Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but unalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive,” argues Jenny Odell in her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Inspired by a talk given after the 2016 presidential election, Odell asserts that the attention economy — defined as social media’s “financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction”— is holding us hostage from true connection.
To be clear, Odell, an artist and lecturer at Stanford University, is not actually arguing that we should do nothing. Instead, she makes the case for redefining productivity outside the bounds of what she calls the “neoliberal techno-manifest-destiny,” a concept that’s familiar to her as a lifelong Bay Area resident and an artist whose projects often wade into the refuse of the social internet. This capitalist worldview conceptualizes time as something to be optimized and monetized, the self becoming a business unit unto itself. Being a cog in the machine is repackaged as entrepreneurial and virtuous in the gig economy.
Those looking for an easy fix to their scrolling addictions will not find it in How to Do Nothing, which, despite the title, is not a self-help guide or a call for indulgent self-care. Odell is “less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than [she is] in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together.” For her personally, that means time for uninterrupted contemplation and environmental activism. A privilege, of course, but not one that goes unacknowledged by Odell, who says that unhealthy work cultures and systemic injustice are themselves part of the problem, in the way they siphon attention from those who would benefit the most from it.
How to Do Nothing is a dense but introspective book, “less a lecture than an invitation to take a walk.” Odell meanders between discussions of art theory, Greek philosophy, and bioregionalism and anecdotes about how the night herons she sees outside her local KFC — whom she endearingly calls “footballs” for their unusual shape — have expanded her understanding of humanity’s place in the natural world. Her message is at once urgent and romantic, serving as a vital course correction for those rendered rudderless by the 24/7 news cycle and social media’s incentivization of the hot take.
I spoke with Jenny Odell about bird watching, the disparity between life lived online and offline, and what sustained attention looks like in practice.
What is the origin of the attention economy? Is this a new phenomenon?
I think it’s probably as old as advertising. I think what’s new about it is how granular it seems, like it’s sort of metastasized into all facets of daily life. But I don’t think the mechanism of it is new at all.
Do you think there was ever an ideal state where attention wasn’t being siphoned off and commercialized in this way?
I honestly don’t know. I mean, I’m sure if you went back far enough. I don’t know that things are so different. The entire topography of attention in psychology would have been different. It’s a little bit hard to imagine, because it’s also bound up with ideas of free time and leisure and that’s all been changing for a long time. So I’m not sure, but I do think the character and quality of it has changed. I think the anxieties that we have about time spent online are analogous to anxieties that people had about TV, but at the same time they’re different.
How do you think they’re different?
It seems somehow to me more personal. Like with TV, it was in the home, so it’s personal in that way and [was] changing the ways families would spend time. But at the end of the day, the TV is over there. Now it seems like even one’s own thought processes about what is happening or what someone is perceiving are already being preemptively framed as an Instagram post or a take on Twitter. I just find it’s really sort of wormed its way into the mind and just perception of life in general.
Have you noticed that in your own life — thinking of how an experience may look online versus being present in the moment?
I actually was kind of a latecomer to iPhones and Instagram. Actually, I had an iPhone for a long time without Instagram. I remember that the first Instagram post I ever made was of my family — my dad and his brother — and the moment I put it on that platform and saw it in that very familiar square format, I felt weird about it. Like I had converted it into something formatted or optimized for the platform and now I’m going to sit here and wait to see what kind of feedback it gets. I’ve sort of gotten used to it since then, but I remember that initial moment of being alienated from my own life.
In your book, you criticize what you call the “cult of individuality and personal branding.” What do you think this pursuit of an externalized identity is doing to our minds and our ability to relate to others? And how do you think it’s different from what existed before?
One of the things I talk about in the book that I get concerned about is how it’s an instrumentalizing view of the world and of one’s self. Obviously, brands are meant to be static, and so if you have a personal brand, it’s implied that you should be internally consistent and that there are things that are relevant to you or things that aren’t, and that pattern stays the same. I get concerned that it renders one less open to surprise. Surprising experiences, surprising conversations. I think a lot about the people and things we don’t pay attention to because we don’t feel we’re “supposed to” or we have no obvious reason to be paying attention to that. I have been very fortunate in that corner of my life. Most of the things that make up the person that I am now are things that I encountered on accident.
In a way it’s analogous to bird watching. I was just telling someone the other day that I don’t ever really feel like I go bird watching because birds are just everywhere. And so you could potentially see one at any time.
What is it about bird watching that fascinates you?
On the most basic level, it’s a way of getting outside of yourself. Something that I find dissatisfying about the instrumentalized personal brand is that it feels claustrophobic to me. It’s just so narrow and static. Just the very act of being surprised by something is this reminder that there’s this whole other world going on. I really value any kind of reminder of that.
And then birds are the best example of that because they literally show up out of nowhere. And then they leave. And so when you see one, you really have to pay attention to it because you don’t know how long it’s going to be there. I’ve stood in one place for 15 or 20 minutes because it was the first time I had seen that type of bird and I didn’t know if I was ever going to see it again. I feel like it’s a very different way of encountering something where it’s really not there for you. The relationship is reversed, where you are there to observe the things that are already in this place.
A theme that comes up often in your book that I’m really interested in is this idea of mutual responsibility — that we as people are beholden to each other. Given that we live in such an individualist culture, I’m curious what you think this sort of society looks like in practice. Does this exist now, and how do you suggest we unlearn this desire to be self-contained?
I think some of it is just paying attention. I mean, on a really literal level, that’s why I talk [in the book] about being on the bus and sitting and apprehending the reality of other people. I think that’s a really important first step. I’m amazed by everything that we don’t notice. And then I’ve been really heartened by discovering this whole group of people in the Bay Area who are into bird watching or stewarding local creeks.
As an example, Liam O’Donoghue, who is the historian that I mentioned in the conclusion, went last week with me to this talk hosted by the California Native Plant Society. They were hosting a talk by a woman whose whole job is re-engineering or restoring creeks in urban areas. And it was packed on a weekday night at a library that is not even that close to Oakland. That’s been my experience over and over again — going to these kinds of events or taking classes and meeting all these other people who are interested in the same thing.
It’s so different from more than two or three years ago, when a lot of the events that I went to were around digital art or new media, because that’s the world that I live in and that’s where my work is. That’s sort of my scene, and this is so different.
What are they doing differently?
The thing that I find especially refreshing about it is just that these are all people who live around here and have some emotional stake in the livelihood of this place. There are usually sweet moments — I’m on the Golden Gate Audubon Society group chat and you’ll just see these threads where someone will say, oh I saw this one type of butterfly that we’ve been really concerned about and there’s a lot more this year and here’s a photo. And then you see all these other people chiming in who live all over the Bay Area and they’re like, oh yeah, I saw them here too, I found them in my backyard. There’s just this really nice feeling of a group of people that have something in common, but it’s related to the place where they are and feeling this common responsibility for that place and for everyone who lives there. It just feels very grounding to me.
How has becoming part of this community changed you?
One thing that I’ve taken away from that, and I’ve just been thinking about more lately, is the amount of time that these things take. So, for example, Mark Rauzon, the guy that I talked to in the book about restoring the creek — I remember being totally floored by his description of how much they had to do to restore that creek and what it originally looked like. Years and years and years ago, maybe 2009, I happened to walk along that creek and I thought that it was a vestige of a natural area that hadn’t been touched, or it hadn’t been developed or something like that. But it had absolutely been developed. In the 90s, he and his group came in and had to pull up a bunch of concrete and replant a bunch of trees. And so in a way, it’s mimicking what was there, but it’s artificial.
Then he told me about how much work it takes every single year. There’s always ivy growing in it and it’s sort of this losing battle to get rid of ivy. Yet no one is going to stop trying to do that. It’s really inspired me to take the longer view on some things, and that’s part of the reason it was important for me in the book to expand the temporal scope, past just these very specific problems that we seem to be having right now and show that they are involved with a lot of longer-range problems. To me, that’s not depressing. It just gives a really helpful perspective and inspires me to get more into the “working at it everyday” mindset, versus the quick fix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How to Do Nothing
By Jenny Odell
April 9, 2019