This is less of a review and more of a set of notes on Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. The title makes it sound like it might be a how-to book or a Luddite diatribe, but it’s not. It’s more of an exploration of the ways we could reframe our thinking, and it’s written in a “form meets function” kind of way. As she says in the introduction:
“Less a lecture than an invitation to take a walk”
Odell lays out the familiar problems with social media. It pushes us to constantly be online, demands that we participate in the hype of the moment, and puts humanitarian crises on the same level as someone’s new shoes. It distracts us while our attention is monetised for someone else’s benefit. And it creates a context collapse, so that we become the blandest version of ourselves.
If the little drips of negative effects of distraction accumulate, we don’t do what we want to do each day. Many days of this lead to us not living the life we want, or even having capacity to know what we want.
Whenever this topic comes up, people say we should delete our social media accounts. As Odell points out, that’s quite a privileged take. It assumes that you have enough social capital that people will seek you out offline, or that someone else will take care of your social life (I’m thinking particularly of married men who “let” their wives handle that for them then are lonely when she leaves him or dies). And it ignores both the fun and useful aspects of socialising online, plus the way that the internet has enabled people to make genuine connections and raise awareness of real problems.
Another frequent suggestion is to do a digital detox, a temporary break to refresh ourselves. But digital detoxes are usually marketed as a way to take a break so that we can return to work more productive than ever before. What if we don’t want to take a break from the endless now of social media just to get better at grinding our way through a capitalist work life?
Odell says that history shows that a better way forward is to resist rather than retreat. We need to develop our skills for thoughtfulness so that we’re not pushed around by the demands of the attention economy. And we can try to be too weird and difficult to be consumed by Mark Zuckerberg!
Some ways of training ourselves to do this are to get into art and nature, as hobbies or just by going for walks. Both art and nature are difficult to manipulate and monetise, and so to enjoy them we have to actively change our perceptions. Once you start paying attention differently, you can become engaged with what’s right in front of you. If you connect with the people and wildlife around you, and learn the history of your place you live, you’ll have more challenging and interesting things to do than sit back and be spoon-fed smooth algorithmic content.
Odell reckons, and I think I agree, that if we can manage that we’ll be genuinely refreshed and have time for contemplation. By doing what the attention economy considers “nothing”, we might just be able to put our attention towards big problems like civil rights, and climate change.
This is a pretty rough summary. If any of this sounds interesting to you then you absolutely should read the book. You might get a different set of ideas from it than I did.
Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying. – Gilles Deleuze
Interesting stuff mentioned in the book, mostly art
- Old Survivor, a tree in Oakland California
- The Useless Tree, an old parable by Zhuang Zhou
- Thinking of Diogenes as a performance artist as well as a philosopher
- Windows – Eleanor Coppola
- Deep Listening – Pauline Oliveros
- The Trainee – Pilvi Takala
- Bartleby the Scrivener – short story by Herman Melville
- Cage Piece 1978 – Tehching Hsieh
- Gregory Swimming, Pearblossom Highway, The Scrabble Game – David Hockney. I’m sure I first heard about these from Frank Chimero in his talk The Web’s Grain at Webstock
- Touch Sanitation Performance, Manifesto for Maintenance Art – Mierle Laderman Ukeles
- Water Walk – John Cage (I love this so much)
- Blindspotting – Daveed Diggs (the hottie from Hamilton)
- Community Memory – the world’s first electronic BBS, run from a record store in Berkley California
Extreme busyness is a symptom of deficient vitality – Robert Louis Stevenson
Added to my to-read list
- Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is the 3rd recommendation for this I’ve had, so it’s time to bump it up to the “to buy” reading list instead of waiting for it to come my way.
- Wanderlust, Paradise Built in Hell – Rebecca Solnit
- The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself To Death – Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker
- Big Tech’s Phony Crisis of Conscience – Grafton Tanner at LA Review of Books