IdleTheory Tom Lutz at the George

Tom was wearing a striped T-shirt, enormous khaki baggy knee-length shorts, and socks and sandals, which more or less shouted "American Tourist!!" when I met him at Bristol Temple Meads station. He climbed into my battered blue Metro hatchback, and we took off out of the city.

The George was surprisingly empty when we got there, but Tom's jugged hare might have been one explanation why. These days, English food has improved a lot, but that plate was an embarrassing throwback to the darkest days. Myself, I had kebabs and chips and salad, and it was just about edible, but I hadn't eaten it all when I finally pushed it aside. I asked him if he minded if I smoked, and he said he didn't mind at all. He'd been a smoker once himself, but had given up by using Nicorette patches - only to become addicted to them instead.

He was bothered about his indolent son, who just sat at home all day watching TV. "I can relate to that," I said. "So can I", said Tom. "So what's the problem?" I asked. Tom didn't have an answer.

Tom LutzThe interview began with Tom disconcertingly lowering his head down to just above our table. Looking up at me from there, very like his photo, he began asking a whole bunch of good questions about Idle Theory. When it came to the essay on etiquette, he said he simply didn't understand it, and encountering people in narrow passages wasn't a plausible scenario, and it certainly wasn't a sufficient foundation for a system of ethics. "And is it time, or energy, that's to be saved?" he asked, in a surprising excursion into physics. And he disagreed about competition, saying his cats were always trying to eat each others' food, and my argument that the last grasshopper on a patch of grass was competing with itself had been too much for him. And he said that it had been a relief to find, in the density of Idle Theory, my "Fossil Beach" essay, in which I just wander along a beach, collecting belemnites. I asked him, as an English professor, what he thought of my English. "You make yourself understood," he replied. What more can anyone hope to do.

But the biggest surprise, after we'd been genially talking for an hour or two, was to have him remark: "It's a big idea, and not many people have them." I replied that it was a very simple idea. But, with that, I felt that despite the multiple criticisms he raised, Tom respected Idle Theory.

Then he started asking questions about me. On hearing the 'useless article' remark, he said he'd never heard the expression before, and fished out an enormous notebook from his capacious shorts, and started making notes. And while I talked about childhood, school, friends, women, and so on, he continued scribbling in the notebook. But we were now into the terrain of my own psychology, and that place is an impenetrable forest even for me, and he wasn't going to find out anything more than I did, which isn't much.

After some 4 hours, we left the George. On the way out, I said that Idle Theory wasn't the only idea I'd had. There were things like the siphon as well. He'd not heard of it. It would take another professor from another university to find that one. I drove him back via the Clifton Suspension bridge to the station, where he signed and gave me a copy of Crying.

Afterwards I felt that I'd probably got more out of the interview than he had. He'd asked me a lot of good questions, I thought. It had felt at times like having Idle Theory reviewed like it was a piece of university coursework, with me the slacker student who'd just not made a good enough case for this, and that, and the other, although the project was overall going quite well. It was valuable feedback for me. It was constructive criticism. A year or two later, I decided that he was quite right about Idle Theory's ethical paucity, and resolved to try to improve it. Meeting Tom Lutz influenced the subsequent development of Idle Theory. But had it been of any value to him? On balance, I figured he probably felt rather disappointed.

Three years or more passed, and I heard no more from Tom, and had begun to assume his book had been shelved. But then, while searching the web for something, I discovered a long extract from the book on And a long extract that was all about Tom Lutz meeting me at the the George:

Written by TOM LUTZ
Excerpted from Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America

“My father always called me a ‘useless article,’ ” Chris Davis tells me, driving through Bristol, England. “He said it in a rather nice way, of course.” In the midst of my research I had come up to Bristol from London to meet Davis, and he picked me up at the train station in a tiny, beat-up old sedan that was perhaps once green. I had seen his posts on and references to his very elaborate Web site,, in which he lays out his general theory of idleness, a theory that accounts for all phenomena in the universe — physical, biological, social — in terms of idling. He is a slight man, maybe 150 pounds, in jeans, a faded “Galicia” T-shirt and blue windbreaker, topped by a well-worn blue canvas cap. His greenish-grey eyes are the only large things about him, and they beam out of a face that begins wide and tapers into not much of a chin. A slight sag here and there announces that he has perhaps passed fifty, but there isn’t much evidence otherwise. He drives us to a pub, “The George,” just past the edge of town. “I spend an enormous amount of time in pubs just like this,” he says. He doesn’t lock the car, and given its sorry state one can see the wisdom in not making that particular effort. The pub is surrounded by corn fields and stone walls, and except for the cars going past on the macadam, there isn’t much trace of the last couple hundred years.
   Inside, we order a couple of pints and some lunch, which he is glad, he says, to let me buy. I make the mistake of ordering the hare, and all the old saws about British cooking waft through my head as I choke down the brown glop, liberally strewn with shattered bone. “I spend a fair amount of time just listening in at places like this,” Davis says. “One thing you never hear people say is, ‘Gee, I can’t wait to get back to work.’ They are all complaining about it.” Davis has spent time as an architect, and as a graduate student and university researcher, but now he gets by with a little freelance computer programming. This requires a small amount of very intense activity for a fairly short amount of time. “And then I just bunk off,” he says. Working as an architect one day he was extremely bored, looked down at his watch, and it said 2:13. “I’m going to be here for another three hours,” he thought, “and I don’t want to do anything.” He looked at his watch. It was still 2:13. He waited, for what seemed a long time, still 2:13. He thought: “I am so bored time has stopped.” He quit. Now, most of his time is his own. “I don’t get up until 11 in the morning,” he says. “And I don’t feel guilty about it.”
   Davis was one of the early mainstays of, where his essays on idleness are often referred to by those who take part in that site’s ongoing Web forum. The two main organizers of were D.J. Swanson, founder of CLAWS, an acronym for Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery, who lives in British Columbia, and Sarah Nelson, like Davis from Bristol and founder of something called the Leisure Party. I ask Davis if that is an actual political party. He laughs. “No, nobody would ever be that energetic!” The whywork forum usually has a number of people on the verge of dropping out of wage slavery looking for advice from people who have already made the plunge. It doesn’t really interest Davis that much. “CLAWS is practical,” he says. “For people who don’t like their jobs, their bosses. I don’t have this problem.” He is, instead, interested in theory.
   “Idle theory” is at one level quite simple. “All living creatures have to work to stay alive. Some have to work harder than others. Those creatures that need to do little work to stay alive are more likely to survive periods of difficulty than those that must work harder and longer.” Evolution is thus based, Davis writes on his site, on the “survival of the idlest.” This makes a kind of immediate sense. The more perfectly adapted to its environment, the less an organism would need to struggle. The organisms that are struggling are by definition having trouble with their environment. Human beings have, over their history, gradually struggled less. They developed tools that speed up the work needed to fulfill basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. A knife cuts faster than teeth, a bag or bucket carries more than hands can. This results in a net increase of idle time, time which people can spend in pursuits other than self-maintenance. “It is in this idle time that humans can do as they wish, rather than as they must, and they can think, talk, and play — i.e., act as free moral agents. In Idle Theory, humans are seen as part-time free moral agents, only free to the extent that they are idle.” And idleness is therefore the base of all ethical systems as well. Why is it unethical to steal? Because it decreases the idle time of another, who must now replace that object with more work. Everything that increases idle time is ethically good, everything that decreases it is bad. “The meek shall inherit the earth” is one of the many Biblical aphorisms in favor of idleness; Christ’s “lilies of the field” speech another. Davis finds the prejudice toward idleness in systems of etiquette as well. If two people are walking through a narrow tunnel, wide enough for only one, who backs out? The person closest to his entrance: The option requiring the least effort is the polite solution. Why do we give our seats on the bus to older people? It requires more effort for them to stand.
   “We’re still dominated by a small group of thinkers — Marx, Freud, Darwin,” Davis tells me between chips. “Freud isn’t what he was 25 years ago, but Darwin! I just love taking shots at Darwin.” Why? “Because he sees nature as a war. This idea has permeated our whole society and it’s profoundly destructive, divisive, not just because it’s racist — and he is racist — but because the culture is permeated by the idea that skirmishing for survival is natural. The idea is a menace! War is the opposite of everything I’m trying to get to.” The biological sections of Davis’s theory quickly exceed my ability to follow the mathematical models and cellular explanations, but the general point is clear enough: Even at the most primitive level, organisms tend toward idleness. “Just as Freud brought sex to the fore, I’d like to make leisure, idleness, more important. The twentieth century was sex. I’d like the twenty-first to be leisure.”
   We have another pint. “It’s very interesting to actually talk to someone about all this,” he says. He had written a long essay on idleness at the university, but it wasn’t written very well, he thinks; the couple of people who read it mistook it for a labor theory of value in the Marxian sense. One friend dismissed it with “you and your stupid ideas!” He used to wake up thinking he was crazy; after all, why should he have found this key if the world’s most renowned thinkers hadn’t, while other revered figures, like Darwin, held the opposite view? The more he looked though, the more he was convinced, and the more he found support among other philosophers and scientists, like Maupertuis, Leibniz, Euler, Fermat, and Feynman. “I’m a dreamer, and ‘Idle Theory’ is the deepest dream I’ve ever had. It’s my El Dorado, like a city I’ve discovered.”
   He wrote the main essays in a burst of activity and added essays on politics, aesthetics, economics, the fossil record, Java and Tetra computer simulations of the biological data, and much more. “Yes, you’re right, for someone who believes in Idle Theory, I’ve been quite busy,” he says, smiling. “The theory’s like a tree, it grows up, it branches out a bit. It’s always surprising me. There’s always a new angle. I’ve had lots and lots of theories. This is my best one.” He pushes away his empty plate and brings his pint glass front and center. “Why do you do it?” I ask. “Why don’t you, as your theory urges, remain idle?” He looks at me kindly, as if I am perhaps a bit dimwitted. “This is my idleness. If a pot of money landed on me, I’d keep on with Idle Theory, because I think it’s a great idea.” One shouldn’t confuse idleness with inactivity, he says. The fisherman (an example Davis uses in one of his posted essays) may look like he’s idle as he sits, intent on his line, but at that moment he is constrained, not free. When he isn’t fishing he may go for a walk, and look more active, but he is actually free to do anything at that moment and so is idle in evolutionary terms; his stationary fishing is active, his walking is a form of idleness, which he engages in for pleasure. The artist’s model, sitting still, is theoretically active, the amateur sculptor chiseling away at a block of marble for pleasure is theoretically idle.
   “And so it is all about pleasure, then?” I ask. Davis admits this is the least developed part of the theory. “In my imaginary little worlds, my models, I’m not concerned about whether they’re happy. The fisherman: Does he enjoy it fishing? Of course it is always better if one does.” Davis takes a sip from his glass and ponders this. “Perhaps,” he says tentatively, “like sex, there’s an evolutionary advantage in making idleness pleasurable.” He shrugs, thinks. I ask if he has tried to publish his ideas and he laughs. “As science fiction?” he asks. “No, I can’t imagine any publisher being interested.” He works on his Idle Theory, he assures me, for the pure pleasure of it. “There’s a kind of ecstasy in seeing things in a new way,” he says.
   What else does he do for pleasure? He answers, in terms many in the long history of slackers from Samuel Johnson to Jack Kerouac and beyond would approve: “I spend massive amounts of time sitting in pubs like this.” - posted by Xerxes @ 09:33 0 comments

Chris Davis aged 25This is a sympathetic account of our meeting. It catches the mood. I have only a few minor quibbles. Firstly he adds 20 pounds to my actual weight, although this might be both a compliment and a complement. And it's, not And Sarah Nelson lived in Brighton, not Bristol. And I did lock the beat-up blue Metro, if only because Tom wanted to leave his rucksack in the boot. And do I really look like that? I dug out this slightly optimistic pencil self-portrait aged 25 years.

A larger quibble is that, while it's true that my father called me a "useless article", he had always called me and my brother that throughout our childhood. And it wasn't a reflection on character. It was just a statement of fact. I had no utility to him. I was an investment that yielded no return. Many years later he told me that he'd not wanted any children, but my mother did, and it was she who got her way. And my father's assessment of me could have been the assessment of any father of his sons or daughters in modern Western society. In previous eras, children were set to work more or less as soon as they could walk and talk. They were extra hands who could help out busy parents with their work. No more. With washing machines and vacuum cleaners and cars and supermarkets, there wasn't much work to be done. So children just got in the way. They were useless articles, in a strictly economic sense. I only ceased being a useless article to my father after I left home and earned my own living.

And again, while it's true that I do spend a lot of time sitting in pubs, it's not getting drunk. In our society, pubs are uniquely places of relaxation. They perform a function that churches - their rivals - used to provide, of refuge. No work is done in a church, and no work is done in a pub either. My current local pub even has bits of church furniture in it, including a lectern which, for a long time, had the Book of Common Prayer open upon it - spoils of the long wars that churches fought with pubs, wars that the pubs won. And my preferred bar is, like a church, near-empty, and I sit in silence with a pint of lager, a packet of crisps, to just gaze into space, smoking roll-ups. Such quiet meditation is going to become illegal in 2007: smoking is going to be outlawed in all pubs. Which is exactly the same as banning candles and incense in churches.

And "bunk off" isn't a term I use. It was one Tom used. The life of a freelance software engineer was, in my experience, hyperactive in times of economic boom, idle during economic slump. It was always my rule to accept any work that was offered. But these were usually short term contracts, sometimes only a few weeks, for clients who wanted a programming job done yesterday. They didn't seemlessly fit together to form a continuum of work, but instead an intermittency. It was what came with the terrain. The freelance programming community was either hyperactively busy, or completely idle.

And when my watch stopped at 2:13 pm, I didn't quit my job. Instead I decided that it was best to do some work rather than watch the clock, because that way time somehow passed more quickly. Or at least, that was the plan.

As for the book itself, Doing Nothing was easy to read. The English flowed easily - which hadn't been my experience of Crying, where I tripped over nearly every sentence, and gave up after a few pages. Doing Nothing sprints out of the blocks in its first chapter, and then settles into a steady jog, a long distance run, before finally slowing to a definitive final stop, and a long holiday.

The principal surprise for me was not only that I appeared in it, but was given four pages in the first chapter, and referenced in the last chapter. I guess that was partly because Tom approved of me as a "busy idler", someone who espoused the idler code, but was actually quite productive in his idle time - like Samuel Johnson and Jack Kerouac.

This isn't really the place to review the book (Here's one, and another, and another). But I thought he'd done his homework on various kinds of leisure culture. I didn't know why he barely touched upon medieval and ancient views of work and leisure. And I felt that for all the wealth of factual detail, the book lacked a clear message. It was a catalogue of interesting loafers and idlers. And a psychological take on it all. ("What do you mean by 'psychologism?" Tom asked me.) And I somehow felt that at the end of the book Tom had no more of an answer than he had at the beginning to the question I asked him about his indolent son: "So what's the problem?" In the end Tom's son got off his backside and became a Hollywood scriptwriter, and the problem, whatever it was, went away.

It's a long book, and it took me about two weeks or more to read it. But I enjoyed reading it little by little, sitting in the sun outside the Otter - another old English country pub like the George - down by the river, with a cold beer on the table, and a cigarette in my hand.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: July 2006