Alan Jacobs on avoiding unpaid labor for surveillance capitalism

...it’s important to understand that a lot of what we call leisure now is actually not leisure. It is unpaid labor on behalf of surveillance capitalism, what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism. That is, we are all working for Google, we are working for Facebook. I would like to spread a model of reading that is genuinely a leisure activity and that escapes the loop of being unpaid labor for surveillance capitalism. That will start small, and maybe it will stay small, but my hope is that it would be it would be bigger. Even people who have very hard, demanding lives can spend an enormous amount of time in this activity that we have been taught to feel is leisure, but is as I have said unpaid labor.

It’s interesting to see how things come into fashion. Think about how in the last few months we have decided that nothing is more important than the Post Office—that the Post Office is the greatest thing in the world. One of those bandwagons that I’ve been on for my entire life is libraries. I think libraries are just amazing. I grew up in a lower-middle-class, working class family. My father was in prison almost all of my childhood, and my mother worked long hours to try to keep us afloat. My grandmother was the one who took care of my sister and me, and we didn’t have much money for books. There were a lot of books in the house, but that was because members of my family would go to used bookshops and get these like ten cent used paperbacks that had been read ten times and had coffee spilled on them and so forth. So we spent massive amounts of time at the library. Once a week my grandmother and I would go to the library and come out with a great big bag full of books and we would just read relentlessly.

I’m the only person in my family who went beyond high school—in fact I’m the only person in my family to graduate from high school. Yet we read all the time. We always had a TV on in our house, but nobody ever watched it. A characteristic thing in my family would be me, my mother, my grandmother, my sister when she got old enough, sitting in a room with the TV on, the sound turned down, and we were all just sitting there reading books. That was everything to me. It opened the door for everything that I’ve done in the rest of my life. I owe so much to the city of Birmingham, Alabama’s, public libraries. I think when I was doing that I was simultaneously engaging in genuine leisure while also being formed as a thinker and as someone who could kind of step out of the flow of the moment and acquire perspective and tranquility. So I believe that I’m recommending something that is widely available, even to people who have very little money and very few resources, and I know that from my own childhood.

—Alan Jacobs, "The Fare Forward Interview with Alan Jacobs," Fare Forward (30 Dec 2020)

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