Scarcity and Illusion: Paper, Budgets, and the Endless Internet
It is terrible to not having enough of something you desperately need like food, money, or time. But it’s also a bad situation to live with the illusion of having enough, or having an endless supply of something that is actually quite limited.
Human living is always within boundaries like light and darkness, hunger and satiety, work and relaxation. I remember my college Introduction to Philosophy class, and how our professor forced us to limit ourselves to one page for some of our exam answers in the little blue books, and suddenly every word mattered. Using a paper calendar or journal is another way to work within our limits of the day, that there is only so much time for today’s tasks and events. Computers can work all day and night without a need for rest (which is why the will eventually replace us), but humans can only focus for so long without a mental break.
Scarcity forces trade-offs and choices, and without it we spend time or money on what we don’t have or dream of a time that never comes. Waiting for enough is, like waiting for Godot, fairly miserable. The same applies to finances, which are also limited. Living with a financial budget is forcing a kind of scarcity on our choices so that we don’t spend money that we don’t have, or spend it on the wrong things. The problem with credit cards and debt is that it gives us the illusion that we have limitless funds, but of course we don’t (no one does, really; consider Paul Manafort’s coats). Remember that today’s new car will include future guilt, fear, and less money, because it’s never free. Without the awareness of a budget we will always be in fear and debt, and without an awareness of scarcity in our time and attention we are creating unhappy illusions.
Being a student and taking good notes is an act of scarcity. You can’t transcribe the lecture or class (writing it all down is a recipe for disaster, because you will perpetually live with the question, what was that word just now?). Even if you could transcribe it, you probably won’t have time later to listen to the whole thing again. Good notes, as Cal Newport argues in How to be a High School Superstar, are interpretations that work the angles of our time, attention, and speed of writing. Reading is the same thing; we can’t underline everything in the book, so good underlining and book notes live with the scarcity of the page and the future (what will I need in the future to understand this book)? Being forced to cut, limit, and interpret is how you write and take notes, using a piece of paper to write down only the main points or memorable bits. Instead, many students mistakenly use a laptop and try to type everything out and end up on facebook in the end, because it’s so nearby on the computer screen.
Most college professors and academics want to write and publish, but they fail because they keep waiting for the right time to come. Instead of living with the scarcity of the present, they expect that during winter break or the summer inspiration will strike and they will punch out that article or book. It’s easy to think that a huge block of time and focus is just around the corner while you busily grade and run errands, much like buying on credit creates the illusion of endless cash. Robert Boice's Advice for New Faculty Members argues that faculty members should write and prepare for class in brief regular sessions, and not in huge exhausting spans of time. After studying the habits of many new and experienced faculty, he found that it is the anxious attitude towards class preparation and research, and the illusive desire for blocks of time that never come, that most often defeats effective teaching and writing. (He doesn’t say it, but I think preparing PowerPoint slides is a disaster of the teacher’s time and energy).
Living with a forced scarcity means avoiding destructive illusions and glass castles, especially the internet, which is one huge illusion of endless time and interest. Email, facebook, online shopping – it is a sprawling casino floor with no day and night, and lots of blinking lights, fantasized hopes, and unsettling losses. It is an addiction to endlessness that leaves us exhausted and overcommitted. Anya Mushakevich in the New York Times comments on leaving social media after Cal Newport’s challenge to digital minimalism. She said, “I feel more invested in the time I spend with people. And because we interact less frequently, we have this idea that we want to make the most of the experience. That makes it seem more meaningful than if we had all of the time in the world, like we do on Facebook.”
It’s human nature to wait for next week or next year to start an exercise regime or diet or book. But the time is never perfect for starting, except for now; “now is the day of salvation!” thunders the Apostle Paul (2 Cor 6:2). There is never a perfect time to write or diet, never quite enough time or money, unless we accept the givens as they are. The only time is now and a full awareness of our choices and their opportunity costs. Writing is ultimately done one word at a time, as Stephen King quips. The question is the one before Alan Moore’s unnerved poet Benedict Perrit in Jerusalem: “His right and hand trembled, inches from the snow-blind, empty page” (p. 247).