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In a fast-paced world, knowledge can be produced during pockets of time

Author  :  Jiang Fei     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-01-23

The notable Chinese writer Lin Yutang once told the story of a man in New York City who bought the land beside his home on Park Avenue to prevent someone from building a skyscraper next to it. “There is nothing smarter than this,” Lin argued, because the rich man, though he spent a large amount of money on this completely vacant land, achieved the unobstructed view that he truly desired.

Back to reality, we all know that few people have the ability to safeguard such an unobstructed view. Lin used this story to enlighten us about the importance of the residential space. Maintaining a reasonable distance between one’s physical space and spiritual life embodies the profundity of such an unobstructed view: The poetry that we find in distant lands transcends the daily grind of life. 

Nowadays, amid the hustle and bustle, the laughter or rage, serenity or hullabaloo, everyone is trying to transcend his or her narrow living environment and walking space within the leisure time exclusive to each individual in an effort to create an empty spiritual space beside one’s home, which has gradually become the norm of everyday life for Chinese people today. When looking at the subway, bus and streets, one sees crowds of people phubbing (a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing”). Not only the pace of steps but also the rhythm of society has slowed down for a moment. The dissemination of information, analogous to a mercury leak, is pervasive everywhere each minute.

Marx used to divide time into three linear branches: the first is labor time, which is the working hours during which everyone is on duty to earn a living by being paid in form of necessary money; the second is non-discretionary time during non-labor period, such as eating and sleeping, during which people are not working but have to spare time to ensure their capacity to do work the next day; the third is discretionary time during non-labor period, which is used at one’s discretion apart from the hours of work, eating and sleeping time. 

However, the new media has altered people’s concept of time and space and the law of how they are distributed: Linear time has become non-linear. Space has in some cases become dislocated from time, and it is possible for spiritual space to be replaced by temporal consumption of information.

Marx said capitalists extract surplus labor time from workers for the improvement of the total surplus value. However, such a mode of exploiting working hours is not feasible or efficient today, hence the concept of “extra eight hours” emerged. However, even if during the limited “extra eight hours,” commerce is silently imposing non-discretionary time during non-labor period. Within easy reach and visibly pervasive, multimedia bombards people’s visual and auditory senses in a way that is no less intensified than the heated competition between enterprises of shared bicycles. 

In the context of multimedia, social media provides the following possibilities: News Simulcast (the most-watched daily news program on CCTV), which usually lasts for 30 minutes, is broken up into segments that are transmitted rapidly in the form of short videos and short news messages; payment software, such as Alipay, has allowed certain purchases to be conducted within a particular moment and space; WeChat, to the largest extent, occupies people’s attention, contributing to the increase in phubbing.

Because of convenient access to information, reading that was formerly only done during leisure time is now possible during intervals of working hours, which extends the time for reproduction of labor power by replenishing information and knowledge both temporally and spatially. 

Today, the way that pockets of time is used brings a structural change to the way people obtain information, thus substantially altering the amount of knowledge accumulated, and finally altering the mode and outcome of knowledge production, including people’s ideas. As the Chinese scholar of history Ge Zhaoguang says in his book The History of Chinese Thought, “A wealth of knowledge required is the precondition for absorbing new ideas, and changing knowledge is the harbinger of changing ideas.” Today, the interrelation between knowledge production and change of thought, conception can be fully detected from how knowledge is produced in a new way during pockets of time.

Reading during one’s pockets of time is a type of aesthetic activity. One’s choice of reading materials often reflects individual preferences. About 100 years ago, Lin observed the problem of the lack of “empty spiritual space beside one’s home,” and today, in a world permeated by multimedia and disruption from a deluge of information, pockets of time actually acts as the “empty space beside our home.” The attentive and careful cultivation of this vacant land could possibly have remarkable effects that help reserve an open space for one’s mental state to revel in, and effortlessly achieve the perfect balance of work and leisure . 


Jiang Fei is a professor from the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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