Autopilot, by Andrew Smart (Chapter 3 & 4)

Rainer Wilke, a famous poet.

Chapter 3

Up until now I’ve only had some minor complaints about Smart’s attempt to scientifically justify laziness.

The biggest being that he’s not giving us any citations and almost never gives references to the studies that would help prove his point. Even when he mentions certain studies he doesn’t go into their methodology, sample size or discusses it at much length at all.

Those criticisms, however, are minor and somewhat of a nitpick. Overall, the first two chapters (and the introduction) are fairly cogent, interesting and while not necessarily proving Smart’s point(s) about laziness, add new tidbits to a discussion of laziness that will be useful to think about for future conversations.

This changes in chapter 3.

Chapter 3 is, ironically, a case study from history about the benefits of laziness: Sir Issac Newton’s discovery of gravity.

The story goes that Newton was sitting idly and in a contemplative manner while he was in his garden. All of the sudden an apple fell from a nearby tree and Newton’s head exploded (figuratively) with ideas about gravitation. The chapter leads with a quote by one of Newton’s biographers, William Stukeley (which is misspelled in the book as “Stukley”) with a quote about how Newton made his discovery.

Now, first off, it’s not confirmed this story is even true. Smart himself admits that the origin story is up for debate and discussion (pp. 63-64) but what’s not up for debate is that this chapter is full of speculation. Smart goes from the interesting bit that Newton wasn’t working hard to come up with his theory and have an “Aha!” moment to speculating that Newton obviously didn’t have a to-do list and wouldn’t have been liked by the managers of today.

While it’s interesting to note that Newton was sitting in a contemplative state, it really says nothing about leisure. Some people are furrowing their brows and working their brain hard to think about something. Other people take deep breaths, focus on something else and more than likely, people do a bit of both. Who is to say what sort of thinker Newton was?

Smart tries to extend Newton’s particular isolated discovery as a point against current management processes:

Newton wasn’t holed up in his study tearing his hair out trying to figure out why objects move towards earth and the planets orbit the Sun, stressing about a looming deadline. Nor was a productivity expect looking over Newton’s shoulder to make sure he was working efficiently. (p. 63)

For one thing, if Newton had an “obsessive work ethic” (p. 62)  then why wouldn’t he have been tearing his hair out at times? That may very well have been a part of his process. And while he may not have had external deadlines, it’s easy to make yourself stress about your own deadlines. How do we know Newton never had people looking over his shoulders (such as family) to make sure he got things done? At the very least this sounds plausible when he was younger.

I create personal deadlines every day and while they’re often minor compared to figuring out the fundamental laws of physics, I can still get stressed about them. A few days ago I got stressed because I didn’t have enough time to do a few things but needed to get somewhere on time (an appointment I think? or work? or a personal commitment?) and before I knew it I really didn’t have time to do anything except eat and then leave.

Productivity “experts” don’t help, of course. And I’m all for criticizing that type of managing. Recently, I had one of my lead managers take notes on me while watching me while I worked. It was nerve-wracking, unhelpful and it didn’t make me feel any better about the job I already hate, it made things worse.

But Newton’s parable here really has nothing to do with any of these things directly. We could intuit some of these things but it also conflicts against other evidence of him being obsessed with work. The entire chapter is based on a parable that isn’t fully confirmed, to draw conclusions that seem only tangentially related and thinly supported.

So ultimately it’s an essay chock full of wishful thinking.

Chapter 4

Now imagine the total opposite chapter.

It’s, again, a case study chapter but this time it focuses on the much better example of Rainer Rilke who was quoted in the introduction. This example works much better because Rilke is a poet, he’s someone who has actually written about the benefits of laziness and so his case is built on actual written evidence and not conjecture.

Pages 68 and 69 detail how Rilke spent much of his life wandering, contemplating and sitting in idleness while trying to come up with his work. Rilke was a religious man and described his poems as if “angels” were speaking to him. They were spur of the moment ideas that sparked in his brain and which he would instantly try to capture.

My own process for poetry isn’t completely similar but I often have moments where the basis of a poem strikes me. Sometimes it’s just a useful framing device and other times its a line I really want to make use of in some way and other times its a memory that means a lot to me. Anecdotally speaking, many of the times this happens I’m not thinking about anything in particular but I’ve never kept close notes on this, so I can’t say for sure.

Smart has a slightly different explanation for Rilke than angels, if you’re curious:

From a neuroscience perspective, Rilke was learning to let brain regions like the medial prefrontal cortex report images and associations from brain regions like the hippocampus and neocortex, whose deepest contents do not always enter our awareness. (p. 69)

Geez, just take the fun out of everything, why don’t you?

This chapter, in part, works better because Smart doesn’t just spend it talking about Rilke, he takes some interesting (if contentious) detours while talking about Rilke.

So let’s take a look at those:

When children enter school, and increasingly even before they enter school, parents fill up their lives with a stream of activities: sports, early exposure music classes, Chinese immersion school, summer camps, volunteer soup kitchen duties … There seems to be a pervasive and deep-seated anxiety among a certain class of parents that their children might actually have time to hang around and be children. (p. 70)

I think fairly often about child autonomy and I admit I have never considered this. I guess I always thought these things were what it’s like to “hang around” and be a kid. But they’re often things directed from the parents (or worse, the schools) and thrust upon the children “for their own good”, of course. And they’re hardly allowed outside where they might get some exercise or do some interesting forms of play (which isn’t to say that can’t happen inside as well).

Some of this likely comes from parents wanting to know what their children are doing all of the time. And to do this they have to make it as routine and structured as possible. But again, these routines and structures are done to placate the parents and not the children.

Smart makes a slight misstep however:

After analyzing the data from around [300,000] children and adults, Kyng Hee Kim, a researcher at William & Mary, found that this decline in creativity is most pronounced in exactly the age group from which you’d expect the most creativity, kindergarten through sixth grade.

As children become more scheduled, more measured, more managed to achieve, and more hijacked by digital media, they become less and less creative.

First, correlation doesn’t equal causation.

Just because the measures of creativity (from one study, no less) have been going down and we’ve seen much more management over children and their autonomy, doesn’t necessarily make it the cause. I’m not saying these things don’t correlate at all or have nothing to do with each other, but it’s not exactly strong evidence either.

And whether they did or did not, I oppose these parenting methods and think it strikes me as possibly unnecessary to correlate them to these mental conditions. On the other hand, I’m not necessarily opposed to that either, I just think it should be done carefully so as to not boil down serious mental conditions to matters of parenting alone.

Second, “hijacked by digital media”?

Children have always found ways to be “distracted” by schools and for good reason; school kinda sucks for a lot of kids. And digital media is often a tool kids can use to help their creativity grow, through games, collaboration with other children and even using the device itself.

And it’s not like Smart doesn’t acknowledge that school sucks as he makes mention of Rilke’s view on schools which was a type of “captivity” (p. 73). Further, the “countless hours” (p. 74) spent on digital devices can often (contra Smart) be derived from children’s own internal goals. They can use the time on their device to relax and introspect through a different medium, heck, I use my laptop as a way to meditate (through calming music on Youtube).

I don’t see digital media as opposed to being idleness and in fact most often use digital media to help being idle. I don’t see it as a form of “external stimulation” (p. 74) but as a labor-saving decide that provides me the entertainment I’d like to have in my life. And that entertainment often helps me write articles like this, which are also derived from internal goals and satisfaction. I think Smart’s points here about digital media are overblown and most would do well to ignore them.

I do think there’s something to the idea that children should spend time outside and not spend all of their time on digital devices. But ultimately, the choice should be left up to them and their own values. Most children eventually get bored with doing the same thing and will move on to something, curious if it will be better.

The rest of the chapter deals with college and the stresses that can involve. Smart says near the end of the chapter that while there’s no “grand study” (p. 77) linking everything he has said, he believes that the way adults tend to raise their children is leading to the increase in depression and decrease in creativity.

I’ve addressed this before via Peter Gray.

Mostly I just want to comment on the fact that, a pattern is emerging. Smart keeps making these large claims about phenomenon he doesn’t have exact evidence for but keeps pushing anyways. It’s a running trend that I saw throughout this book and it’s only going to become more problematic as we go on.


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