A History of Idle Theory
"We are men, and our lot is to learn and to be hurled into inconceivable new worlds."
Idle Theory was not an idea that sprang fully formed into my mind. It was an idea that grew from a single inkling, and grew slowly over time. Sometimes it grew very quickly. Mostly it grew very, very slowly. These days, over 30 years after its conception, it is still slowly growing.
I am myself one of the creatures I describe in Idle Theory, alternating between busy and idle time. And Idle Theory was an idle time pursuit, and very often I was simply too busy to think about it. Nor was it something that I could think about in odd free moments: it needed weeks and months of more or less uninterrupted idle time. And I seldom had that kind of time. And when I did, there were always plenty of other interests vying for my attention.
Nor was it an idea about which I ever felt any certainty. It was, at best, an interesting hypothesis, an enchanting possibility. And at worst it often seemed perverse and entirely wrongheaded. That said, most of my most intense doubts about it were back in its beginnings. These days, Idle Theory has grown in me to become a strong and wiry little tree.
And Idle Theory was always a mathematical idea, in that I regarded time as something that was measured by clocks, in the same way as length was measured with rulers. And this mathematical (and later physical) character always lent Idle Theory the air of cold and abstract rationality rather than hot and immediate emotion.
And indeed all the ideas that have seriously interested me have been ones of a mathematical-physical nature, that held out the promise of a glimmer of utility. And yet I am no considerable mathematician or physicist, and would never call myself either of these. I have a modest set of mathematical tools, the ability to acquire one or two new ones, and a regular propensity to solve every kind of mathematical problem I encounter by using computer simulation models.
Idle Theory was the most impossibly big idea I ever had. Another idea of mine - the Orbital Siphon - is physically enormous, but is actually a simple piece of Newtonian mechanics. But Idle Theory is an idea about life, and an idea which sprawls across evolution, economics, ethics, politics, and much more. Idle Theory is a whole new way of thinking about life. I realised at the outset that it was always going to be beyond the ability of a single individual to do much more than sketch a broad outline of it. I saw myself as something of a Schliemann who had found Troy - or what he thought was Troy - and had begun to excavate it with a bucket and spade.
And I have been very much a lone thinker, seldom discussing my ideas. This is mainly because most people, in England at least, are not interested in such ideas. Sometimes they are even hostile to them. Idle Theory is, I sometimes think, another example of European 'system building', because it is a systematic kind of idea with its own internal logic. It is not a piece of the kind of simple and robust common sense that the English prefer, but is instead a strange, counter-intuitive, and paradoxical idea. All of which, oddly, makes England a good place to entertain such ideas - because one will seldom be troubled by anyone's objections, nor by powerful, rational, countervailing ideas. Ideas of every sort are best developed in silence and solitude, and only presented at the marketplace when they have become clear and cohesive enough to survive criticism and rough handling.
1948 - 1974
I was born at 2.49 am on 21 February 1948 in Woking, England. My father was an officer serving on cable ships for Cable and Wireless. My mother was a teacher.
I spent much of my early life outside England, following my father as he was posted from one Cable and Wireless station to another. The first of these was Barbados in the Caribbean, and then there followed periods in Asmara in Eritrea, Tripoli in Libya, Bathurst in the Gambia, and finally a long period in Brazil, where the family lived in Niteroi, Salvador, and Rio de Janeiro. Most of my education during this period was conducted by my mother, who taught me to read and write, elementary mathematics, and even some Latin.
In 1958 I was sent home to England to firstly the Benedictine Douai Junior School, and later Douai School. I passed 10 O-levels (Latin, French, English language, English literature, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, History, Geography) and 2 A-levels (Maths for Science and Physics).
In 1965, I became a student at the Department of Architecture at the University of Bristol, where I remained until I graduated. I then continued as a SRC-funded postgraduate PhD student from 1974-77, developing electronic heat flow models. I subsequently continued for a few more years as a research assistant.
Prior to about 1975, I saw myself as something of a dreamer and an artist, a bit of a hippie, with an interest in slightly mathematical ideas. I seldom read any philosophy. What little I did read didn't interest me. This all changed after 1975.
I'd arrived back at the department of architecture in the university of Bristol late in 1974 to start on a 3 year Ph.D. study of heat flow in buildings. In those days, getting a grant for a Ph.D. was pretty much like being given 3 years of free time - something I have never experienced before or since. But the computer I was to use hadn't been delivered. And so, for months, I more or less sat kicking my heels. One sunny morning in early 1975, sitting in my little room in 9, Dowry Square, wondering if the computer would ever arrive, I started to draw up a list of other things I might do instead. I could paint pictures. I could chase girls. I could write a sci-fi novel. Some half a dozen possibilities were set out on the list. And when I was studying it, I suddenly realized that all of the options shared one thing in common: they all needed free time. Lots of it. And I realised that almost everything that I wanted to do needed free time. And that I had regularly chosen paths in life that offered the most free time. I was someone who wanted free time more than money, status, influence, or anything else. An avalanche of ideas followed. At the bottom of the page I wrote: 'The Economics of Time'.
This struck me with the force of revelation. I remembered how, at school, classes were like being held underwater, and the breaks between, sometimes only 10 or 20 minutes, felt like coming up for air. I remembered how, as an architectural assistant, I would sometimes feel asphyxiated in the office, and just walk out, to find a cafe, and sit quietly for 20 or 30 minutes, before returning. I remembered how I'd enjoyed my idle student days. Indeed, I was only back as a post-graduate because I preferred the free and easy student life to the alternative of well-paid full-time work. And one of my interests, that had brought me back to the university, had been the then-current idea of 'autonomous houses' - houses that used solar radiation and high insulation to minimise heating costs, and in which one might live a minimal but largely idle existence. I had discovered something about myself: I didn't want to be rich; I wanted to be free, free to choose how to dispose of my time.
The computer arrived shortly afterwards, but I soon found that I was last in line to use it. That, in practice, meant after 10 pm at night. Which left me with not very much to do for most of the day. And in 1976, I found myself returning to the previous year's idea.
Up until then, I'd simply felt that my desire for leisure was probably something unique to me. But increasingly I found myself arguing that whatever anyone wanted to do, they would need the leisure time to do it. And even if someone wanted to be wealthy, and surrounded by works of art, gardens, swimming pools, etc, those luxuries were the product of setting human leisure time to work. And that consequently, leisure was universally valued, directly or indirectly.
And at the point that I began to see leisure as being something fundamentally valuable, I began to think of economic systems as fundamentally and primarily leisure-generating systems, with the production of luxury consumer goods as a secondary activity. The primary economy generated leisure time. The secondary economy used that leisure time to generate the luxuries and amusements that most people thought of as 'wealth'. I began to scour the university library for such a theory, instead only turning up a reigning neo-classical economic theory which either implicitly or explicitly assumed that all human life consisted of leisure.
But my interest widened into ethics. The scheme of things I was beginning to piece together was looking like a variant of Utilitarianism, but with 'happiness' replaced by 'idleness'. And from ethics, I began to extend into religion, beginning to wonder whether ideas of heaven and hell reflected two extreme conditions, one of perfect leisure, the other its complete absence, and the mysterious 'fall' as a historical event, when an easy life had given way to a hard one for mankind.
Throughout the hot summer of 1976, the idea expanded rapidly in all directions. I read economics and ethics furiously, suddenly interested in philosophical ideas that had previously left me unmoved. And as I read the books, I found myself arguing against them. But I realized that I was piecing together a scheme of things that ran quite contrary to conventional wisdom, that was a highly unconventional 'upside-down' view of the world, that differed from conventional wisdom at almost every step.
Conventional economic wisdom had it that human life was essentially leisured life, and that humans were free to choose what to do with their leisure, and if one wanted to understand why people did things, you had to start with human psychology. And it was human psychology, in the form of desire and greed, that drove the economy. It was our psychological desire for 'satisfaction', a 'divine discontent' that set us to work. The conventional wisdom of economics was thus essentially psychological in character. And a Utilitarian ethics that had happiness as the highest good also dealt with a fundamentally psychological entity. And because humans were free agents, freely choosing what they did, it also followed that they were fully culpable for their actions: they could be held to blame for their actions.
The emerging counter-scheme upturned all of this. Instead it proposed that human life was not perfectly leisured, but more like near-completely unremitting toil. The drudges had little choice in their lives: what they had to do was already defined for them - to haul water, to plough fields, to reap harvests, to weave clothes. It was only in their leisure hours that they could freely choose what to do. And so really humans were part-time free agents. And rather than the economy being driven by psychological desires, it was primarily driven by the physical necessity of continually finding food and water and shelter and clothing. It was only if there was a little leisure time left over, after this necessary work had been done, that there was time to paint pictures, write poetry, make and play with toys and games, and exchange these little luxuries. Human psychology wasn't the prime motivator. Instead, human psychology was more driven by real events than driving them, as a good harvest was greeted with joy, and a bad harvest by sorrow.
Towards the end of 1976, I wrote a long, rather rambling essay called Theory of Value, showed it to a few friends, and took it up to university's economics department. It attracted little interest.
By then the deepening clash between conventional wisdom was beginning to generate a crisis in me. Was I right and everybody else wrong? Wasn't it more likely that everybody else was right, and I was wrong? I began to wonder if I'd taken leave of my reason, and began to back off from my widening speculation.
After devoting far too much of my time to this haunting new idea, it was perhaps no surprise that I never submitted a Ph.D. thesis. But I continued working at the university, in heat flow and energy conservation research.
After the expansion of Idle Theory in 1976, I was left with the puzzle of whether there could be an economy which generated leisure. I began to think that the value of tools like knives and ropes and bags lay in the amount of labour time they saved over their lifetime, and their cost as the time it took to make them. With a knife, one could cut things up quicker. A bag saved repeat journeys carrying things. I began to wonder if I could construct a simulation model of a simple Stone Age economy in which people worked and made and used and traded such tools, paying a price for these tools with their own labour. Would such an economic system work?
Secretly working at night in the university, sometimes in complete darkness, I pieced together a simple computer model. And it worked. The tools were made and sold, and they raised the idleness of the society, and the quantity of money often remained stable.
Although the first economic simulations had been successful, all sorts of criticisms could be made of them. The monetary unit - a promise to work - was obviously open to abuse. And in my early models, I had arbitrarily fixed prices. And there was no competition between toolmakers. And so on. If I used some tool as the monetary unit, and allowed prices to float - with sellers raising prices if they sold out, lowering them if they sold little or nothing -. and allowed competition, would it all still work? And, furthermore, would it behave like a real-world economy? I was not at all sure they would. I kept thinking that I must have gone wrong somewhere.
And so, in 1980, now armed with my own computer, bought specially for the purpose out of my own savings, I began to construct more complex economic simulation models. Throughout 1980 and 1981, these models gradually became more elaborate. Fixed prices were allowed to float. Competition was introduced. Promissory notes were replaced by commodity money, with one tool being used as a monetary unit.
In 1982, my funds ran out. And I had to abandon the economic simulation model, and find work. But, when I came to review the incomplete model, I felt that it had been quite successful. Such economic systems were possible. They also provided an entirely new explanation for the existence of profit. They even demonstrated cyclicities, alternating between boom and bust. In short, my models dimly reflected reality.
But I felt that I could go on endlessly improving the economic models, going on to add institutions like banks, loans, and interest rates, and any number of other features to make the simulations yet more realistic. But, I felt that nobody would understand such models without understanding the broader context of the idea in which these simulation models had developed. Rather than dig a deeper and deeper hole in the ground, concentrating purely on economics, I decided that it would be better to expand out from economics, and broaden the wider context of Ilde Theory.
For the next 10 years or so, I was generally rather busy as a freelance software engineer. Between contracts, I would occasionally pick up the economic models, but I never had enough time to develop them much further. To think seriously about anything, I needed months and months of leisure time.
It was only when the economy slumped at the end of 1990, and work dried up, that I found myself again with sufficient time on my hands to return to thinking.
But this time, I began to develop the idea in entirely new ways. The original model had never been an explicitly physical model, even if it used a physical model of linear time. Thinking about the simple physics of life, I wrote a simple equation that united idle and busy time with energy acquisition and expenditure. And I saw that Idle Theory employed something of a Least Action principle that is found elsewhere in physics.
And this set me thinking not just about human life, but about all life. Soon I was writing new computer simulations, only this time of evolving life forms, some busier, some idler. A theory of evolution began to take shape, in which a Darwinian notion of the Survival of the Fittest was replaced by the Survival of the Idlest. I had provided my old idea with a physical substructure, and a theory of evolution.
Up until this time, my name for the idea had been the Economics of Time. When I came across a book of this name, this was changed to the Philosophy of Time. And when I came across a book of this name too, I changed it again to the Economic Philosophy of Time. Now, tired of these rather pretentious names, I started calling it Idle Theory. And perhaps it was indeed an idle theory, of no value whatsoever.
And I began to want to publish the sprawling idea, in some sort of strange book that would maybe have the computer programs on a floppy disk at the back. But I saw little hope of publishing the idea. What publisher would pick up such a strange idea?
1996 - 1999
And yet, exactly the pubishing medium I wanted was already taking shape. It was the Internet, or the World Wide Web. With a little skill, an individual could publish anything he liked, linking web pages into entire books. And these pages could have images embedded in them, even animations, and - best of all - computer programs, in the form of Java applets. And there was no need to persuade any publisher of the merit of my ideas. I didn't need to publish Idle Theory as a book. And furthermore, the medium was better than any book. There was no need for it to have the linear structure of book either: it could spread in all directions like a tree.
I moved quickly. Within a year or so, in between computing contracts, I first wrote the Idle Theory of Evolution, and a year later added most of the earlier economic and political and ethical thinking. On 1 January 1999, coming up on 25 years after I'd begun to toy with the idea, I had published it, albeit in an entirely novel and unexpected way.
Since 2003, I've really just been elaborating and expanding what was set out in 1998-99. The Orbital Siphon - another upsidedown idea - got published in 2005. I expanded the ethics, and the economics, and the anthropological ideas. But it has essentially remained the same idea, expressed at slightly greater length.
But some of the emphases have changed. When I started out, I was of the view that the idleness generated in a primary economy should be distributed equally among its participants, while the luxuries and amusements generated in a secondary economy should fall where they may. This seemed like a neat way of resolving the dispute between egalitarian socialists and free-market liberals: the primary economy would be egalitarian, while the secondary economy would be laissez-faire liberal, and in this manner both would be satisfied. But these days I think that perfect equality is no more achievable than perfect idleness. Or that it can only be found at 0% idleness and 100% idleness, and in between inequality is inevitable. And more than that I've begun to think of economies as rather transient things that only come into existence as human idleness increases, and which will become redundant as idleness approaches perfect idleness. They are fleeting things. They are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. And so, having assembled a variety of arguments in favour of equality, I have spent just as much time assembling arguments against equality.
There are also a number of unresolved problems in Idle Theory. In fact there are lots of them. One of the biggest is: what is justice?
I managed to publish Idle Theory in an entirely unforeseen manner. But did anyone understand it? Probably not. It would not surprise me if they did not. Idle Theory is simply not how most people think about life and economics and ethics.
35 years on from that sunny morning in 1975 when this idea first took hold of me, it still seems a powerful idea. Back then, it was hot and passionate, but it has cooled since then into something rather chillier. Yet it still excites me.
But Idle Theory strikes me as an idea that owes far more to physics than it does to philosophy, even if it sprawls from the theory of evolution through anthropology to economics and ethics. It is a highly mechanistic and essentially mathematical idea. As such it doesn't really connect with most discursive philosophical thought, which mostly seems to me to use rather vague and ill-defined terms.
Idle Theory seems to me to be the sort of idea that ought to interest physicists and mathematicians. But such people don't usually think very much about economics and ethics. It's a demarcation problem: It's not their job.
The result, it seems to me, is that on the one hand there are the discursive philosophers who are trying to address the most serious and pressing problems using the poetic, fuzzy logic of language, and on the other hand there are the physical scientists who address a lot of rather less serious problems using the far more powerful logic of mathematical physics. It is rather as if, in a large hall, one were to find on one side a number of people working with flint axes and wooden mallets, and on the other side another bunch of people working with precision lathes and laser cutters, the one side roped off from the other side with No Entry signs.
Idle Theory inhabits the deserted no man's land between the two - the Sciences and the Humanities -, trying to bring the methods and terminologies of physics to bear upon the puzzles of philosophy, alienating one side with its methodology, and alienating the other side with its subject matter. Or else alienating the philosophers with its too-elementary philosophy, and alienating the physicists with its too-elementary physics.
If I somehow arrived at this in-between place, it was perhaps because the Department of Architecture at the University of Bristol was a rather experimental department which attempted to marry humanistic architecture with engineering science. I was taught as much mathematics and engineering on its courses as I was about bricks and mortar and Palladian proportions. The entire structure of the course posed the question of how to unite the Humanities with the Sciences. The Department never answered its own question, and the result was something like trench warfare between the rival camps within it. Eventually it was closed down. But, in my passage through it, I had moved from being an imaginative, artistic designer (winning an architectural competition at one point) to being more interested in the physics of buildings, and thus moving from the camp of the humanities to the camp of the sciences (and solving an electronic puzzle once I'd got there).
It may also have helped that I had no education in economics or philosophy. This meant that, when I was reading economics and philosophy in the university, it was all entirely new to me.
Author: Chris Davis
First created: June 2009