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your leisure is my pleasure
December 6, 2008 12:12 PM   Subscribe

Idle Theory: Life Does The Least
posted by kliuless (28 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
from chris davis:
Idle Theory doesn't fit in with the current economic paradigm. Idle Theory is a variant of Utilitarianism which replaces "utility" or "happiness" with leisure or idleness. In Idle Theory, economic growth is increasing social leisure, not GDP. Inherent in this is a limit to growth, when a society is completely at leisure. And implicit in complete social idleness is social equality.

Idle Theory also makes a distinction between "needs" and "wants". Useful tools, techniques, knowledge serve to increase leisure time, and are "needs". Amusements, toys, pastimes, luxuries and so on use up leisure time in their manufacture and use, and are "wants". The test of whether any good is a need or a want is whether it increases leisure or not. Idle Theory regards leisure as the prime good, without which there can be no time to do any of the things which make for a good life, whether these be conversation, romance, play, art, music, literature, philosophy, and the manufacture and exchange of amusements and toys.

In the current economic paradigm, human leisure is taken as a given, and no distinction is made between wants and needs. But in other respects, Idle Theory fits fairly well with the current paradigm. It accepts profit, money, trade, competition and other free market concepts. It simply changes the goal of economic growth.

The main problem with modern economic systems, as seen from the point of view of Idle Theory, is that while new technologies do apparently increase social leisure, that leisure is immediately forfeited in the production of amusements and toys. Everyone is kept working as hard as they ever did, if not harder. This creates alienation, stress and even illness, while at the same time generating an ever-increasing mountain of consumer goods which use up resources and generate pollution at an ever-increasing rate.
i think concentration on economic or exchange value has kind of blind-sided the profession. idle theory points out this discrepancy in its discussion of exchange value vs. use value and offers a new framework to place economics, where time and leisure are figured more prominently in the picture. as goods with little exchange value but high use value, their utility cannot be measured monetarily. but in that humans are utility maximizers, use of time and consumption of leisure need be investigated in order to better understand rational economic behavior.

[prvsly]
posted by kliuless at 12:14 PM on December 6, 2008


Sure, it worked for the Eloi, didn't it?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:18 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


This letter-linking offends my idleness.
posted by qvantamon at 12:18 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Overrated theory more like it. I've been pretty idle the past couple of months. I still don't have a deeper understanding of life.
posted by robtf3 at 12:22 PM on December 6, 2008


Bob Dobbs?
posted by orthogonality at 12:35 PM on December 6, 2008


The primary purpose of economic systems is to free people from work.

Really.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:39 PM on December 6, 2008


Snarking done, this is an interesting post (articles are too long, will read later).

As a lazy guy, it completely weirds me out that America has such an insanely high productivity, but (middle-class) Americans, instead of working half as much and living like their parents lived (except with a lot more free time), still clock-in 8+ hours and just get a twice as large house, a twice as large car, a twice as large TV. I mean, America has probably the highest productivity, and the least free time in the developed world - even the French, with all their expensive cheese wine culture, and with a huge part of the population retired, still manage to work 35hr weeks, and take a month and a half of vacation.
posted by qvantamon at 12:51 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Huh, that's how I've always looked at economics, actually. I don't accumulate stuff and money for the sake of having stuff and money, or more stuff and money than someone else. I do it so that at the end of my life, when I'm physically forced to be more or less idle (and certainly more idle than I am now), the experience is not entirely unpleasant. That was also why I retired early (in my late 30s) -- so that I could spend more time doing what I want to do, rather than (for money) doing stuff that other people wanted me to do.

However, pure idleness, if defined as 'doing nothing at all', well, that doesn't sound very fun. If it were, comatose people would comprise the happiest segment of society. I still do stuff, and some of it makes money too, but it's stuff I enjoy doing, and I don't have to worry about a boss or deadlines and such. It's not pure idleness that makes me happiest, but rather the ability to choose my activities without external stress.

I remember reading a science fiction story long ago where the human race figured out fusion power to the extent that they could turn water into limitless energy, so much energy that nobody had to work, and anything anyone wanted, they could have it. In the story, that pretty much destroyed the human race, by eliminating all challenges from life.
posted by jamstigator at 12:55 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


jamstigator: that's why we have the entertainment industry. I mean, talk about "eliminating all challenges from live" again when you have beaten Gears of War on Insane :)
posted by qvantamon at 1:01 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


However, pure idleness, if defined as 'doing nothing at all', well, that doesn't sound very fun. If it were, comatose people would comprise the happiest segment of society.

As I understand it, "idleness" is the pursuit of leisure activities; pleasure past-times, playing lawn darts, doing watercolors and such.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:02 PM on December 6, 2008


Isn't idleness the whole goal of capitalist culture? The idea that you're working to amass capital, and at one point you'll have enough capital to make a sufficient income without laboring? I thought this was a very old idea.
posted by mullingitover at 1:10 PM on December 6, 2008


Central to Idle Theory is a physical understanding of life as alternating between two states: busy and idle. While busy, a living creature works to maintain itself. While idle, it is either inactive or engaged in some non-maintenance activity. (... )
Applied to the theory of evolution, this approach to life argues that during times when all creatures must work harder to survive, the least idle are the most likely to die, and the most idle are the most likely to survive.

I call anthropomorphic slacker bullshit. By what mechanism are the "least idle" likely to die? How does inactivity or non-maintenance activity increase successful reproduction of species?

His theory is prefaced on nonsense extrapolated to life as a whole. I couldn't get much further than that.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:11 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Isn't idleness the whole goal of capitalist culture?

It is now anyway - "look at all these THINGS you should BUY to make you HAPPY, work longer hours, take out bigger loans, apply for higher limits of credit so you can get those things." Capitalism is selling the serfs the illusion of buying idle, which you'll never achieve if you think you magically cross over into Leisure Land once you've bought enough toys. As soon as I came to terms with where my priorities really lay and pared down my life to a very basic foundation of things that actually matter, all kinds of time opened up for me. I don't see humanity lying in the sun and lazily munching fruit which gently rolls from the trees any time soon, but simplifying your life does have a way of freeing up all kinds of time.
/pseudophilosophy
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:18 PM on December 6, 2008


What exactly are people working for? Once you have the basics of food, clothing and shelter, what else is there, really? If you ask someone why they would want to be rich, the answer invariably is "so I can do whatever I want." This is, in my opinion, what the author is trying to say - that constrained activity for pay - or "work" as we all call it - stops being useful once your needs have been achieved. The payoff we are all looking for is idleness - the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it. Too often, the point of work is forgotten, and people end up on an endless treadmill, chasing an imagined end result of idleness that they will never attain because they refuse to stop and decide that they've gained enough. I find the idea of "working for one's retirement" incredibly depressing. There's never any guarantee that anyone will live long enough to enjoy that eventuality, or if they do, be in good enough health to enjoy it.

How does inactivity or non-maintenance activity increase successful reproduction of species?

Stress is the sex killer. Who has more opportunities for procreation? The person who works 70+ hours a week, or the person who takes time for idle interaction with other people? You certainly don't need 3 bathrooms and 2 BMWs in order to mate.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:25 PM on December 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


By using the theory of evolution, the dude is making a claim about life, not about humans with or without BMWs. And an organism doesn't reproduce simply because it has the time.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:33 PM on December 6, 2008


By using the theory of evolution, the dude is making a claim about life, not about humans with or without BMWs. And an organism doesn't reproduce simply because it has the time.

When food is plentiful and the environment is amenable, organism reproduce at a higher rate than when the opposite is true. The harder an organism needs to work just to stay alive, the less successful it is at mating. The dude is making a statement that having to work hard is antithetical to existence. I really don't see your quibble.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:50 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


tl; dr
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:55 PM on December 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


I mean, America has probably the highest productivity, and the least free time in the developed world - even the French, with all their expensive cheese wine culture, and with a huge part of the population retired, still manage to work 35hr weeks, and take a month and a half of vacation.

I'm pretty sure the French actually have higher productivity per-person-hour than the US. US "productivity" is only higher per-person because peopel in the US work absurd hours.

When food is plentiful and the environment is amenable, organism reproduce at a higher rate than when the opposite is true.

Actually, that's simply untrue. We prune many plants because it encourages them to flower more when they're under stress.

And which humans produce more children - ones in the rich world, or ones in the poor world?
posted by rodgerd at 1:58 PM on December 6, 2008


I've been pretty idle the past couple of months. I still don't have a deeper understanding of life.

Which is why its explanation is evolutionary, not existential.
posted by tybeet at 2:00 PM on December 6, 2008


I'm pretty sure the French actually have higher productivity per-person-hour than the US. US "productivity" is only higher per-person because peopel in the US work absurd hours.

I'd like to see some data to back that up! France isn't exactly an economic powerhouse, you know.

When food is plentiful and the environment is amenable, organism reproduce at a higher rate than when the opposite is true.

Actually, that's simply untrue. We prune many plants because it encourages them to flower more when they're under stress.


I'm talking about successful reproduction. Stressed plants respond with more flowering, that's true, but it's a biological reaction to the fact that less plants are likely to survive in a stressful environment - not a preference for that situation. We are also far removed from plants - mammals produce more viable offspring when food is plentiful - populations of wolves boom, for example, when prey animals are readily available, and crash when the food runs out.

And which humans produce more children - ones in the rich world, or ones in the poor world?

This is an incredibly faulty argument - there are many cultural factors at work that lead to greater human reproduction - subsistence farming cultures being one of them. They're not breeding more children because they can support them, they're breeding them in order to support themselves.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:23 PM on December 6, 2008


The problem here is the definition of the word 'work'.

If the word 'work' is defined to be to be the expenditure of energy to the benefit of other people, or the planet apart your own kith and kin, then surprisingly few people work.

The essence of work is designing or building or delivering what people consume (within the definition of the term building is defined growing ie farming).

The elephant in the room in terms of the collapse of the world economy is that the USA is exporting so little work, apart from endless yards of Microsoft bullshit.

The normal upshot of this national behaviour is that the nation in question, devalues it's currency.

This would make America's exports cheaper and its imports more expensive and this readdresses the imbalance and is a sort of cure that in terms of Britain has been applied more than once.

The problem with this in terms of the world's economy, is that the world's commodities are priced in dollars, so if the dollar is devalued the price of the world's commodities are revalued which is why the price of oil is so volatile.

This is a dangerous situation.
posted by dollyknot at 3:41 PM on December 6, 2008


Another way of putting it, dollyknot, is that the author unfairly equates effort with work. It seems to me that life's finest pleasures require effort. I got more pure pleasure out of walking to the local museum to see and think about Tara Donovan's amazing sculptures than I have from surfing forums in...ever.

Or as Spinoza says more eloquently in the last lines of the Ethics, "And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."
posted by voltairemodern at 5:16 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Light Fantastic: When food is plentiful and the environment is amenable, organism reproduce at a higher rate than when the opposite is true. The harder an organism needs to work just to stay alive, the less successful it is at mating. The dude is making a statement that having to work hard is antithetical to existence. I really don't see your quibble."

I see what you're driving at, but the reality isn't so black and white. Ideal conditions do not necessarily raise reproductive rates. Maybe it's true for bacteria, but the same can't be said for an elephant or an oak. And it does not follow that an organism's hard work makes it less successful at mating. There are countless numbers of birds, for example, that "work" very hard on their plumage and mating skills to give themselves a reproductive advantage. Is that "busy" or "idle"?

My quibble is that the writer has appealed to biology to set up a false dichotomy between how an organism uses it's energy on being "idle" or "busy", which are two biologically meaningless terms. And then uses the theory of evolution to justify his economic theory. If the dude is making a statement that having to work hard is antithetical to existence, then I suggest he find a field other than biology to poach his ramblings from.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 10:14 PM on December 6, 2008


While I am unsure if anyone is going to develop a different philosophy by reading the articles and the discussion I am sure that at least one person chuckled at the title of post; remembering Spud in Trainspotting making a purposeful hash of his job interview.
posted by Gratishades at 3:08 AM on December 7, 2008



Or as Spinoza says more eloquently in the last lines of the Ethics, "And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."


Yes voltairemodern, you quote my favourite philosopher, what I most admire about him was he earned his crust by the sweat of his brow, grinding lenses at a time when lenses truly changed our view of the world in terms of microscopes and telescopes.

With Spinoza philosophy was just a hobby, but the man had balls - his writings earned him death threats and an attack on his life.
posted by dollyknot at 4:08 AM on December 7, 2008


I feel a link to the fantastic Idler magazine is required here.
posted by numberstation at 4:39 AM on December 7, 2008


I'm pretty sure the French actually have higher productivity per-person-hour than the US. US "productivity" is only higher per-person because peopel in the US work absurd hours.

I'd like to see some data to back that up! France isn't exactly an economic powerhouse, you know.


Labour productivity is an economic term that measures output per unit (hour) of labour. Reducing the length of the working day will virtually always increase productivity because of the decreasing marginal benefit of extra units of labour.

Basically, people who work four hours a day produce less than those who work eight hours a day, but they typically produce more than half (because who needs to mess around instead of working when the day is so short), so those working four hours have higher productivity.

This may not be what the lay public thinks of when they think 'productivity' though, which is why people express surprise at very high French productivity.
posted by atrazine at 1:05 AM on December 8, 2008


"I call anthropomorphic slacker bullshit. By what mechanism are the "least idle" likely to die? How does inactivity or non-maintenance activity increase successful reproduction of species?" -kuujjuarapik

My immediate thought was that since the least idle are already spending the closest to 100% of their time adapting to the current situation, if things get worse for them, they will be the first to be overtaxed and subsequently die. If a species is only dedicating 1% of its time to surviving now, maybe when things get worse for it, it will only have to dedicate 5% of its time to survive. So basically, the idle species have a lot more wiggle room.

Also, if a species is idle, it is good evidence that it is more well adapted to the environment than one that is not. So it is more "advanced" in an evolutionary sense.

In any case, this theory is a lot of rubbish, really, given the nature of the human intra-species competitive drive. No matter what you do, there's always going to be some jackass waiting to take more than he produces, crumbling your little half-work-day house of cards you have built.
posted by zhivota at 3:08 AM on December 8, 2008


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