Image: Ponder from Thomas Hawk's Flickr Photostream

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare

William Henry Davies

To ponder: to contemplate, muse, reflect, think

To potter: to move around without hurrying, and in a relaxed and pleasant way.

From slow food and slow cities to mindfulness, therapy, reflexivity, introspection, yoga and a whole range of activities through which we can enhance our physical and mental wellbeing, the space for pondering and pottering is being colonised.  Surveillance or self-surveillance is being used to monitor our time spent engaged in pondering and pottering, re-constructing these previously unstructured activities or spaces as potentially useful and checking whether we are performing them sufficiently and correctly.  This can be seen in education, in healthcare, in our attitude towards play and exercise, almost to the point where it is encompassing all of what we do and how we think.

For example, everyday activities are now counted towards exercise goals and enlisted in the campaign to fight obesity and the sedentary lifestyle.  Pottering in the garden is no longer simply pottering.  Whilst academics study the positive health effects of gardening, newspapers and magazines tell us how we should garden and what health benefits we get from it. Meanwhile, the King’s Fund calls for gardening to be prescribed on the NHS.  From a public health perspective, this is a positive move, making people aware of the positive health activities they are engaging in even knowing it.  But the side effects of this is that we no longer simply potter in the garden, weeding, planting, pruning etc.  These activities now have a greater significance, needing to be performed, counted, and re-counted.  The act of moving around in the garden in a relaxed pleasant way has been colonised.  And this, arguably, decreases the positive benefits of pottering in the garden as an activity of choice that is good for health and wellbeing.  Health benefits have become primary, with other benefits backgrounded, as the responsible health citizen trumps all other types of subjectivity, such as the distracted, non-productive gardener.

Similarly, a stroll along the beach in the evening is no longer simply a stroll along the beach.  Where you might wander along, pondering, and enjoying the physical exercise and headspace, it seems these activities can no longer simply be done.  A stroll along the beach becomes a number of steps on a fitness tracker, a target to meet or exceed with the associated guilt if failing to do so, the distance and route are uploaded to Strava and shared with friends and colleagues to be noted and commented on.  Notice is taken of how far has been walked and the significance of this for health.  And even when you have chosen not to buy in to the fitness tracking, data collecting, route sharing competition, there is still an awareness that walking is good for your health, that we need to get out in the fresh air, that we are time poor and need to make time to relax and take in the world around us.  The danger is, as noted in a previous blog on health apps, that we become the worried well, self-surveilling and finding ourselves wanting, and negating any benefit that the stroll along the beach could have had were it allowed to simply be a stroll on the beach.

And it is not just pottering that is being colonised.  Once I get to the beach I can no longer sit and look at the sea, contemplating the world around us, musing and pondering at will.  I am now encouraged to be mindful, to open my senses and be in the moment.  The New York Times even published a helpful guide to being mindful at the beach in 2017. CDs are available that provide appropriate soundtracks for being mindful in a beach environment.  None of these are, in and of themselves, bad things to engage in, and there is plenty of evidence that these activities enhance mental health.  They are all, however, categorically different from pondering, from simply having the time and space to think.  And, each of these types of pondering have rules and techniques that need to be followed.  You can do them in the right or wrong way – and this is the key point – they each entail self-surveillance.

From a public health perspective, it is undoubtedly good that we slow down and rethink the ways that we use our time, particularly against a backdrop of rising obesity, mental health problems, stress, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles.  BUT colonising pondering and pottering time closes down opportunities for thinking and acting in different ways.  Pondering and pottering become yet more ways in which we can be judged, measured, studied and surveilled, and can judge and surveil ourselves.  From a sociological perspective, this is a clear example of what David Armstrong would call surveillance medicine, the problematising and medicalised surveillance of normality.  Foucault would see it as governmentality in action with individuals internalising the popular public health discourses around exercise, lifestyle and personal responsibility and self-governing.  In this way pondering and pottering are colonised by public health discourses and become actions that are assessed, measured and, most importantly, carry expectations about how they should be performed.  If there are right ways to ponder and potter then, by definition, there must also be a multitude of ways that are not right.  These activities or non-activities are increasingly seen as productive, becoming yet more of the day which is designated into bite-sized chunks of productivity and lost to the unorganised, messy, space to simply think and be.

What is this life, if, full of care,

We have time to stand and stare but need to make sure we do so in the right way so that our standing and staring is productive