In this age of productivity hacks, Soylent lunches and near-compulsory handheld distraction machines, just glimpsing the title of Jenny Odell’s new book, “How to Do Nothing,” might feel restorative. (Do nothing? That’s an option?) Then you reach the subtitle — “Resisting the Attention Economy” — and realize that, in 2019, doing nothing requires a great deal of effort.
Odell is an artist and writer who’s spent her whole life in the Bay Area, a place “known for two things: technology companies and natural splendor.” She’s no Luddite; she uses tech in her art practice, teaches a digital-design class at Stanford, and maintains all the de rigueur social-media profiles. But her love for the natural world, and for the people outside the tech bubble, has complicated her relationship with technology.
It’s common, now, to be queasy about tech addiction on an individual level. But Odell’s concerns are more expansive — they transcend not just the individual, but the species. Her diagnosis? Every day, we are robbed of our capacity for meaningful, sustained thought by companies that mine our attention for profit. Social media itself isn’t the problem — it’s commercial social media with its “financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.”
This is no trivial nuisance; it’s “a life and death matter.” If we cannot think clearly as individuals, we can hardly hope to do so as a body politic. So many issues demand our sustained attention — not the least of which are climate change and other forms of environmental degradation — but we can’t see the forest for the tweets. “What does it mean to construct digital worlds,” asks Odell, “while the actual world is crumbling before our eyes?”
Odell prescribes a two-part cure for our sorry state: “disengaging from the attention economy” and then “reengaging with something else.” The titular “Nothing,” then, is actually quite a few things — just not the things considered productive by the market.
Odell does not advocate ditching the digital world altogether. Occasional retreats are valuable tools for breaking bad habits, but permanent withdrawal — which Odell likens to ditching society for a hippie commune — is both impossible and undesirable. After all, one of Odell’s goals is to engage more deeply with other people, and for now, for better or worse, those people can be found on Facebook.
Instead she advocates for changing the rules of engagement. Like Old Survivor, Oakland’s only remaining old-growth redwood spared by loggers because of its strange shape and small size, a person hoping to use social media without becoming a corporation’s pawn must assume “a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system.” With our attention recaptured — which Odell says is not a singular victory, but a lifelong fight — we can be more deliberate about how we live, and to what we surrender our most precious resource: our time.
“How to Do Nothing” is not a self-help book. It is light on specific, practical suggestions, and the few it offers can feel vague and unsatisfying. (If you must watch an advertisement, Odell suggests, try watching it like an adversary “who seeks to better understand her enemy.” But in this scenario, a company still profits off your time.)
What Odell gives us, instead, are reflections on the tools that work for her, primarily the act of grounding herself in her physical reality. She began with bird-watching (or “bird-noticing,” as she’d prefer to rename it), and now engages in bioregionalism, which involves fostering a rich understanding of a place’s many inhabitants, and committing to their stewardship. The physical plane deserves our attention, and in return gives us the time and space to engage with others, including neighbors both human and avian, with a depth impossible online. “Realities are, after all, inhabitable,” she writes. “If we can render a new reality together — with attention — perhaps we can meet each other there.”
At its best, “How to Do Nothing” mimics the experience of walking with a perceptive and sensitive friend, the kind of person who makes you feel, in your bones, that it’s a miraculous gift to be alive at all. “That tiny, glowing world of metrics cannot compare to this one,” Odell writes, “which speaks to me instead in breezes, light in shadow, and the unruly, indescribable detail of the real.” Putting down the phone isn’t easy, but the reward is nothing less than life itself.
“How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell, Melville House, 256 pp., $25.99
Jenny Odell will discuss “How to Do Nothing” at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 13, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; 206-634-3400, ubookstore.com