Autopilot, by Andrew Smart (Introduction)

Great cover!


I got this book at the New York Anarchist Book Fair a year or so ago. At the time I wasn’t doing terribly well on finances and I went back and forth on what looked like a really good book. The seller was offering it for a decent price (between $10-15, I can’t remember and talked me into buying it.

I’ve recently started reading this at work, which is the ultimate anti-work praxis: Reading an anti-work book at work so you can write a book review of it for your anti-work site.

Starting off with the introduction we have a quote by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spend in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days.

In any case, it is very important to be idle with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy. The days when even our hands do not stir are so exceptionally quiet that it is hardly possible to raise them without hearing a whole lot.

I think about a lot of things when I meditate. Usually important things I have yet to do, but sometimes I also think about loved ones and I think about how much I miss them or wish I could be with them. Other times I use meditation (20 minutes a day, soon to be 25) to reflect on yesterday or a recent event that may have touched me emotionally.

Rilke isn’t really talking about a period of idleness though and he may not even be talking about idleness within the context of some larger purpose. Nevertheless that’s the closest I personally come to a full on day of idleness, meditation.

And even just taking 20 minutes for myself every day to just embrace the silence and the own inner workings really helps my mental health. I notice the mental difference in days when I don’t take the time for myself to just sit and breathe and think about what’s going on or what may happen in the future, etc. It doesn’t have to be very philosophical or very deep, but sometimes breathing and thinking about the things you want can be really rewarding.

So yeah, a great start to this book!

Page 2 explains the title:

In aviation, an autopilot is a system for controlling airplanes without input from pilots, developed because flying an airplane manually requires absolute, consent attention from the pilot. As flying got higher, faster, and long, manual flying caused serious (and dangerous) levels of pilot fatigue. The introduction of autopilots allowed pilots to take a break from physically controlling the airplane so they could save mental energy for high risk phases of the flight, like takeoff and landing. Today, autopilots use software to fly the plane.

Smart is suggesting that we should do the same thing for our brains. And while the two aren’t completely analogous, our brains do have an autopilot and giving that more control can help us reduce fatigue. Instead, we live in a society where we are constantly putting ourselves in a low but consistent “manual control” (p. 2) where we cannot rest.

This leads to people becoming fatigued at their jobs, emotionally and physically. This eventually leads to things like cardiovascular problems and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. So in other words, work actually tends to make us sick by denying us some of the ways our brains are built to work.

I’m getting ahead of myself though.

What about the arguments that people tend to fear idleness?

…this research also shows that if people do not have a justification for being busy, on average they would rather be idle. (pp. 2-3)

This is the constant struggle between idleness and effort. If the effort feels pointless then we may as well be doing nothing but if the effort feelings meaningful then being idle may not sound as fun. But what some people draw inspiration from for their lives may not actually be the best way to draw meaning. People can be incorrect about the best ways to live their own life, but the trick is to often let them figure that out on their own and show them by your own example.

There’s a flip side to this however. If I’m just laying in my bed and not doing anything for prolonged times or have my blankets over my legs and am watching funny Youtube videos, I may eventually get restless. I’ve actually had times where I got frustrated, got out of bed and got to focusing on whatever I wanted to be doing instead of being idle.

But then again, couldn’t you just say that idle time was useful for me preparing myself? One of my friends recently said that instead of framing things like procrastination we could just say that we simply weren’t ready at the time.

And why would you start something you are ill-prepared for?

Sadly, I find some of Smart’s responses less than persuasive:

Given the slightest or even a specious reason to do something, people will become busy. People with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored. Yet as will see in this book, being idle may be the only real path towards self-knowledge. What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self—and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bring it to your attention for a good reason. (p. 3)

I understand that the book is just starting, but I feel like Smart could have at least given us a brief list of rejoinders that he would expand upon later in the book. It just seems to leave the reader hanging, which, again, I understand is probably part of the point, but the second and third sentence sit so uncomfortably next to each other.

That said, I can see the logic in this response (unfulfilling as it may be) and recognize that even when people are unhappy and bored, that isn’t always a bad thing. Unhappiness sometimes happens for deeper reasons than “idleness is bad for me” and boredom can lead to a lot of creativity down the line as I’ve noted before (also see here and here).

But okay, all of that’s nice but what definition of idleness are we even working with?

…the antithesis of busyness: perhaps doing one or two things a day, crucially on an internally imposed schedule. … any time during your day that you are not on an externally imposed schedule and have the chance to really do nothing, or when you have the freedom to let your mind wander toward whatever it is that comes into your awareness in the absence of busyness.

I take two things to be true of idleness, given these definitions from Smart:

  1. You’re doing nothing or, if you’re doing something, it’s very spread out.
  2. These activities are based on your own pace and needs, not others.

There are things to nitpick here, like how could people exist only doing one or two things a day if you took that in a very stringent way? Are we counting cooking and sleeping as things? Then again there’s nothing more internally imposed than the need for sleeping and eating, so I’d presume that neither of these activities would count as busyness per se’.

Still, I think this definition could be slightly more cogent, here’s my own take:

Idleness is the state of existing with minimal to no effort, excluding necessary actions such as sleeping or eating. Any actions that are taken are done because they are internally valued and not for the sake of simply doing them.

We could probably pick at that definition as well, but either way, I like Smarts definition.

One of my favorite parts of this book so far comes up on page 4:

If you can fire off a sentence explaining your laziness such as, “I’m letting the hub of my default mode network oscillate so I can figure what I want to do with my life,” people will leave you alone.

I’ve been quoting that at friends for a bit and I feel like I may for a bit longer, it’s a great one.

Smart offers a “crash course” in neural science and complexity theory but I just want to compartmentalize it and show off some of my favorite parts, especially this bit about self-organization:

Self-organization: the spooky tendency of a nonlinear system to rearrange itself in such a way as to develop long-range temporal and spatial correlations.

In other words, when you look at an ant colony what you see is the appearance of an overall structure and organization. However, each ant in the colony interacts only locally with other ants in its immediate vicinity. Each ant is oblivious to the existence of the whole colony yet through the simple interactions of individual ants the colony emerges. It is the same with neurons. (p. 7)

I have a lot of ideas about this so, in no particular order:

  • This is related to a concept called stigmergy which is definitely worth looking into.
  • It’s also related to Friedrich Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order.
  • The brain is basically an anarchic organism.
  • …Why the heck hasn’t someone written a book about neuroscience and anarchism?

Pages 9-10 have some good stuff as well:

…in complex nonlinear systems like our brains it turns out that a certain amount of noise actually helps. Through a phenomenon called “stochastic resonance,” noise in the brain controls the onset of order. Too little noise and neurons cannot pick up the signals sent from other neurons, too much noise and the neurons cannot detect the correct signals. With the right amount of noise, the brain functions normally.

I’ve talked a little bit about noise, or rather there lack thereof, before.

Something that Smart touches a lot on in both the introduction and chapter one is organizational and management methods and their approach to labor. I’ve read a review that said that the book loses its main focuses and gets too focused on these criticisms instead of the benefits of idleness, but we’ll see.

For now, we’ll close with some interesting notes about scientific discovery and the role of idleness:

Roughly, and in very simple terms, it turns out that when a neuron sends a signal down an axon, over a synapse to the dendrites of the next neuron, that target neuron can only receive the signal if the two neurons are synchronized. Synchronization is when two or more coupled … nonlinear oscillators start to follow each other in time.

This was first noticed by Dutch scientist Christian Hygens lay in bed with a fever he watched the pendulum of two clocks swinging. … And this is also yet another example of a profound scientific insight taking place while a scientist did nothing…

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