Book review: How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell
When a friend recommended that I read How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell, I knew I would like it: I consume all content discussing the attention economy (how some companies prey on our attention, itself treated as a commodity) and I try to make mine the injunction to do less. I was, however, expecting to find usual arguments and advice. I was wrong.
Books criticizing the attention economy have been the preserve of a narrow group: technology journalists, worried scientists eager to warn society, ex-Google tech designer or Facebook executive who repent on their creations. Their technical expertise is crucial: the science, the facts, the history, the technical and mental tools are needed to fight back.
Jenny is an artist, an ecologist, and a militant. Her outlook and her playful use of words are refreshing.
Her starting observations are familiar: the villain of the story is “the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy and distraction”. Interacting with such a system makes us lonely, at times miserable, and unable to collectively tackle today’s important challenges.
Jenny’s book describes her journey, starting, in the midst of a personal crisis, with a refusal: the refusal to play by the rules of a game. Against the urge to cultivate a personal brand, she prefers to disappear. Instead of FOMO (fear of missing out), she cultivates NOMO (the necessity of missing out). Against the imperative to always be productive, she prefers to do nothing - the ultimate refusal to modern day’s ideology of progress and its imperative of productivity. Doing nothing is not a call for inactivity, but a call to see past the current cultural lens that sees value in the useful in a very narrow sense. To disengage only to re-engage, in something else.
This initial refusal is an escape, a necessary time to regain clarity and understanding. But it is a temporary one. Jenny knows the answer requires more than a digital detox, yet doesn’t lie in a permanent removal. The answer will be collective, political – unlike the communal movement of the 1960s.
Instead, she proposes a radical change of perspective and values. One in which we reconsider the boundary of the self, and view in other beings more than just a means to an end. One in which we humbly acknowledge our contribution to an ecosystem and thrive to preserve it. One in which we accept the challenges that come with living in a community. Such a shift in perspective is hard to reach. It begins with a retraining of the attention. And this is where art can help. Art can teach us to see the world differently, to adopt different perspectives. It “invites us to perceive at different scales and tempos than we are used to”.
Jenny’s ideal world is one of grounded-ness, of context, in space and time. To the placelessness of our online lives, she opposes the placefulness of a local life. To the immediacy and short memory of social media, she opposes a slower pace of living and an embedding in history. To mindless scrolls on the world wide web, she opposes mindful strolls, near home, in communion with birds (she loves birds), animals and nature.
Her current perspective is the fruit of a slow process of observation, questioning and understanding. And it still evolves. Jenny deconstructs a world view that no longer makes sense to her, to humanity, one layer at a time. As such it is complex and at times hard to follow. It is idealistic but optimistic and deeply human.