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), is a book I found myself reading slowly, doling it out, because it presented so much food for thought. This is a very good read if you, like me, worry about the ways that life online, as valuable as it is in many respects, can erode our presence in the physical world, and our ability to concentrate. I should state straight out that Odell is not anti-technology, but believes in using it consciously and well. Her book is a useful text for all who are 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 Odell'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."
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.
She's 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?"
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.
"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 my relationship to the attention economy has changed for the better since reading this provocative book.
The passages above are from How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019). The poem in the picture captions first appeared in Tin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors.