Shabbat Shalom Week 7: Stop Making Yourself

Earlier this year, I became possessed by a fanciful notion which I blogged wishfully into the world. I declared A Reading Year. I was giving myself permission to switch into quiet mode, to spend my energy reading and integrating information rather than putting more out there.

But even then, I knew I couldn’t possibly hold myself to the declaration. A Reading Year must be earned. It’s a sabbatical after Finishing Something, and I’m not actually ready for that. The weekly reset of this Shabbat Shalom series is probably more my speed for now.

What’s stopping me from taking a whole year, though? What’s stopping anyone who wants a Reading Year from just taking one? Well, probably by definition, someone who wants a Reading Year is someone whose usual pattern is publishing stuff relentlessly. The reason one would do such an excruciating thing is that one wants to participate in the online media circus, which requires constant, consistent output. If your output falls off, you disappear.

This sounds like a specialized problem, but I don’t think it is anymore. If you’ve followed some of the rabbit holes I’ve linked to — particularly in this post, you may have encountered the idea that participation in social media is a form of labor. Social media users do “work” that enriches them a little, and the “products” of that work enrich the platform owners a lot.

What is the nature of this work? It’s self-production. It’s making oneself constantly available for packaging and distribution online. This work powers our social and professional relationships. It’s not the work that’s new, though; that’s always been the deal in human society. What’s new are the bosses, the platform owners who have figured out how to organize and program the efforts of our labor and profit from it. In turn, that mechanization of self has magnified the scope and range of ourselves.

In exchange, the bosses gave us power tools for self assembly. It used to be hard work to add something to your self package, such as a conspicuously interesting book. You had to read a whole book and understand it! But now you can just add it to your profile and search the web for quotations or answers to any questions that might come up. It feels great to be so good at self making. The problem is that these tools cause an arms race. Now that everybody can build harder, better, faster, stronger self packages, we have to pick up the pace. Each work of self construction has been devalued, but thanks to the bosses’ tools, we can make it up on volume.

(Wow, I feel like I’m writing the book again. It’s probably good to give you people a proper preview of what’s beyond the introduction.)

The good thing is, the web has given us so much more expertise in self work that we can now examine it with a master’s perspective. We know what the consequences of a whole year off from that labor will be, and we can weigh them for ourselves. Likewise, we know what the consequences one day of rest from self-production per week will be: probably nothing but relief, with the possibility of a clearer sense of self going into next week. I can accept that.

Shabbat shalom,
Jon