Autopilot, by Andrew Smart (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1: That Loathsome Monster Idleness

A lovely quote about a lovely idea.

The previous chapter set the stage for the rest of the book in a fairly interesting and engaging way, let’s look at how Smart follows up on that effort. First, Smart talks about the history of our attitudes towards idleness all around the world. From the attitudes stemming from the Odyssey (ambivalence) and countries like China where philosophies such as Taoism (which has been mentioned before on this blog) and Confucianism considered idleness a good thing.

Even one of the most famous books to come out of China, The Art of War, advises to let your enemy exhaust themselves before you put into any energy yourself to defeat them. Smart deftly uses this as a chance to mock the western notion of simply overcoming your opponent with a massive degree of force and power, using all possible resources.

And with the enlightenment coming the idea of the “noble savage” with their idleness and eating fruit that fell into their lap as well as Samuel Johnson and his periodical The Idler, there were at least a few popular ideas to strike against capitalism;s work ethic. But overall, the tides of the battle favored work and especially in Taylorism.

One funny thing that Smart touches on a few times in the book (at this point, I’ve finished reading Smart’s book) he’ll comment on the idea of state-communism. These comments are rather small but they’re illustrative of Smart’s anarchic leanings (he references Kropotkin and Bakunin in this book for instance).

For example, Smart says:

Wrote Lenin of Taylor’s philosophy: “…the famous Taylor system, which is so widespread in America, is famous precisely because it is the last word in reckless capitalist exploitation. One can understand why this system met with such an intense hated and protest on the part of the workers.”

Despite seeing Taylorism for what it was, a new technology of exploitation, Lenin adopted many of Taylor’s techniques in organizing Soviet factories.

One problem here (and throughout Smart’s book) is that he doesn’t include citations. This is a somewhat maddening thing to me, as someone who really appreciates well-sourced books. Sources don’t have to be ever present and I’m fine with them taking at least a little bit of a back-seat for the sake of presentation, but there’s simply nothing here.

I don’t doubt the claim here is rather easy to look into and look up. It’s also fine to say that this is a very tangential thing and if Smart was going to source thing, it should be about neuroscientific claims about laziness. After all, claims about that would be much more important to his book than claims about Talyorism in the Soviet Union.

Still, this a symptom of a problem we’ll see as the book continues.

Smart doesn’t take the time to source many of his claims and relies on his readers to either out and out believe his statements or go out of their way to find sources themselves. I suppose it makes sense that Smart would have rather taken the more idle route, but it doesn’t make for a better book. There’s a difference between idleness in your personal activities and idleness in activities that are intended to be (I’d assume) robust in their cogency and persuasiveness.

We continue through the history of idlers and those who professed idleness as a way of life and mention folks from The Idler as well as the book by Tom Lutz on loafing that I shall review in the future. The movie Slacker (which I’ve reviewed on this site) is mentioned and next to that is The Art of Doing Nothing by Veronique Vienne, which I hadn’t heard of.

The next section I want to highlight because it’s slightly confusing to me:

These books [on idleness] and many others do a remarkably good job … of espousing the positive aspects and importance of being idle. Some propose using idleness as just another means to success, others propose being idle simply for the sake of being idle, still others suggest using idleness as a political tool to fight the capitalist system.

While I wholeheartedly endorse any reason for being idle, in this book I take the argument for being idle one step truther by presenting some recent and surprising neuroscience, which shows just what your brain is doing while you are doing nothing. I make the argument … that doing nothing —really and truly nothing—actually makes your brain function better. (p. 18)

So okay, I understand that Smart’s argument hasn’t been posited before and especially not in those books, or at the very least it was not their main theme that neuroscience can help prove the benefits of idleness or that idlness would help our mental well-being. But I don’t see how incorporating those themes takes the argument for idleness “one step further”.

Is it because we’re making some sort of pseudo-biological argument for it? Is it because this scientific level hasn’t been done before or in this specific way? I’m just not clear on what makes Smart’s argument not only different but somehow deeper than say Bertrand Russell’s arguments, for example.

In any case, Smart explains that one of the purposes of this book is taking the concept of “reverberations” seriously, that is to say the way that groups of neurons react in our brain when we are at rest. The “resting-state network” (RSN) or “Default-mode network (DMN) is particularly important when our brain is at rest and will be discussed later.

An interesting tidbit of information comes from Gyorgy Buzaki, a professor at the Rutgers Center for Molecular and Behavior Neuroscience that most of the brains energy is generated from within. That is to say, external stimuli isn’t as important as internal stimuli when it comes to the way the brain operates. Smart is quick to add that this doesn’t mean the external stimuli is useless or unimportant, but the point is that the brain mainly stabilizes via self-generated patterns.

This by itself doesn’t really prove anything except perhapsit leads credence to the notion that what we do which is self-directed is more likely to impact our brains than things we’re told to do. But again, this only tangentially says something in favor of idleness and even that seems a stretch.

Laziness also has its merits in the animal kingdom has Smart points out:

We might think that an elephant seal lounging around on a California beach is being lazy. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The seal is preserving precious body fat and energy for when he has to hunt in rigid water or avoid sharks. (p. 24)

One place that anti-idleness came from is theology and specifically Puritanism and folks like Luther and Calvin who “both believed that constant work was ordained by God;” (p. 24). Luther in particular blamed the high unemployment and inflation on the lazy instead of the result of hyper-urbanization and expansion of populations.

Something Smart really focuses on throughout this book is the prevalence of “time management” and specifically the industry that has arisen from it. Many of these authors are speaking out against idleness (even if not directly and explicitly) in some pretty big ways and Smart finds them particularly loathsome and harmful.

Smart specifically mentions (and will mention again) a strategy called Six Stigma, but we’ll get to that later.

Suffice it to say, I find this whole area of discussion tangential to “the art and science of doing nothing”. I understand that it’s important to discuss alternative ideas about labor, but Smart seems obsessed with tearing down the time management industry in particular. And while I am not a huge fan of psychoanalyzing, it does seem relevant to me that Smart mentions that his mother worked in a company that employed time management strategies.

The biggest pitfall of these strategies, as Smart points out, is that we’re always wasting our time. We’re always using our time for one thing when we could be do something else (and often it’s more important to us personally). But the important question (as Smart says) is what you’re wasting time relative to.

Right now, I could be playing The Beginner’s Guide on Steam, but instead I’m writing. Arguably I’m “wasting” my time because I’m not engaging in the more immediately pleasurable and perhaps satisfying experience of playing a video game. But under another lens, it seems like I’m not because writing this post is a much more long-term benefit.

On page 27 Smart makes a comparison I take issue with:

The much-vaunted work ethic, is, like slavery, a systematic cultural invention that resulted from a commonly held but mistaken, idea about human beings. We look back at the slavery system now and think it is ridiculous and appalling. … One day, we may look back at our work ethic in much the same way.

One thing that leftists (and some non-leftists as well) love to do is compare certain kinds of unpleasant facts about our current system and reality, especially as it pertains to work, and compare it to slavery. If there was a Godwin’s Law for bringing up slavery in a discussion of wage labor, I would invoke it early and often. It’s an easy way to inspire some sort of  moral disgust in your audience and strikes me as lazy (not in the good way) as a method of argumentation.

Not to mention it’s insulting to the actual slaves and is a rather unsatisfactory metaphor in general. It may be true that people who are engaging in labor are doing so unhappily but they are not (usually) physically forced to be there, are paid, are not the property of their managers and are able to own property themselves. These are pretty big differences.

One thing that spells good news for those who advocate idleness is that an extreme alternative that’s become a fad over the years, multitasking, doesn’t seem like a good idea. Smart mentions some studies done by Stanford professor of communications Clifford Nass that demonstrated that those who didn’t multitask performed better than those who did.

Specifically, multitaskers “…cannot actually distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information because the multitasker does not really know what they are doing at any given moment.” (p. 31) In addition to the studies done by Nass, Smart also mentions the rise of drivers dying or injuring themselves by talking on their cell phones and driving.

Lastly, on page 33, Smart mentions some benefits of the Cro-Magnon and their type of primitive society, though I’ve raised some doubts about their successes on this site before. Smart also, again, mentions his dislike of the “insufferable” time management industry, we’ll see how hammering those “first nails” into its coffin goes.

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