saving time

Jenny Odell, Saving Time

I see interfaces. Interfaces are everywhere. They are simple, everyday, vital, like the doorknobs that let us use our apelike hands to manipulate the innards of a mechanical doorknobs. They are complex, obscure, ridiculous if we weren’t so dependent on them, like the computers simulating human users interacting with virtual mainframe programs from the 1980’s that operate critical pieces of our civic infrastructure. Pieces like banking, telecommunications, the military. The imposition of the interface of the interstate highway system on the landscape of the West unlocked it’s development. The imposition of the interface of the shipping container is a necessary condition of globalized trade.

In How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell explored resisting the interfaces and attitudes that make up modern (Millennial?) productivity culture. Some of her exploration involved naming and questioning foundational assumptions of the culture, e.g. why is it considered better to create the new and disruptive rather than the restorative? Another line of exploration was the incursion of the capitalist profit motive into our private lives. In Saving Time, she expands another idea opened in How To Do Nothing: that clock time is an interface imposed on many different natural rhythms and cycles for the benefit of capitalist growth, and that there may be benefits to attuning ourselves to other ways of tracking time.

It’s a great idea, and Odell curates a wonderful selection of texts to give various angles on the idea. She repeats a structure that worked well in How To Do Nothing: meandering, collage-like texts, sometimes extended paraphrases of anecdotes from other writers or long quotations, wrapped in a repetitive and bland account of a Bay Area walk. I didn’t mind this style in her first book, but this time I wanted either more artful prose or more disciplined synthesis of ideas. After making it about halfway through the book, the easiest way for me to open up more time was to put the book down and seek a richer experience.

I’m still looking for a book with sharper thought about how to shrink the power of the clock time interface. What kind of cultural practices would it take for there to be a society-wide floor of rest and leisure like the Jewish Sabbath? Or to resist unnecessary 24-hour work schedules? Seasonality of food?

other voices

Megan Garber at the Atlantic focused on the disruption of personal routines during COVID and responded more than I did to the part of the book that explored how we are being destabilized as climate change is disrupting natural cycles.

Tatiana Scholssberg at the New York Times also craved more substance, less vibes:

Sometimes, in her race to gather all of this information together, Odell elides narrative inconveniences or leaves things unexplained.

But singling out any specific moment in this book feels like a betrayal of the whole. The narrative logic is purposefully meandering and elliptical, a formal underline of the book’s arguments against a linear understanding of time. 

Parul Sehgal for the New Yorker was more pointed, “Why does a book so concerned with the looming issues of our day, and possessed of such an urgent authorial voice, feel like such a time sink?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *