Montreal, May 15, 2010 • No 278


Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Carson City, Nevada.




Unstructured Leisure and Progress


by Gennady Stolyarov II


          One of the highly problematic aspects of contemporary Western societies is the widespread aversion to individuals having “unstructured time”―for which no conventions or prescribed routines dictate how it will be spent. This is a mistaken distaste and, indeed, a dangerous one. Unstructured time is not only the source of human progress; it is also essential for people to develop their own individualities and flourish as unique human beings.


          Consider, for instance, a subsistence farmer: he must work all day just in order to eat; he has virtually no leisure time. He must spend every waking minute toiling just to survive. However, if he were to accumulate a surplus of food and other necessities, he might be able to obtain some time in which he did not absolutely have to do something in particular. Rather, he would be free to direct his energies at his discretion. One possible use of that new-found time might be to experiment with ways of improving his condition: looking for new crops to plant, developing more productive tools, or learning about other ways to make a living. If he is motivated to advance his life, he will spend such unstructured time in a way that benefits him either directly or indirectly. Indeed, it was these little periods of leisure that led to humanity’s first stirrings of technological progress during the early agricultural period. Unstructured time is time away from being constrained to function along known and expected patterns―either by the scarcities of nature or by the expectations of other men. It is, rather, a time to explore, experiment, discover, and improve life in hitherto unanticipated ways.

          It is especially important to recognize the indirect benefits of unstructured time. The next leap forward in any field of human endeavor is not necessarily obvious―even when it might seem obvious in hindsight. Initially arriving at innovative ideas may be a roundabout and idiosyncratic process, shaped by the interests, experiences, and imaginings of the discoverer. There is no one-size-fits-all routine that can be internalized to reliably bring about advances; rather, one needs the flexibility, time, and space to truly delve into a particular area in which the advance is desired―or even to discover the existence of such an area.

"Unstructured time is not only the source of human progress; it is also essential for people to develop their own individualities and flourish as unique human beings."

          Nor is it necessary that the use of unstructured time be efficient in the manner that “regular work” is expected to be. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to even define efficiency in the context of discovery and experimentation. There are certainly more and less effective ways of accomplishing known tasks; for instance, creating a vehicle on an assembly line is much more efficient than creating it from the ground up through the work of a single skilled mechanic. However, as future advances are by definition unknown until they occur, neither can the “efficient” path toward them be predicted in advance. The probability that an advance will be made, however, can be improved if greater numbers of capable individuals have more unstructured time during which they can conceive of possibilities as they see fit. Many will pursue dead-end approaches or might not originate even potentially feasible solutions. Many others will use their unstructured time just to rest from their structured exertions. Some others might even use this time in a dissipative or deleterious fashion. But some will succeed―and, without unstructured time, they could not have done so. Their successes will have the potential to elevate everyone’s standards of living. These successes―past, present, and future―alone suffice to justify unstructured leisure.

          But discretionary time has even more in its favor. It is vital in enabling individuals to discover what it is that defines them as individuals. It would be a tragic world indeed in which people only acted to implement others’ “blueprints” for how they should live, losing their mental autonomy, creativity, and internal discipline in the process. From their earliest years, most people in contemporary Western societies are placed under stifling regimentation in preschools, “public” classrooms, teams, and group projects. As often as possible, authority figures attempt to subject children to contrived hierarchical structures from which a reprieve can scarcely be found. This is not the kind of voluntary cooperation and exchange in which free individuals participate out of recognition of the possibilities for mutual gain.

          While some manners of structured environments are necessary, the almost universal attempts to direct children toward “organized recreation”―apart from what is officially considered “work”―may be ultimately responsible for many of today’s societal ills. These range from the mind-numbing culture of teenage conformity to the sheepish attitude of most adults toward political and economic issues. As children grow up in such highly regimented environments, they increasingly fail to discover anything about them which is not conditioned by their peers, their society, and the expectations of authority figures―either formal political authorities or informal authorities of the mass culture. Instead of finding themselves as individuals, they try increasingly to lose themselves in the crowd. With this, tremendous creative energy is also lost, along, perhaps, with the basic truth of individualism that each person is responsible and accountable for his or her own choices and actions.

          The scarcities of nature impose upon us external discipline and routines that are necessary, given the present state of human knowledge and resources. However, we should not compound such impositions with purely artificial restraints placed on individual exploration and creativity by societal convention. Unstructured time is a wonderful gift made possible by what abundance and technological sophistication we presently enjoy. It is also an indispensable means toward elevating humankind from its still semi-barbaric state toward a decent, free, rational, and ever-improving state of affairs. Indeed, if there ever comes about a world where most people can spend all of their time in an unstructured fashion, this will be a sign that humankind has overcome its greatest challenges.