As anyone with an inbox can attest, misused language abounds, and misunderstanding follows. Much of this misunderstanding, Pinker says, flows from what he calls “the Curse of Knowledge”—the writer’s difficulty in conceiving what it’s like for readers not to know something she knows. He’s referring mainly to jargon, shorthand, and specialized vocabulary, the use of which he calls the “single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.” This seemed to me a great oversimplification until I asked someone I’d just met what he did for a living. He said he was “managing director, digital” at a public relations firm.
“I don’t really know what that means.”
“I’m a digital and social-media strategist,” he explained. “I deliver programs, products, and strategies to our corporate clients across the spectrum of communications functions.”
“Sorry to be a doofus, but pretend I’m ten years old. What do you do all day? ”
“I teach big companies how to use Facebook.”
A Work of Uselessness in the Age of Market Research
I do not care for chess. This is not the same as not caring about chess, or only caring for my friends’ sake, said friends being active in the many variations of dangerously named online chess (speed, suicide, apocalypse) that have placed them among the best of their questionable kind.
So with the end of the New York Times’ chess column (in print, at least), comes the end of some 50 years of erstwhile sports reporting.
I shouldn’t care, and yet the heart of this death lies the core value of uselessness, a thing of inestimable greatness.
We know that newspapers of the 21st century can’t afford whimsy—black and white and red all over is the joke that your dad gets to hoist on you now.
And yet: from The Spectator of the 18th century and well beyond Hearst’s bid to rule the country through the funny pages, newspapers were about seemingly useless things that were pointedly important.
In addition to the jibes and untruths, newspapers were packed with the questionable, making them good reading for archival scholars and essential reading for cultural critics. Like the encyclopedic nature of, well, encyclopedias, the eye travels to what may be useless but has value to us. We have only to look to the library of tabs open in our browsers to know that this is true: there is the article I mean to read, but here are five more that have nothing to do with the initial intent. Is any of this important? Probably not, but then you’re probably not much fun to talk to at parties. The digressions are the conversation.
But in the age of market research, what is worthwhile? Uselessness. That which does not have the taint of endless Excel reports attached, something that is there by its own will and that of individual passion and reason. Reason and uselessness are the soul of chess. My friends would argue that chess is a strategy, while I would argue it is a proxy for living, in which instance we can admit that chess isn’t necessarily very good for you.
But either way, it was willed into importance, and its value is decided by those who play it or wish they did. Does it win wars or doesn’t it? Who cares?
A good friend once told me that he didn’t want to occupy a world that didn’t have room for lingerie.
"You don’t need lingerie, but that’s no excuse for it not to be," was the jist of the argument.
The useless doesn’t need to answer for itself, it requires no excuse. And there lies the greatness and eternal importance of uselessness.