Jenny Odell on ‘How to Do Nothing’ and being meaningfully counterproductive
When Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey recently returned from a silent meditation retreat in Myanmar, he publicized the “results” on his social media platform. Using his Apple Watch and Oura ring activity trackers, he measured his meditations in terms of their relative quantifiable success (“The 2nd day was my best.” “Day 6 was my worst.”). He also revealed a disconnection of his surroundings, praising Myanmar without making mention of the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya minority.
Isn’t there another way to opt out?
Tailored to a moment when even meditation is app-based, Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” proposes a different kind of retreat, one that challenges readers to avoid Dorseyan “life hacks” designed to boost our productivity. Odell asks us to become meaningfully counterproductive — to discipline our attention and discover both a self that “exceeds algorithmic description” and a politics rooted in face-to-face interaction.
Doing nothing is trying to give permission to have some emptiness.
— Jenny Odell
This inspiring debut book from the Oakland-based polymath artist argues that the best parts of ourselves are being “paved over by a ruthless logic of use.” Her anticapitalist manifesto isn’t a paean to slackerdom, but rather an argument for consciously redirecting our attention toward the wonders of our immediate environment. “With effort,” she writes, “we can become attuned to things, able to pick up and then hopefully differentiate finer and finer frequencies each time.”
So why “nothing”? Speaking by phone from Oakland, Odell says: “Rhetorically, the idea of doing nothing contains this feeling of absence that I find really helpful right now. The overall feeling that I have now is ‘too much’ – too much information, during too much of the day, trying to do too many things, feeling like you need to know everything about everything and have a take on everything. So I think this idea of doing nothing is trying to give permission to have some emptiness.”
I am opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention.
— Jenny Odell
The subtitle of Odell’s book is “Resisting the Attention Economy,” which, crucially, does not mean a blanket opposition to products like Twitter. “How to Do Nothing” is not an antitechnology screed. “Rather,” she writes, “I am opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic.”
One of her favorite counterexamples is the app iNaturalist, which helps identify flora and fauna in one’s local environment. And if you follow Odell on Twitter (@the_jennitaur), you’ll bless your feed with rare birds, strange plants, local wildlife and oak trees.
For a book about place, it’s crucial that the Cupertino-born Odell is writing from the heart of Silicon Valley. She teaches at Stanford and has done artist residencies at both Facebook and the San Francisco dump.
“I’m a kid who grew up in the Bay Area, and grew up with the internet, and it was super-exhilarating and obviously influenced my work,” she says. “I thought it was super-amazing, kind of utopian, and now I’m having this reckoning with what that actually means.”
She observes that social media has a “financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy and distraction” but doesn’t encourage quitting Facebook, in part because it seems too narrowly prescriptive. Her book cites several historical examples to suggest that logging off and dropping out is an irresponsible choice.
“I actually know a lot of people who have quit Facebook, and it’s been great for them,” she says. “But there’s a risk in making it into this all-or-nothing thing, where someone thinks if they can’t quit Facebook, they’re stuck using it in this way they always have been.”
The book has its genesis in the malaise Odell experienced after the 2016 election, as well as longer-simmering concerns about encroaching climate change.
She explains feeling beset by a kind of “zombie” feeling, a very contemporary sort of dread. “It’s this feeling that there are all of these things to be done, and at the same time it feels totally useless. It’s really hard to sit with that feeling, I think. The mind would rather do anything other than sit with that.”
Odell turned to bird-watching, uninterrupted contemplation and environmental activism. She’s making a concerted effort to know her surroundings, but also says climate change will force us urban dwellers to become newly attentive to the natural world.
Odell says she is not a fan of self-help books and adds: “I am obviously pushing against the idea of the quick fix.” But despite its slightly cheeky title, “How to Do Nothing” is genuinely instructive, elaborating a practical philosophy to help us slow down and temporarily sidestep the forces aligned against both our mental health and long-term human survival. You can knock the hustle — and you should.
Melville House; 256 pp., $25.99
Gottlieb is a writer living in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to The Times.
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