Why We Should do More of Nothing

“Nothing is harder to do than nothing”  is how artist Jenny Odell  begins her book, How to Do Nothing. Resisting the Attention Economy.  I was intrigued by the title of this book as I have felt the pressure of quarantine, after quitting my job to aid my three kids in remote learning, to “upskill”, take classes, grow an audience, start a business, do whatever I can to stay “relevant”.  But I am growing tired of this endless pressure to: Make content! Make content! Make content! And: Consume! Consume! Consume!  

Odell titles her introduction, Surviving Usefulness and explains, “In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.”  Her book is a critique of what she labels “the attention economy” and how we can begin to push back to regain control of our attention and consequently, our lives. 

The idea of “doing nothing” sounded refreshing after forcing myself to get up two hours before the kids woke up desperately trying to be “useful” so as to be hirable again. I began to ask myself, who decided that we all need a personal brand, to build a platform, to attract followers, and accumulate likes?  Why am I encouraged to scream into this digital void, hoping to be heard and noticed?   Why am I checking my news feed every two hours?  Something is wrong here!  There has to be more to life than political drama, personal branding, and constant digital entertainment. 

I was noticing, as Jenny Odell puts it, “a certain nervous feeling of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought…unsatisfied with [my] untrained attention, which flickers from one new thing to the next, not only because it is an expression of habit rather than will, but because it gives me less access to my own human experience.”

This constant digital stimulation has led to an inability to concentrate and focus our attention for any extended length of time, which is the heart of the problem that Odell’s book shines a light on.  

To me, one of the most troubling ways social media has been used in recent years is to foment waves of hysteria and fear, both by news media and by users themselves.  Whipped into a permanent state of frenzy, people create and subject themselves to news cycles, complaining of anxiety at the same time that they check back more diligently….Media companies trying to keep up with each other create a kind of “arms race” of urgency that abuses out attention and leaves us no time to think.

The way I have tried to combat the attack on my attention has been to drop out of Facebook and other social media sites, but Odell warns against this type of action, and likens this rejection of today’s plugged-in society to the hundreds of hippie communes that rose up in response to the societal problems of the 1960’s. She must have anticipated our knee-jerk reaction to run away from challenging social structures, so she devotes an entire chapter, titled The Impossibility of Retreat, to recalling the failure of the hippie utopian experiment and the problem with running away from the challenges of our culture and community.  She concludes her chapter with the words of the prolific monk, Thomas Merton, who after a period of monastic isolation and contemplation, realized the importance of participating in the messiness of this world:

“If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living and ongoing events.  To choose the world is…an acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world, in history and in time.  In my time which is the present.”

Ultimately, Odell encourages some form of retreat and contemplation every now and then in order to think straight again, but we must always return to the world and take on the responsibility we owe to our communities. Her solution to rejecting the “attention economy” without running away or falling off the digital grid altogether is a way of participating in a kind of “third place” or a “standing apart”. 

To stand apart is to take the view of the outsider without leaving, always oriented toward what it is you would have left. It means not fleeing your enemy, but knowing your enemy…[and] the channels through which you encounter it day to day.  It also means giving yourself the critical break that media cycles and narratives will not, allowing yourself to believe in another world while living in this one.

Odell illustrates this concept with the ancient philosopher, Diogenes, and the Taosist sage Zhuang Zhou who “never assimilated to nor fully exited society; instead [they] lived in the midst of it, in a permanent state of refusal.”   These philosophers helped people recognize the “unrelenting hypocrisy of society” challenging the customs and social norms that upheld the greed and corruption of their time. They participated in society, but in the “wrong way”, like walking backwards down the street or gluing the pages of books together.  

Odell describes a contemporary performance artist who pretended to be an intern at a company and then proceeded to make it clear and obvious to all of her coworkers that she was not doing any work at all. Predictably, a flood of emails, written by outraged employees, went out to the supervisor.  This piece of performance art is an example of participating in the “wrong way”.  The artist’s rejection of normal work customs, of not even attempting to “look busy”, caused deep-seated discomfort amongst her coworkers because it became clear how fragile cultural harmony is, and how easily it begins to crack when people don’t conform. 

I personally want to crack open the social norm of playing on your phone all day long, and happily, I’m starting to notice threads of hope with the move towards societal rejection of constant cell phone use. In the show The Good Place, for example, cell phones are literally demonized (only the demons have and play on their phones).  I wonder how I can participate the “wrong way” with my cell phone or on social media to push up against these attacks on my attention.  

What Odell finds most frightening is that when our attention is constantly being directed towards shiny memes, videos, and photos, we have lost our ability to focus hard on something.  This is especially scary when we need to collectively focus on something in order to create change.  Odell goes on to describe the concentrated and continued effort it took for the 1930’s longshoreman of her hometown, San Francisco, to collectively strike in order to achieve better working conditions.  

This ability to come together as a collective and change the problems with culture, like we did during the civil rights and women’s right to vote movements is something that soon we may no longer be able to do. “If it’s true that the collective agency both mirrors and relies on the individual capacity to “pay attention,” then in a time that demands action, distraction  appears to be (at the level of the collective) a life and death matter.  A social body that can’t concentrate or communicate with itself is like a person who cannot think or act.”  One of the big issues of our time is climate change, but without sustained, concentrated attention, we won’t get anything done. We are a fragmented collective, each distracted with our own individually curated diversions, which keeps us from action and pushes only to blindly react, usually out of fear and anger. 

Odell acknowledges that the ability to reject the attention economy and reside in the ‘third space” is a privilege.  Many of us don’t have the time or financial ability to risk our jobs to reject the digital mainstream.  Often, we are expected to be “plugged in” at all times and many of us make our living on digital platforms. But Odell points out that the very people who created these attention sucking devices: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs , and social media designers have severely limited screen time for their own children because they know that these devices and social platforms are addictive. Odell calls out this “gated community of attention” where only the most privileged have access to their own attention and to plentiful green spaces where they can rest and contemplate freely. Rejecting the status quo can come at too high a price for many of us. That is why it is important for those who have the ability to resist, do so courageously and  loudly for the rest of us. 

With the stakes high, Odell demands that we gain control of our attention.  She warns us of the movement for “ethical persuasion” technology, where tech companies persuade the user to do something that is good for them, empowering users through “harmonious” design, instead of simply distracting them. But Odell asks, “Empower me to do what?  Good for me according to whom? And according to what standards? Happiness, productivity?”  Instead of taking for granted that our attention is no longer ours, we should aim to gain back control because sure, a little distraction can keep us from doing what we truly want to do, but over time these distractions accumulate and keep us from living the lives we truly want to live.

A real withdrawl of attention happens first and foremost in the mind.  What is needed, then, is not a “once-and-for-all’ type of quitting but ongoing training : the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.  We need to be able to think across different time scales when the mediascape would have us think in twenty-four-hour (or shorter) cycles, to pause for consideration when clickbait would have us click, to risk unpopularity by searching for context when our Facebook feed is an outpouring of unchecked outrage and scapegoating, to closely study the ways that media and advertising play upon our emotions, to understand the algorithmic versions of ourselves that such forces have learned to manipulate, and to know when we are being guilted, threatened, and gaslighted into reactions that come not from will and reflection but from fear and anxiety.

Odell  also encourages us to expand our attention.  Instead of settling for the narrow algorithmically defined selves, our “personal brands”  that are predictable and static thus easier to market to, we can look outside of our bubble and find ways to expand our attention and our sense of self.  She gives the example of her Spotify music playlist that has morphed into an algorithmically correct knowledge of the types of music she likes best.  However, when she plays the radio, songs come on that she enjoys that she would not ordinarily hear on her carefully curated Spotify playlist. She notices the same feeling of expansion when being invited to dinner by her neighbors, people she wouldn’t normally hang out with, and noticing how similar her friend’s lives and her own life is compared to her neighbors who have kids and live with an entirely different set of daily challenges and priorities.

Many of us are aware that we are encased in an echo chamber of sameness online.  So much so that Facebook has been criticized for radicalizing people because people become fanatically sure of their rightness when all they ever hear are their own beliefs echoed back to them.  We’re kind of squeezed into this one dimensional personality online where everything is devoid of context and nuance. Since everyone is sharing to a single audience, one that includes all at once, grandparents, coworkers and old college friends, the posts are often neutral and bland, what Odell calls “lowest denominator sharing” because no one wants to offend anyone from their multidimensional audience. 

Telling a story about your vacation to New Zealand last winter, for instance,  is going to be a very different story depending on your audience. Your college friends are going to get a different version of the trip than your grandparents or your boss. But since we’re forced to share our experiences with everyone we know all at once, we lose some of that rich variety that is at the core of our experiences and our selves.  We are not supposed to be static and unchanging, the way social media wants us to be. Otherwise, what’s the point in living?  

A study she described involved a person determining which line was longer in an image of a cross.  Meanwhile small flickers of images such as words or faces would appear on the screen.  Most people would not notice these images if they fell outside of the spot where they were concentrating unless the image that flickered was something like a smiley face or their own name.  But a frowny face or a misspelling of their name would not register.  This study blows my mind in the way that our computer brain registers so many things and ultimately decides what stimi to bring into our consciousness.  I realize that I am not in control of my reality.  My brain is conditioned to only pay attention to things I have already trained it to think I am interested in.  

Odell applies this study to her interest in birds that was once non existent.  Her brain did not register the birds and the sounds of birds around her until she began to pay attention and thus trained her brain to register them as something she was interested in, so it would bring them into her consciousness. Odell finds that art is very helpful in expanding our mind.  She details specific visual and aural art installations that altered the way she experienced seeing and hearing in her daily life.   We don’t really know what we’re missing, so it’s important to remain open to new experiences and ways of perceiving the world.

So what now?  How do we expand and resist? How do we come back to ourselves and take control of our attention? How do we do nothing?  Odell suggests we anchor ourselves in bioregionalism, the simple idea of paying attention to the living and nonliving things that make up the region in which we live. It is in our own particular regions and in our local communities where we can come together on common ground, here, in the physical world.

When we begin to take notice of the creatures, the plants and animals, our nextdoor neighbors, the geography of our home, we can find a place to ground ourselves in something that is real and solid. We also begin to notice how contextualized everything is. When you look for a certain type of bird, for example, you can’t help but begin to notice the different sounds it makes, the trees it likes, the bugs it eats, and the seasons when you see it.  There is an entire ecology surrounding a single species of bird.  

Odell also encourages us to move from an I/it mode of thinking to an I/ thou mode.  This means that instead of looking at everything outside of us as an IT, some kind of means to an end, something categorized as useful or not, we should instead look at things as a THOU.  This is seeing the bird outside not as a non-useful thing that exists nearby, but rather seeing the bird as a being that is something to be perceived with it’s own dignity.  The bird is something to be curious about in the simple fact that it is here, existing, alongside us at this moment in time. It’s “usefulness” is not important.  With the I/thou approach, we become less lonely as a species because we can begin to appreciate and connect, in a more loving way, to all the living things that exist here with us.

Odell ends her book with the idea of manifest dismantling.  This is a play on the 19th century belief held by European immigrants that it was their divine destiny to claim and settle on all of North America. Manifest dismantling is the redirection of our focus from the “North Star” of progress, the constant pressure to build, create, innovate, design, to a more natural and relaxed state of existence. Odell gives the example of the project in her community to completely dismantle an old dam and rehabilitate the affected ecosystem.  It doesn’t seem like progress” to tear things down, but this is what Odell means by shifting our understanding of what “progress” is and realizing that something is always destroyed when something new is constructed.  

She leaves us with an image of the bustling port of Oakland, where off to the distance lies a recently carved out beach inviting the birds to come back to what was once their natural home. She sees a flock of pelicans, who had been nearly hunted to extinction but are just now starting to return to the city  She recalls the job she used to have where “back their things moved so quickly that we had to separate catalogs for spring 1, spring 2, and spring 3.  But the pelicans made all of that seem like a joke with no punch line.  Based on the fossil dating from the Oligocene Epoch, the general design of the pelican appears not to have changed for 30 million years. In the winter, as they have for countless ages, the pelicans will be heading south to the Channel islands and to Mexico to build their nests whose designs too, have remained largely unchanged”.  

What we can learn from these prehistoric pelicans is to slow down, and do nothing sometimes.  Reside in that third space and resist being useful.  “What I’m suggesting is that we take a protective stance toward ourselves, each other, and whatever is left of what makes us human.”

For more insight on how to do nothing, read Jenny Odell’s book!

Get Jenny Odell’s book here:

Powells Books

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy


How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

Featured Image by Chris Shervey