How to Do Nothing: Jenny Odell's case for resisting "The Attention Economy"

Artist and writer Jenny Odell (previously) is justifiably beloved for her pieces and installations that make us consider the economics and meanings of garbage, weird markets, and other 21st century plagues; in her first book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Odell draws on art criticism, indigenous practices, "Deep Listening," anti-capitalist theory, and psychology to make the case that the internal chaos we feel is no accident: it's the result of someone's business-model, and until we reject "productivity" in favor of contemplation and deliberation, it will only get worse.

Odell's central thesis is hard to pin down; part of her subject-matter here is that really important ideas don't neatly distill down to short, punchy summaries or slogans — instead, they occupy a kind of irreducible, liminal complexity that has to be lived as much as discussed.

With that in mind, the broad strokes of her book are that:

* The rise of "productivity" as a measure of the quality of life is incredibly destructive, and it obliterates everything inside and outside of us that make us happy, because sleep and love and laughter and beauty are not "productive."

Odell links this to neoliberal capitalism, and the requirement that each of us be a hustling entrepreneur, which, in turn, is a way for capital to shift risk onto labor. It's a scam that moves both wealth and joy off of our balance sheets and onto the balance sheets of the super-rich.

This is very strong material, and it reminds me of the one conversation I had with David Allen, author of "Getting Things Done." Allen lamented that everyone pays close attention to the first two parts of his book (which focus on making sure that the stuff you decide to do get done) and skip over the third part (which focuses on deciding what to do).

* That doing "nothing" doesn't mean becoming a hermit: it requires more social engagement, not less

Odell builds on the idea that capitalism atomizes us and makes us stand alone and think about our relations to others in instrumental, individualistic terms; the reason social media is toxic isn't that it connects us with others, it's how it connects us with others. Doing "nothing" (that is, spending your time doing "meaningful," rather than "productive" things) requires that we find ways to genuinely interact with others.

This reminded me strongly of Patrick Ball's incredible essay on depression and suicide, and the reason that affluent white dudes are the most suicidal people in America today. Ball's thesis is that people who lack privilege must forge social relations with the people around them just to survive. If you have no money for a babysitter, you can substitute favors from friends.

"Favors from friends" are unreliable and nondeterministic, while spending cash with a sitter (or better, a service that has many interchangeable sitters) is extremely reliable. But if you keep substituting transactions for social networks, you'll eventually end up lonely and outside of any kind of social group that can form a resilient mesh for your inevitable problems: there's no one to put a hand on your shoulder, look you in the eyes, and say, "Are you all right? You seem to be in trouble."

Reading Ball's essay made me realize how much of a hermit I'd become, substituting work and transactions and "productivity" for friendship and connection, and how much of the anxiety and depression I was experiencing was the result of this isolation.

Social media is a great way to stay in touch with the people who matter to me, so that we can have offline, longer-form, important and meaningful interactions. But the commercial imperatives of social media work against that kind of socializing, because once you get together and start to have those contemplative and meaningful interactions, your social telephone starts ringing, because the algorithms that govern it notice that you're not paying attention to it anymore.

* That refusing to pay attention is an act with a long and honorable history

Odell traces the traditions of refusal from the ancient Greeks to avant-garde artists, and connects these to feminism and liberation struggles. This was fascinating context, and often very funny, and felt like something of a masterclass in understanding abstract art as well

* That cities have unique properties that make them hubs of resistance

The struggle against our reduction into productive workforce units, as opposed to thriving, contemplating, loving humans is the struggle against monoculture. Cities, with their diversity of people, backgrounds, incomes, social situations, and so on are the perfect place to resist monoculture. Places where strangers mix, like public transit, are hotbeds of resistance.

Odell also lauds "third places" here, the places that are outside the market, like libraries and parks, where your welcome is not dependent on your productive contributions, which ask nothing of you except that you be there.

And even as Odell is praising cities here, she's also working in a strong environmental message, connecting refusal to indigenous practices of attentive co-existence with the natural world, and connecting that to the complex idea of "bioregionalism," which involves identifying as a person whose place matters, whose views on the world and daily activities are influenced by the things that grow and thrive around you.

I've been around "bioregionalism" advocates for much of my life, and I admit I still struggle with some of the nuance of this idea, but Odell's connection feels right, and I really enjoyed the way she connected the beauty of cities — which I love — with an appreciation of, and connection to, the natural world.

* That technology isn't the problem, but rather, its economic and political context are what get us in trouble

This is the argument that puts Odell in the same group as some of my other favorite thinkers, like Leigh Phillips, Paul Mason, and Peter Frase.

Like the others, Odell doesn't argue the simple position that technology is neutral, but rather takes the position that technology's current decidedly partisan configuration is the result (and not the cause) of market ideology that demands growth, consumption and "engagement" instead of joy, meaning and peace.

It's an important point: Odell isn't telling us to stop using technology, but to use different technology in different ways.

There is so much to love about this book: Odell's discursive, interdisciplinary critique approaches an important and difficult question from many different angles, making it a chewy, provocative pleasure of a book.

But all that said, I'm looking forward to her next book. I know from my own work that what feels like irreducible complexity is often a lack of clarity. That is, just because you think you've made something as clear and simple as it can be, it doesn't mean you're right, it might just mean that you don't understand your own material well enough, and have not spent enough time trying to explain it to other people in order to learn what parts of it are important and which parts can be left to one side.

As much as I love this book, I also think that there is room to make it crisper, and some of that room will come from Odell gaining clarity as she tours with and discusses these ideas, and some of it will come from the rest of the world catching up with her — when we started talking about online privacy, there was a lot of getting-up-to-speed that had to happen before the discussion could start. Today, the baseline of familiarity that others have with the ideas is much farther along, and so the discourse is more substantial and less about getting on the same page (this is also true of other complicated debates, including the contemporary critique of capitalism and concerns over climate change).

That's not to say that Odell has fallen into the trap of the masochistic longread ("because paying close attention to complicated ideas is a virtue, I will simply write this idea out in sprawling and undisciplined form, because the longer it is, the more virtue it has"). This book never bores. However, it does leave the reader with more feelings (which are good and important!) than clear articulation (also good and important!), and I think that Odell's continuing trailblazing will find a place where these two virtues are more in balance.

How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy [Jenny Odell/Melville House]