How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

This thrilling critique of the forces vying for our attention re-defines what we think of as productivity, shows us a new way to connect with our environment and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about our selves and our world.When the technologies we use every day collapse our experiences into 24/7 availability, platforms for personal branding, and product...

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Title:How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
Author:Jenny Odell
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How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy Reviews

  • Felicia Edens

    I found an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book at the library where I work, so I was able to read this before the public gets to it this April. None of the other librarians had taken it, and I usually don't end up reading ARCs, but after looking at the cover a couple times, I found myself genuinely intrigued. As I finished the first chapter, I knew that I was going to read the entire thing. I am personally in a state of constant love and hate as well as inspiration and anxiety in terms of my rel

    I found an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book at the library where I work, so I was able to read this before the public gets to it this April. None of the other librarians had taken it, and I usually don't end up reading ARCs, but after looking at the cover a couple times, I found myself genuinely intrigued. As I finished the first chapter, I knew that I was going to read the entire thing. I am personally in a state of constant love and hate as well as inspiration and anxiety in terms of my relationship to social media (particularly Instagram), and this book spoke volumes to me about a term that is curiously not found anywhere within these pages: mindfulness.

    Odell probably omitted that word intentionally, as her goal in her personal and business life does not want to seduce readers into "hot" and "trending" terminology, as we know mindfulness has become over the past few years. Instead, she clearly explains her goals with the book right away, determined to tell us that How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy is not about convincing anyone to delete their social media accounts or to optimize their life via a mindset based on positivity or to learn how to focus on what it is *you* really want rather than caring about what others are telling you to want. Nor is it a scathing critique of the political and/or libidinal economy. Rather, what Odell is talking about in her book is this: simply, a contemporary understanding of time and space. But instead of these terms becoming vague philosophical abstractions, she roots the concepts of time and space in a sensible context: that of the here and now.

    Odell does not hide behind a mask of non-identity. She talks about where she grew up in California, her half-Filipino identity (despite never being to the Philippines), her experiences in the fast-paced corporate world of Silicone Valley, her boyfriend, her father, her friends, her home life and hobbies (bird watching), her affinity for the art-world, and more... she uses all of her experiences to draw out a fascinating map of history, geography, and present socio-political circumstance that surprisingly - at least for the next few years - will be able to speak to everyone that grew up with the proliferation of technology. Taking this personal vantage point, Odell traces back to the communes of the 1960s - explains what worked about them and what didn't (prepare yourself for a brilliant deconstruction of social design versus social activism). She goes back to Ancient Greece and reminds us of the cynic Diogenes, who lived life of resistance among the very community he denounced. She describes something that happened not too long ago in California: the strike of longshoremen who were over-worked by manual labor and the string of problems they encountered and how they began to work to solve them.

    How does this work into her title: *How To Do Nothing?* Well, her argument is that (and I agree), sometimes when you "do" nothing, you actually begin to pay attention to what's actually happening outside of yourself and consequently begin to engage with the world in a new, more nuanced, and intentional way, a way that understands context (which can be horrifyingly forgotten in the virtual realm), and a way that understands the self in relation to everything else. In a word, doing nothing enables us to interact with the environment *intelligently*. Using herself as an example, she explains her love for art via a review of her fascination with the art of David Hockney, via her interpretations of Thoreau, via her analysis of writers native to this land. She comes up with the concept of bioregionalism: an acknowledgement of the natural world that is understood as both specific to geography yet contingent on all other geographies within the world.

    You will find much about the expected (or not) topic of exploitative algorithms of current internet platforms. A topic always due for a reiteration. Keep in mind that this information is coming from first hand accounts of someone who worked in the industry for a time. Most importantly, you will find much about a form of presence that is inherently organic and ecological, something I think humanity is dire need of as we go through an almost traumatic, and actually traumatic for many, loss of natural resources.

    "...we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way."

    This book is a product of the 21st century, and it by no means intends to bring you something innovative and new. Odell's writing is a reiteration and underlining of stuff we have all heard before: stuff that Odell writes with enough attention, intention, and care that is becomes authentic. Now hurry up and read the book before authenticity becomes the newest commodity. Just kidding. But read the book before it's too late. Voluntate, studio, disciplina!

  • Truce

    First, I understand the negative reviews of this book. The title is misleading as this is not at all a how-to on unplugging or leaving social media (for that, maybe read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism or Catherine Price’s How to Break Up With Your Phone). Instead it’s a really well-researched book on some abstract and sometimes seemingly esoteric concepts: the self, attention, bioregionalism, what it means to refuse/resist in place, and the effects of late stage capitalism on all of the above.

    First, I understand the negative reviews of this book. The title is misleading as this is not at all a how-to on unplugging or leaving social media (for that, maybe read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism or Catherine Price’s How to Break Up With Your Phone). Instead it’s a really well-researched book on some abstract and sometimes seemingly esoteric concepts: the self, attention, bioregionalism, what it means to refuse/resist in place, and the effects of late stage capitalism on all of the above.

    There is really no how-to in this book, and I don’t think Odell’s work here can be even halfway summarized with buzzwords like “mindfulness” or “digital detox” or whatever. The bulk of this book is about the things that we are unable to do when our attention is tied up in social media or the news cycle. Yes, at the most basic level, social media and the news cycle take away our ability to reflect and think deeply about what’s actually happening underneath the status updates and headlines. But beyond that, it can erode our relationships with other people, with time, and with the environment around us. What parts of our identities get lost when we boil all of our ideas down to 280-character tweets that offend no one? When we think of people as brands and corporations as people, how does that effect our ability to actually connect with others or even with ourselves?

    Odell first asks us to rethink the idea of “usefulness” and to really challenge this tendency to think of time and attention as commodities, something we’ve mostly taken for granted in the gig economy. She uses an example of an old-growth redwood tree in Oakland that is useless for human consumption — ironically it is its “uselessness” that saves it from being cut down for timber, making it the only tree of its generation to survive. They even call it “Old Survivor.”

    Yes, there are parts of the book that were near-inaccessible. Many of her descriptions of art exhibits were difficult to grasp, and her focus on bioregionalism was sometimes challenging to get through. I imagine there are a lot of us who just don’t see ourselves giving up our phones for a life of birdwatching or going to symphonies where a pianist plays nothing for three movements. But I thought of those parts as stretching my limits of understanding — this book was kind of a key to get me to try to pay attention to something different. I did, admittedly, download the iNaturalist app after reading this book.

    What I appreciate about Odell’s approach is that she earnestly considers race and class in the how and why of resisting the attention economy. When reading Digital Minimalism, I found Newport had some stark blind spots — he says little of race and class, and women were conspicuously absent from his book. In contrast, Odell’s references are wonderfully diverse; yes, she references Thoreau a lot, but she also draws wisdom from Audre Lorde, labor movements, and environmental justice, among many other things. She provides historical context to all this, as an antidote to social media’s tendency to keep us forever anxious about the present.

    Also, while other books about the same topic tend to treat the hijacking of our attention and the tyranny of algorithms as foregone conclusions, thereby making digital detoxing seem like a life or death situation, Odell manages to avoid sensationalizing and instead invites us to another way.

    What had me screaming “YAS QUEEN” at my Kindle was the stuff she had to say about the right to not express oneself. I am a writer, but in the past two years I rather counterintuitively deleted my Twitter and Facebook accounts (my whole platform!) because I was so f*cking tired of reading everyone’s hot takes and of the pressure of having to constantly post hot takes myself. I wanted silence, the time and space to actually think my own thoughts about a situation or event or thing. I also really wanted to consider the question of what makes an opinion worth expressing and why. I truly thought I stood alone on this, that maybe I was just bitter because I haven’t been able to quit my day job for “a job in social media that I’m passionate about” that seemingly everyone on Twitter has. It was comforting and refreshing to know that someone out there felt the same way and was able to articulate those feelings much better than I ever could.

  • Andrew Sampson

    full disclosure i literally only one page left to read in this book but i left my backpack with it inside a chipotle, anyways it still changed my life

  • Ken-ichi

    Anyone who has run a public event where you show people other organisms has fielded the horrible, soul-crushing question, "But what does it do?" or worse, "What's it good for?" They're not unreasonable questions, perfectly understandable, human questions really, and at the same time completely maddening to an ardent naturalist, as if you'd just introduced your beloved mother to someone who then asked, "Nice to meet you, but what are you good for?" If I'm feeling forthright, I'll reply, "Nothing,

    Anyone who has run a public event where you show people other organisms has fielded the horrible, soul-crushing question, "But what does it do?" or worse, "What's it good for?" They're not unreasonable questions, perfectly understandable, human questions really, and at the same time completely maddening to an ardent naturalist, as if you'd just introduced your beloved mother to someone who then asked, "Nice to meet you, but what are you good for?" If I'm feeling forthright, I'll reply, "Nothing, really. What are you good for?" but maybe what I should start doing instead is kidnap the questioner and force them to listen to me read this entire book aloud.

    On the day last week when this book was published (or the media campaign began) a co-worker linked to it, an online colleague notified me about it, and my partner brought home a copy from one of our favorite bookstores, all totally independent of each other. It quickly became apparent that the author

    * lives in my town

    * lives in my old in neighborhood in my town

    * likes looking at birds and plants

    * cites Ursula K. LeGuin, Wendell Berry, Westworld, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," East Bay Yesterday, and countless other authors and works that have also passed through my brain at one time or another

    * uses the natural history recording tool and social network I help maintain

    Given this overwhelming karmic necessity of at least trying it, I'm happy to report the book hit home. It's awkward trying to summarize a work so concerned with holism, so maybe I won't and just dance around it like I usually do anyway. Odell describes something I have always found particularly compelling about natural history, namely that it is not about you, or not exclusively about you and your species and their concerns, but about all the other things around you, and what a profound relief it is to direct your attention wholly beyond your concerns, culture, economy, religion, etc., and focus on other beings. To Odell it's one manifestation of a mindset of selective attention, the titular "doing nothing" which really means doing anything other than creating value in capitalist terms, an entryway to an attentiveness that leads away from distraction and optimization and toward connections with land, with other organisms, and with other people, but it's also her chosen way to enact that mindset.

    Despite the fact that Odell cites iNaturalist as an example of tech that can assist with cultivating such attentiveness, it is kind of complicated. She writes,

    This is something I've thought about a bunch over the years, and I don't think iNat is unambiguously on one side of this dichotomy or the other. I think everyone who finds it rewarding has a bit of that itemizing instinct, and the itemizing mindset *can* be somewhat alienating. Mastery over taxonomy and nomenclature is satisfying in and of itself, and there is a temptation to just name things and move on, to catalog without understanding and observing more about each individual being you behold. Take it too far and you get Pokemon, a mindless leveling-up that is meaningless outside of the game. The camera is also alienating. In addition to physically separating you from your subject, taking a picture often means disturbing your subject, or at least depicting it in an atypical situation (every picture of a wrentit has the bird perching on a twig, in the open, in bright sunlight, while a more typical viewing would be a microsecond glance of that dolefully pale iris peering at you from deep inside the dark center of a coyotebush).

    I should also point out that we employ many of the distracting devices Odell warns against, from red notifications in the header of our site to annoying emails, and even gamification in certain contexts (largely despite my misgivings; I still maintain the green "Research Grade" label was a bad move, despite people's attachment to it). And, let's face it, the time you spend looking at your phone using iNat in the field is time you're not witnessing the thing you're ostensibly observing.

    That said, it's also true that I've learned a lot from iNat (as a user, not just as staff). I've used it in the way Odell describes, as a crutch in situations where I was ignorant, particularly while traveling. It has also elaborated on my interests and attentiveness in ways I would never have guessed: I pay attention to butterflies almost entirely because of the infectious interest of someone I met on iNat; I often recognize and appreciate creatures in the field *because* I saw them on iNat; I can't count the number of times I've noticed some novel detail or creature simply because I slowed down to take a picture of something else entirely.

    Even our computer vision system, which provides the "magical" automatic identifications our software is becoming known for and which could be described as a very shallow way to understand nature, is really the distillation of the sort of attentive focus Odell describes, applied by many thousands of people and delivered quickly by an algorithm. The technical processing is, of course, impressive, but the real value comes from all those people focusing their attention. And the hope is that even if the interaction is shallow, people will want to keep wading toward the depths.

    Ach, enough about iNat. While this is not really a self-help book, I think one lesson for me is to apply my naturalist's attentiveness more generally. I also share the author's interest in human history, but I haven't really made the leap to engaging in human community (like, actually getting to know different people), let alone to activism. The connection between attentiveness to the natural world and attentiveness to other people doesn't strike me as naturally as it does Odell, but perhaps it would if I was more self-conscious about my attention.

    Ok, there you go, Goodreads. Monetize my thoughts!

  • Jay Smith

    Delightful book to read, though I’m not quite sure that the author’s wandering argument that social media can (and should) be replaced by bioregionalism (in her case, replacing time spent on Facebook with bird-watching) can be extrapolated to a universal solution for everyone everywhere (for someone else, less Facebook, more marathon running might work; or, for an isolated victim of a hate crime in an impoverished country, maybe connection to a global network is more crucial than placid nature w

    Delightful book to read, though I’m not quite sure that the author’s wandering argument that social media can (and should) be replaced by bioregionalism (in her case, replacing time spent on Facebook with bird-watching) can be extrapolated to a universal solution for everyone everywhere (for someone else, less Facebook, more marathon running might work; or, for an isolated victim of a hate crime in an impoverished country, maybe connection to a global network is more crucial than placid nature walks). Though the book argues more for a middle ground of moderation versus quitting all social media, it doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing what that might look like, on a day to day basis. But the discussion it raises about the downside of the “attention economy” is well worth reading, even when it starts to sound a little like a college student’s essay expanded to book-length dissertation. I wanted very much to see this book address the downside of social media in a cohesive way, but it kept wandering and swerving, never quite pulling all the pieces together. Some writers excel at wandering (Lawrence Weschler, Rebecca Solnit, Oliver Sacks), managing to weave a tapestry around a theme. Odell hasn’t quite reached that level. Still— all in all— a thought-provoking book with some honest observations that need to be heard.

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