoming addicted to the vitriolic and divisive altercations on social media is akin to embracing a form of neo-luddism. As someone who is very enthusiastic about technological innovation, I have always found this line of thinking ridiculous. One can criticise potentially harmful aspects of a technology, while still acknowledging its benefits, such as the possibility of connection and collaboration with interesting people around the world. I don’t even know how someone can seriously create such an artificial dichotomy in the vein of “either you believe that everything about social media and technology, in general, is invariably laudable, or you are an archaic Luddite, perhaps like those people in the 18th century who made a fuss about fiction novels – a newly emerging medium at that time.”

This is a ridiculous dichotomy, but actually not the focus of my post. Or not entirely.

One thing that I am concerned about is the fact that many of those rather useless hours spent scrolling around could be spent in the pursuit of really any activity that gives people joy, something they love to immerse themselves in, something to temporarily forget about deadlines, being productive, work and all these utilitarian aspects of life.

Which leads me to my main point: So many people seem to shy away from doing something that is only fun. Something that for once does not have any practical purpose, related to one’s career or anything in that matter. Just pure and innocently useless joy; leisure in its truest form. But spending some time, perhaps a few hours a week, for something that fills one with complete joy and simultaneously rids oneself of practical and utilitarian for a short while is absolutely essential.

There really is enough room to ponder about the practicalities of life for most people anyway – we spend most of our lives rummaging about those questions, young people especially: Thinking about our education, careers, future professional goals, and so on. Stepping out of this all-encompassing utilitarian mindset, at least for a while, clears and recharges the mind.

This is why it is rather detrimental to spend all of one’s leisure time reading practical self-help books, or books related to one’s professional aspirations. Books of this kind are certainly useful, but due to their inherently utilitarian nature, reading them does not really count as true leisure. One should always spend a substantial time reading books solely for the sake of enjoying them, without looking for any use derived from them. At least, that is what I believe.

And as much as I love reading books, all sorts of high literature, for the most part, I believe it is worth to pursue additional hobbies and activities in the outside world. Many of us spend most of our time working in front of computer screens, so using our senses for fulfilling activities is quite a beneficial compensation to that. I started practicing archery when I was in St Andrews, for instance, and it shortly became my favourite sport, for it required a soothing combination of concentration and calmness. Oh and I do recommend playing video games, especially those with complex and immersive settings.

Basically, everyone should do some “useless” stuff from time to time. I believe that doing so makes people more content and paradoxically, more productive than neurotically pursuing activities for the sake of endless self-optimisation

Francis Heylighen – Gifted people and their problems

Out of all social media platforms, I like Quora the most. Unlike Facebook, it’s more than just a rather bland echo-chamber full of people within your own intellectual or political bubble and unlike Twitter, the focus is not on creating mass outrage.

Rather, it’s just full of interesting questions about a multitude of different fields, from analytical philosophy to behavioural economics, to psychology, to history, entrepreneurship, the arts, and any sort of constellations between different fields one could fathom. Basically, if you are an intellectually curious person and you have a question about anything that might be of some relevance in this universe, you can publish your question on Quora. After a while, people with a certain level of expertise in whatever area your question falls into will provide you with some answers, and the best ones will be upvoted.

I find this atmosphere of curiosity and openness for new insights more fruitful than what I often see on Twitter or Facebook, so I try to spend comparatively more time on Quora. People who score high in the Big 5 trait of openness should enjoy Quora for similar reasons, I believe.

Two days ago or so, I stumbled upon an interesting paper written by Francis Heylighen on giftedness. Heylighen is mostly known for his work in cybernetics: He focuses on the emergence and evolution of intelligent organisation and on related topics, such as the idea that the internet is a global brain. To a lesser extentt, he has also written about giftedness and some of the characteristics displayed by gifted people.

His paper, Gifted People and their Problems, piqued my interest because it seems to be a succinct summary of several research papers that point out the characteristics of giftedness. This included an above-average IQ, but also some other characteristics linked to this, such as vivid creativity and the ability to completely immerse and focus on something perceived as interesting. (This is probably linked to the psychological concept of flow developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.) The paper also discusses how giftedness in women might be perceived differently than giftedness in men.

I think it’s worth reading for anyone who is tangentially interested in the psychological concepts of intelligence, giftedness, and creativity. I’ve included the link within the paragraph above, but here it is again: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/GiftedProblems.pdf

The futility of aiming for serendipity, or why I’m starting this blog

Is aiming for serendipity always bound to be a futile attempt, given that the latter thrives on chaos, spontaneity, and that sort of happenstance characteristic of life itself? It seems so; the very concept of serendipity stands in stark contrast to any teleologisms.

But still, I hope to write down, organize, and perhaps even discover serendipitous ideas by finally starting a blog. Entries here will not adhere to specific formats, and I don’t how often I’ll publish something here. I am mostly doing this to organize my thinking and to write down ideas that might suddenly arise rather fleetingly before I forget about them.

There is a value, I think, in externalizing one’s thoughts. I have a myriad of different interests in all sorts of areas – philosophy, economics, psychology, history, and the arts.

Writing down my thoughts, opinions, and sentiments about such issues might aid me in delving deeper into these interests of mine; perhaps sort of overcoming the general shallowness that seems to have afflicted so many young people of my generation, in an age where the next cheap dopamine hit is merely one click away on social media.

I’m an avid reader, so I expect that many of the blog articles here will be either discussing or referencing something I’m currently reading. I’ve become more interested in the history of the Cold War after watching The Americans, so I’m reading a book about Sergei Tretyakov, a former KGB/SVR officer who decided to defect to the United States. (Comrade J by Peter Earley). I’m also reading more of Roger Scruton’s work on aesthetics. There is no real thematic connection between those two books: Aesthetics is a subdomain of philosophy, although it’s technically possible to focus on the aesthetics of Soviet propaganda art, which would establish such a connection… but I digress.

I might write some German articles from time to time. I am from Germany after all, but I went to university in the UK for my Master’s degree, my undergraduate degree was completed in English as well, and I’ve lived in the US (Washington D.C) for a while. I’ve interacted with lots of Americans throughout my life, so my level of English is more or less equal to my German right now. Because I’ve been around so many Americans (and some Brits) throughout my studies, my posts will be read by more people when I write them in English, so English will likely be the predominant language of this blog.

I suppose I will need to add a short About section here soon as well. My posts will likely be read by people who somewhat know me, or who have heard of me, though, so I can keep it rather brief for now: I’m 25 years old (turning 26 this October), I have an undergrad degree in philosophy from the KU Leuven and a graduate degree in philosophy from the University of St Andrews. I worked as a Research Associate in Washington D.C for a while and also did similar work in Berlin prior to starting my Master’s degree. I’m doing all sorts of freelance writing at the moment, and I’m working on a business venture of mine, and I’m looking forward to writing more about that too here.

And yes, I’m interested in politics, I have written about it, but I don’t like to confine myself into one specific political identity. Turning your political views into your personal identity is, I believe, problematic for all sorts of reasons. If I had to describe my general views though, I am rather socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

I’m also thinking about not just publishing my own voice here. I have come to know some extraordinarily talented and intelligent people during all sorts of conferences and events I’ve attended – in Europe and the US – and I believe it would be quite enriching to have their views published here occasionally, as guest posts or so. But that is just a tentative idea for now.

Thanks to everyone who has read this post in its entirety – there will be more content about my life, my interests, and the books I’m currently reading, all of which (hopefully) will come across as less rambling than this initial entry.