How to Do Nothing

How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell book cover.

My attention is important to me, and I’ve been writing and reading a lot this year about ways to navigate a world that is increasingly filled with traps designed to capture, monetize, and waste my curiosity. Earlier this spring, I came across Jenny Odell’s artist talk “How to Do Nothing”, given at EYEO in 2017, and I have been eagerly anticipating her full-length book expanding some of the ideas she shared in her talk. It’s here, and I finished it this week.

How to Do Nothing is anchored by the ideas Odell shares in her artist talk: that grounding oneself in specific real places and paying attention to their physical, geographic, ecological, historical, and social characteristics is an act of anti-capitalist refusal against the various social media and big data businesses who monetize our attention and behaviors. In her book, she expands her scope to consider other questions: How much of a real possibility is it to opt-out of digital connectedness, and would that be a good thing anyway? Does the act of refusing to follow directions have any power or meaning beyond our individual choice? How, specifically, does one “grounding oneself”? How are the attention economy and the fiction of independence linked? Can we change how we think about production to include not just making something that wasn’t there before, but maintaining something that was there before, or even removing something to make room for something else that hasn’t had any room to develop?

These are wonderful, rich questions, and one of the real pleasures of this book is that Odell draws on so many different ways to contextualize these questions. Odell draws on sociology and economics to explain shifts in how jobs are structured, and history and journalism to bring context to the history of the East Bay places that she spends time in. There’s a little smattering of philosophy and theory, which I am a little allergic to so I was happy there wasn’t too much of it. But where Odell really shines for me are in her close readings (and connecting to the other ideas in her book) of conceptual art pieces, the life of Diogenes the Cynic, John Cage’s sound pieces, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and David Hockney’s polaroid collage pieces.

Maybe these are ideas that you could find in other books, off the top of my head I’m thinking of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, or Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. One thing that sets this book apart is Odell’s fierce resistance to framing her argument around “productivity.” This is not a book that argues that changing your frame of attention is going to make you better at your job, or faster at creating career ideas, or anything of the sort—in that respect, she is the anti-Cal Newport (who I respect a lot also, but I think his idea that we can all just be “winners” by becoming more productive is a bit shallow by ducking systemic questions). The other thing that sets her apart is a fierce, humanistic commitment to encouraging us to think in terms of ecosystems and social systems in which no individual is completely apart. I look forward to some of these most delicate and precious ideas continuing to move through my brain.

I loved this book. Read it and try something different.

Other perspectives I liked

  • Cory Doctorow, praises the book but thinks her central argument will continue to get sharper over time.
  • Terri Windling: an artist’s perspective.
  • Haley Haltom: a perspective from someone who spent a year sailing around the world.

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