Tunes for a Monday Morning
The ties that bind us

Living and working in place

Leat 1

One of the books I carried with me during my travels over the last few weeks was How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, an artist and writer based in northern California (the center of the American tech industry). I read it slowly, doling it out, because it presented so much food for thought -- and now that I've finished, I recommend Odell's book for anyone engaged in the deep, slow work of making art in the shallow, fast world that Silicon Valley is busy creating. 

Here's a passage from the book's introduction that will give you a taste of what's inside:

"We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations -- and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In the endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.

"Given how poorly art survives in a system that values only the bottom line, the stakes are cultural as well. What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest-destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetric, or less-than-obvious. Such 'nothings' cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables."

How to Do Nothing

Leat 2

Odell writes that her book is "a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy": to social media, apps, and other technological tools that are increasing co-opting our time, our focus, and our lives.

"A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as an ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to everyone lucky enough to be alive."

Leat 3

Leat 4

Odell is not suggesting that we banish the Internet from our lives altogether. Nor does she endorse the notion that merely taking periodic "offline Retreats" (which is one of my own practices) is an adequate means of addressing the myriad ways the attention economy is re-shaping societal norms. When "doing something," in a hyper-capitalist culture, means "doing something productive" (ie, making money) -- as opposed to the things we do in the private parts of our lives that cannot or should not be marketized -- then re-framing the idea of what "productivity" means is a radical act.

"The fact that the 'nothing' that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity explains the irony that a book called How to Do Nothing is in some ways also a plan of action. I want to trace a series of movements: 1.) a dropping out, not dissimilar from the 'dropping out' of the 1960s; 2.) a lateral movement outward to things and people that are around us; and 3.) a movement downwards into place. Unless we are vigilant, the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way, deliberately creating false targets for self-reflection, curiousity, and a desire to belong to a community. When people long for some kind of escape, it's worth asking: What would 'back to the land' mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now? Could 'augmented reality' simply mean putting your phone down? And what (or who) is that sitting in front of you when you finally do so?"

Leat 5

Later in the Introduction she notes:

"The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn't to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive. My argument is obviously anticapitalist, especially concerning technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community. It is also environmental and historical: I propose the rerouting and deepening one's attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one's participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of 'doing nothing' is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

Leat 6

"I am not anti-technology. After all, there are forms of technology -- from tools that let us observe the natural world to decentralized, noncommercial social networks -- that might situation us more fully in the present. Rather, I'm opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic. I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression -- including the right not to express oneself -- and its deliberately addictive features. But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and the way we think about our onlines selves and the places where we actually live."

It's a fascinating book, yet not a prescriptive one. Each of us must determine for ourselves how phones and apps and Twitter and Facebook can best be used (or not used) in our lives. But what Odell has done -- for this reader, at least -- is to reframe the debate on the subject: widening its context and acknowledging its complexity. I'm still thinking about the questions she poses...and already my relationship to the attention economy is changing.

Leat 7

Words: The passages above are from How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019). The poem in the picture captions first appeared inTin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Working by the leat on a bright spring morning.


Something to add to the TBR pile.

On another note, can we talk about the coffee mug? It's lovely. Do you remember where it came from?

It's a tin mug with William Morris' "Strawberry Thief" pattern on it, made by the Briers gardening company. (I found two on ebay!) The V& A Museum shop also sells Morris tin mugs, but not this particular pattern.

A beautiful and thought-provoking post. Thank you! I just finished up a weekend online retreat with Pema Chodron, and as this post reminds me, a great deal of Buddhism emphasizes the importance of attending to our here and now. She quoted someone, though I'm sorry I don't remember who it was, when she said "Attention leads to understanding which leads to love". Attending to our selves, sitting with this moment, this feeling, this now, is one way of learning to love oneself, and by extension, learning to have more love and peace to offer other beings in a true and deep way. Thank you again for bringing this wisdom back to me! =)

Your quote reminds me of this:

Yes! No!
by Mary Oliver

How necessary it is to have opinions! I think the spotted trout
lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I
think serenity is not something you just find in the world,
like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like
small dark lanterns.

The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out

Yes! No! The

swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.


I send much love across the ocean to you and your family on this beautiful Devon morning.

Odell also introduced me to the term "context collapse," which captures so much about the antagonistic tone that the social media form -- with it's quick, short messages and manic pace -- seems particular prone too.

How timely this is Terri, thank you. I went to an Extinction Rebellion meeting last night, to find out more. All well intended people, but I came away thinking it was like watching the deck chairs on the titanic being rearranged. This left the awesome question so what do we do ? How do we act, adapt, prepare and live our lives conscious of the truth ? I am going to start this morning by getting the book. How about it for Book Club ? Love Susan x

This would be a great book for our Book Club. xx

As usual you have found a jewel of a book.I will get it.At the moment I finding peace and optimism elusive.

Doing Nothing

Doing nothing
Is not doing nothing.
Daffodils look up
at the sky for hours,
stretching yellow eternities.
A trout wavers
in a moving stream
but does not flow.
The black dog dozes
by the fire
dreaming of running.
And I sit at my desk
or in a comfortable chair
or lay curled doglike
on my bed,
doing nothing,
and poetry finds me.
We are old friends.
We do not need to talk
to hear the tune.
We only have to listen.

© 2019 janeyolen all rights reserved

A perfect usual, dear Jane.

I've been thinking about this so much lately, Terri -- how to take back control over my own attention (and attention span). I find a summer of writing and dogs and reading and a lot less internet increasingly appealing, though I can't imagine not having the parts of it I enjoy in my daily life. I lost that balance somehow. I blame the president. I mean, actually, now that I think about it -- that's a big part of it.

At any rate, if you're a podcast listener, there's an apropos episode of It's Been a Minute (my only news podcast) from Tuesday this week that's all about this topic and how we push back against the way that social media has been designed to commodify our attention.

This book sounds like what I need! I've moved away from Instagram (and Facebook) largely because their algorithm(s) mean that I don't see the people I want to unless they're buying ads. Likewise, no one sees me, even my best friends, no matter how frequently we interact with each other's accounts. We've just started group emails again. Because of distance it's not geographically possible to see each other as much as we'd like, and social media has failed us as well.

"I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression -- including the right not to express oneself -- and its deliberately addictive features." ---this! I have been watching this play out for years on social media and it's only getting worse. The nonstop calls for an expressed homogenous opinion - or risk being labelled the enemy- is incredibly frustrating. The people I know in real life have incredibly complex opinions that don't always translate perfectly to flattening effect of social media. I've been so happy to drop out and go back to reading blogs.

Thanks. I missed my Muse.

(((Terri))) such beautiful photos !

Oh yes! So many times yes.
As you probably know my friend I departed from all social media at the end of 2018 and doing so has created so much more space to do exactly as this author suggests - extend out to my neighbors and actual "real life" community and down into place. I don't think it is a coincidence at all that my departure from social media happened right before we added a little free library to our front lawn - a great way of meeting our neighbors indeed!

Judging by that final picture, "attention economy" means it's time to pet and play with a certain patient hound.


Thank you for that recommendation, Gwenda -- I'll check it out.

I've made a substantial change in my own online patterns after reading this book. I haven't left FB or Twitter altogether, but I've curtailed my time there substantially -- going on, posting what I intend to post, then off again without lingering. As a result of keeping social media time to a minimum, I'm definitely feeling more grounded and balanced. The constant anger and outrage on social media is just too much. Yes, I know quite a lot of it is in response to the dysfunctional and destructive political situations in the US and UK...but people like Trump court and delight in outrage; they feed on it, and take pleasure when anxious, angry progressive also turn our outrage onto each other. It's a kind of collective madness. I will continue to Resist with every fiber of my body and with my creative/political work, but I am personally dedicated to Resisting with kindness, compassion, and a willingness to listen to the quiet voices drowned out by all the shouting.

I completely agree with you. I am also shifting my on-line reading time back to blogs and other forms of long-form writing.

I can't take credit; I was using the same little point-and-click digital camera as always. But the light was just perfect!

I wondered what your experience with being off social media has been. I think you're blazing a trail that other good souls will follow unless these platforms reform...and so far I see no sign of that.

Always! And to spend more of my on-line time doing long-form blogging here again, which allows for better conversation than the short-form manic pace encouraged by social media platforms.

At this point, I'm not ready to leave social media altogether (I've taken it as a kind of mission to spread a little calm and beauty on Twitter and Facebook, in response to all the outrage and awfulness) -- but I'm strictly curtailing my time there. And the hound definitely benefits!

With the media and social media full of gloom and doom, it's hard to feel that there's anything good in the world. But there is good. There are wonderful people everywhere working to make this planet a better place for all. And that's what I want to focus on, not giving the Merchants of Outrage my constant horrified attention.

Plus, the work we do requires deep focus -- so I consider it my duty to my craft to resist the things that fracture my attention span. In the same way I support my physical health with good food, sleep, etc., I am determined to support my ability to focus deeply, slowly, attentively by limiting all attention-fracturing, rapid-fire forms of media -- in the same way that I limit processed sugar in my diet. It's just not good for the work of writing. I need brain strength as well as physical strength to work at my best.

The comments to this entry are closed.