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Experience and performance
Time, for what purpose?
It is hard not to get a sense that there has been some kind of step change in recent months with AI-related technologies, and the consequences that might follow from the manner in which these are being tested on societies. The point of this note, however, is not to present another judgment or prognosis on chatGPT. Rather, it is to reflect on what we might be losing or forgoing as we rush towards an approximated world.
Walter Benjamin in his 1933 essay, ‘Experience and Poverty’, reflected on the way that technology was degrading the role of experience, eroding customs and traditions handed down over generations. He considered this in reference to the disappearance of the figure of the storyteller:
Everyone knew exactly what experience was: older generations had always shared theirs with the young. They did so succinctly, with the authority of age, in proverbs or at length and volubly, in stories, sometimes as stories from distant lands recounted to children and grandchildren by the fire. What happened to that custom?
In another essay, Benjamin suggested that social developments had meant the loss of both the narrator and the listener. The former was disappearing because of changes in modes of production and forms of work. On the latter, he reflected:
Nothing commends a story to memory more effectively than the chaste brevity that eludes psychological analysis. The more naturally the storyteller avoids all psychological shading, the greater will be the story’s claim to space in the listener’s memory, and the more thoroughly a story is integrated into the listener’s experience, the more likely he will be to recount it and pass it on sooner or later. This process of assimilation, which takes place deep inside us, requires a state of relaxation that is becoming ever rarer. If sleep is the height of physical relaxation, then boredom is that of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that broods the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves is enough to scare it away. Its nests—those activities intimately connected to boredom—have already died out in the cities and are declining in the countryside as well. With them, the gift of listening is being lost, and the community of listeners is disappearing.
While acknowledging Benjamin’s romanticised vision of the past, suggestive here is a different way of thinking about time, one that is not directly measured in terms of utility. With all of the tasks and functions continually being automated in order to free up more time, I wonder, why? For what purpose? More doom scrolling?
Taipa (タイパ ) - ‘time performance’ - has become a term in Japanese, ‘signifying the level of satisfaction gained compared with the time spent’. And so, movies are watched at double speed, songs are fast forwarded, rushing through and onward, for what? As Alan Jacobs rightly notes, even if it might be an understandable response to the explosion of middling content, efficiency is simply the wrong register to think about how one should engage with culture.
Returning to Benjamin:
Poverty of experience: this does not mean that mankind is longing for new experiences. No, they long to be freed from their experiences; they long for an environment in which they can show their outer poverty and ultimately their inner poverty as well to best advantage, to assert it so purely and clearly that it becomes something respectable. They are not always ignorant or inexperienced. One can often say the opposite: they have gulped it all down, “culture” and “people,” and are now suffering from surfeit and fatigue.
And so, we seek more and more time to consume more and more content, yet in the process, we are degrading our capacities to actually comprehend what we might be engaging with.
In Vladimir Nabokov lectures on literature, he proposed that: ‘the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense’. These are not traits that we are magically endowed with. Rather, they are developed, honed, practised. It takes work. How can we do so if we regard the time used simply as an expense?
At the end of his lecture series, Nabokov was clear that what he was teaching should not be thought of in terms of utility, rather it was ‘pure luxury’. That is precisely the point, the books need not be balanced.
Nabokov concluded with these words:
The main thing is to experience that tingle in any department of thought or emotion. We are liable to miss the best of life if we do not know how to tingle, if we do not learn to hoist ourselves just a little higher than we generally are in order to sample the rarest and ripest fruit of art which human thought has to offer.
To circle back to the concerns that partly prompted this note: when considering about what AI-related technologies might allow us to do, perhaps these might free up more time, but for what purpose? What does it matter ‘if we do not know how to tingle’?
For those interested in thinking further about technology and society, I would strongly recommend L.M. Sacasas’ excellent Substack, The Convivial Society.