The founder of The Idler and the Idler Academy on idle thoughts: Real books, dumb phones and down with Twitter – why the true idler must only disconnect.

The year was 1991, and a 23-year old Tom Hodgkinson was lying atop his bed, leafing – idly as it happens – through a 1758 essay, titled The Idler by Dr Johnson. Two years later, having been fortuitously sacked from his job, he and a friend, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, produced the first edition of The Idler, a publication intended as ‘literature for loafers’ that would go on to carve out a chequered, but ultimately triumphant, path. Friends, fellow slouchers and kindred sloths all contributed – Louis Theroux among their number – and somehow a movement was born. A How To Be Idle manifesto was written and its words continue to be those, truly, to live by:

‘The religion of industry has turned human beings into work robots,’ it begins. ‘The imposition of work-discipline on free-wheeling dreamers enslaves us all. Joy and freedom have been replaced by work and worry. We must defend our right to be lazy. It is in our idleness that we become who we are; it is when lazy that we achieve self-mastery. Jobs rob our time. Productivity and progress have led to unease. Technology imprisons as it promises to liberate. Careers are phantasms. Money is mind forg’d. We can create our own paradise. Nothing must be done. With freedom comes responsibility. Stay in bed. Be good to yourself. Inaction is the wellspring of creation. Art, people, life. Bread, bacon, beer. Live first, work later. Time is not money. Stop spending. Quit your job. Study the art of living. Live slow, die old. Embrace nothing. Know nothing. Do nothing. Be idle!’ As manifestoes go, it is both gloriously enticing and deeply wise. Here Tom shares his digital diversions and the importance of disconnecting.

The Idler has existed in many guises, at one time published by The Guardian, then by Ebury and later as a series of essays. Today you can flick indolently through its pages in its latest incarnation as a magazine.

But today, The Idler name is bigger than a publication. It also offers a myriad of live events and varied, wonderful and often esoteric courses online. Of the latter, there are some 50 to choose from, from bread baking to psychotherapy to meditation and psychedelics, with all courses run by like-minded enquiring spirits.

‘But why would I take a course if I can loll about being idle?’ we hear you cry. Well, therein lies the point. The idling life as espoused by Tom is not about doing nothing; it is about having the time to find what brings you joy, and allowing yourself the freedom to unearth that or those things. Idleness is not ultimately laziness: it is emancipation from meaningless jobs and the daily grind – an ethic deeply indoctrinated in contemporary society. Instead, argues The Idler, let us consider the lilies.

Here, Tom tells us why he only goes on Twitter to be reminded of its evils; why you’ll never find him surfing YouTube; how Plato’s Dialogues digested at a pleasingly slow pace are enough to sustain him; and why his once high hopes for an egalitarian Internet have long-since been dashed.

Photo credit: Chris Floyd

My favourite website...

I’m afraid this is not exactly a sexy choice but can I give a shout out to the British Government’s site, GOV.UK? It is brilliantly written and very clearly designed, and it works. It has taken the pain out of a lot of boring admin.

My favourite app...

I don’t really use apps much because I don’t have a smart phone. The only one I open with any regularity is the calculator app on my iPad. But I find it really annoying because it is filled with advertising for pension plans. I do also check my bank account via an app occasionally.

My favourite blog...

The only blog I really like is the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog. The brilliant researchers behind it are always unearthing and digitising beautiful old books.

My Internet hero...

Most Internet so-called visionaries these days are just greedy businessmen in disguise. In the old days there was someone called John Perry Barlow who had a vision of the Internet as a place of liberty, equality and fraternity, but I’m afraid his dream did not come to pass.

My favourite podcast...

Again I am not a massive fan of podcasts. I prefer books. Though I do occasionally listen to the genius Adam Buxton.

My favourite YouTuber...

I don’t really know what a Youtuber is, though my children do talk about them. Am I right that an example of the type is Pewdie Pie? A Youtuber, I guess, is someone who attempts to make an income by producing daft videos which get millions of views and therefore generate a vast amount of advertising revenue, a tiny proportion which finds its way to the content maker’s bank account, while the vast majority ends up in YouTube’s bank account in San Francisco. I did glance at PewiePie once and thought he was really boring.

Having said all this I have recently recorded a few videos on idling philosophy for YouTube as it seemed a bit perverse not to, given that the platform is so popular.



My most recent buy online...

I bought the Royal Academy’s book of its Picasso show as a present for the Idler’s art director, Alice Smith.

Last book you downloaded or read...

I always have several books on the go and very rarely read them online or download them, vastly preferring the freedom of a real book. Recently I read a proof of Craig Brown’s new book about The Beatles, and being a big fan if both author and subject, I loved it. I am also reading Plato’s Dialogues, very slowly.

Favourite tweeter...

I cannot stand Twitter even though we have an Idler Twitter account. I think it is an absolute cesspit of nonsense. People don’t seem to realise that it is an ad sales business which gets its content for free. It is addictive and actively encourages the seven deadly sins. I now go for weeks without it and only occasionally glance at it for 30 seconds to remind myself of its evil qualities.

Favourite Instagrammer...

I never look at it.

Favourite tech gadget...

I am quite fond of my Punkt phone. It is a smart dumbphone that just does texts and calls. It can also do tethering so I can use my iPad in wi-fi free zones.

The most useful gadget on your desk...

A pencil.

First thing/app you look at on your mobile when you wake up in the morning...

The Guardian’s website, then the FT website, then The Mail online and sometimes The Spectator.

The last thing you binge-watched...

Succession. Enjoyable and brilliantly done but ultimately silly and pointless.

Brands have you discovered online...

None.

Social media allowed me to meet...

I am not on it, so no one.

The best digital advice I've been given...

Only disconnect.

My screensaver is...

A photograph of an 18th-century edition of Virgil.

My standout online memory...

As an early Internet adopter, I clearly remember the excitement of buying a modem in 1993 and linking up to gopher and other ancient search systems. Then the World Wide Web was invented and I got a browser called Mosaic. I had a Demon email account. They were great days before the evil ones moved in.

My pet online hate is...

The Silicon Valley system of creating a monopoly by spending vast amounts of money to dominate a market – eg Uber, Google, Facebook. This is exactly contra to the egalitarian spirit of the early Internet.

Do you have any online rules or resolutions (such as a time your religiously switch off devices, for example?)

No rules but not having a smartphone is fantastic because I get so much peace and thinking time. I do have an iPad Mini which is great for travelling. It has a little keyboard so I can write on it. When writing I tend to turn off the email programme.

As someone who runs a business at least in part online, what are your best bits of advice/ most interesting things you’ve learned?

The mailing list is king. Again and again we see this proved. It is very, very difficult to get Facebook advertising right, and we have tried, but our mailing list is a joy. It is pure freedom. We do pay our mailing list host Mailchimp quite a lot of money for it but it is worth it. I love the direct interaction with our readers.

By Nancy Alsop
April 2020

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Guest Edits with:
Alain de Botton
Dan Jones
Su Blackwell