Je ne veux pas travailler

19 Oct|Tom Hodgkinson

Sit down for your right to do useless things like playing the ukulele

Progress should mean more leisure time but Silicon Valley is actually making things worse, writes Tom Hodgkinson

Thank you to the reader who roused me out of a torpor by alerting me to a recent piece in the New York Times titled “In Praise of Mediocrity“. The writer, Tim Wu, may be familiar to some of you as the author of anti-Silicon Valley book, The Attention Merchants. Turns out the Columbia law professor is pro-idle as well. His excellent piece is about the lost art of doing things for their own sake, the useless pursuits we used to call ‘hobbies”, the fun, non-competitive stuff that we did not broadcast on the Internet. My children do not seem to have hobbies, unless you count playing Fortnite for hours at a time, which I most definitely do not. They seem to think that there is no point doing anything unless you are going to be brilliant at it.

But we at the Idler believe that it is worth doing things even if you are crap at them. My own example is the ukulele: after ten years of practice, I am still terrible at it. People still say “that was very… brave” when I play it. But I don’t mind. I enjoy it. It’s the same with choir and harmonica and lots of what we do. They are useless pleasures done for their own sake.

Professor Wu then goes on to make the Aristotelian case for a leisure-based society. “The promise of our civilisation, the point of all our labour and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits.”

Well said. During the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the working day became ridiculously, inhumanely long. It was down to various campaigners in the later 19th century to bring in new controls on employers like the Ten Hours Act. In the 1920s, we were doing well: not only were intellectuals like Keynes and Bertrand Russell arguing for a shorter working day, companies like Kellogg in the States were actually doing it.

Things started to go backwards under Roosevelt’s New Deal, and while some progress was made in the 1970s thanks to the unions, the working day started to stretch out again, and now Silicon Valley wants us to work 24/7, like poor Elon Musk at the top and Deliveroo riders at the bottom. Thanks to the infernal smartphone, previously work-free zones like train journeys and strolling through the city – and even waiting for your child in the playground – can now be usefully filled with toil for the masters.

So far from being cutting edge and futuristic, Silicon Valley is, in fact, a profoundly unprogressive movement. They are taking us back to a dark Victorian age of hideous inequality, ferocious individualism and all the wrong priorities. They may wear t-shirts and smile benignly, but inside they have the heart of Scrooge.

Thank you to Professor Wu for reminding us of the real goal of any civilisation worth the name, which is to create time for doing nothing much of any use.


These comments were mailed to us at [email protected] after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your views.

The robots are coming!
I’ve been pondering how we can possibly make the shift to letting progress allow us to chill out instead of driving us into the ground. No wonder Elon Musk is so frightened of AI! What will he do when AI can do what he does better and faster?
– Kelley

Dancing queen
I raise my hat to your playing the ukelele, to enjoying it without having to be good at it. It took me years to get my head around this concept and it has redeemed my life and happiness! Recently I’ve been well enough to recommence ballet classes, and I am proud to say that despite not having any anatomical prospect of reaching even a vaguely passable ‘Intermediate’ level, my love for it has only grown with the years. I know I will still be taking classes when I’m in my eighties, along with a few like-minded friends, and I’ll know how to adapt the movements to physical limitations as time progresses.
– Natasha

Philosophy matters
I agree about Silicon Valley’s unprogressive qualities. I recently talked to one of its big-shot entrepreneurs who told me that all philosophy from the Greeks onwards wasn’t worth anything because it “had no scientific rigour”. It’s quite frightening to think how much power that sort of thinking now has.
So thank goodness for the Idler!
– Richard

Smartphone tyranny
More people need to read this. They blindly live pointlessly busy lives because no one’s holding up a mirror for them to see what they’re doing. I’d bet many people would read your comment about the “infernal smartphone” and suddenly think: “Yes I do that. WHY do I do it? Why don’t I stop? I don’t look out of train windows anymore. I don’t wait outside school gates enjoying looking out for my child, observing changing seasons, reminiscing about my own school days, or thinking not much of nothing at all and being in a relaxed frame of mind, therefore a happy, nice, reassuring parent for my child at the end of her school day.”
– Simon