‘How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy’

By Isabella Trimboli
Jenny Odell makes a convincing case for moving beyond the ruthless logic of use

As someone who has spent the majority of my life attached to technology, I have developed an unhealthy dependency upon my phone, and all attempts to wean myself off it have been fruitless. I use Apple’s Screen Time to curtail my use, only to break the self-imposed limit every day, which fills me with guilt, like I’m a toddler with no impulse control. I should be horrified that corporations have accrued so much personal data about me that I’m compelled to click on their eerily tailored ads on Instagram, but they’ve become so banal all I feel is indifference. A temporary digital cleanse – extolled in endless articles and books – feels useless when most jobs and services require almost constant connectivity. I’m well-versed in the overwhelming anxiety that the internet can induce, but the experience of blankness, or pure boredom, is something I can only identify with in the abstract.

How do you untangle yourself from something that’s so deep-rooted? You can’t completely, but you can minimise the internet’s pull by embracing idleness, argues Jenny Odell in her enthralling, searching new book How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Black Inc.). In the book’s introduction, Odell labels it an “activist book disguised as a self-help book” only to then refute her description: “I’m not sure it’s that fully either”. Odell’s book doesn’t offer concrete steps to combat our digital compulsions, nor does it (thankfully) proselytise Luddism. Rather, her intricate, sprawling essays construct a thoughtful and convincing case for what we could gain if we directed our attention away from our screens, and towards our local communities and surrounding ecology.

Odell is a multidisciplinary artist, writer and teacher at Stanford University, and her book is an adaptation of a talk she gave at art and technology conference EYEO in 2017, which went viral after the transcript was posted to Medium. At the start of her speech, Odell classified her art practice as “observational eros”, meaning an “emotional fascination with your subject that is so strong that it overpowers the desire to make anything new”. This impulse seems to drive Odell’s book too, a twisty tapestry made up of references to artists, writers, unionists, farmers and philosophers, stitched together to map out her own compelling thesis. Over six interweaving chapters, Odell argues that engaging in deliberate inactivity is a political imperative during a time when our value is measured by productivity and our attention is mercilessly mined for profit. By carving out time for stillness, Odell says, we can then turn our attention to engaging more deeply in the care of ourselves, others and the environment.

This ideal, however, comes with plenty of provisions: that the capacity for nothingness is something only afforded to the privileged, and that a total exit from the internet is both impossible and irresponsible. Odell uses the failed utopia of communes in the ’60s to show how society’s ills (hierarchies, abuses of power and bad politics) always intrude, no matter the degree of isolation. Instead, she makes the case for a “third space”, which she describes as “not of retreat, but of refusal, boycott and sabotage” that “can become a spectacle of non-compliance that registers on the larger scale of the public”.

Previously, much of Odell’s work was engrossed with trash, whether that be her own (Garbage Selfie, 2014) , San Francisco’s (The Bureau of Suspended Objects, 2015, created while Odell was an artist-in-residence at the city’s Recology dump), or the digital waste – like unnerving old Craigslist ads – congesting the internet. Her writing too, had centred itself around this digital dump, in particular the uncanny simulacrum of e-commerce. For her photo essay “There’s No Such Thing As a Free Watch” she dismantles the hall of mirrors created by a brand spruiking the sale of luxury-looking “free” watches online. For a New York Times feature, “A Business with No End”, she went down the rabbit hole of different but interconnected Amazon storefronts offering a strange hodgepodge of seemingly algorithm-generated products at exorbitant prices. In these stories, Odell’s interrogations are disorienting, with the slippery demarcations of the digital and physical world collapsing in on themselves.

How To Do Nothing has a similarly layered and dizzying effect, with each chapter combining seemingly disparate elements such as personal histories, lessons in birdwatching, explorations of modern art and critiques of early science-fiction novels, which can, at times, feel like a headrush. Yet it’s absorbing to follow the somewhat chaotic drift of Odell’s mind as it artfully connects the endurance pieces of performance artist Tehching Hsieh, the anti-conformist antics of Greek philosopher Diogenes, and Bartleby, the Scrivener to a history of refusal built out of discipline that can act as a model for transforming our own unfocused attention. By pooling these very different references together, Odell reinforces How To Do Nothing’s underlining message of the world’s interdependence and interconnectedness, something that gets lost when information online is delivered as a discordant series of non sequiturs that can flatten nuance and complexity.

This wide-ranging, composite approach ties in with Odell’s criticism that social media strips away the complexities of selfhood by privileging a stable, monolithic personal identity – something she sees as ruinous to the parts of ourselves that are fluid, manifold and not clearly defined. She worries about “having the best, most alive parts of myself paved over by a ruthless logic of use” and being “stripped of my own unusable parts, my own mysteries, and my own depths”. But what happens when the more messy, incongruent parts of ourselves become a commodity too? While there is truth in Odell’s grievance that the internet has made us less porous and less open to personal change and growth, she doesn’t really flesh out how rapidly these platforms are evolving to suit new market demands, where the performance of “authentic” self-revelation and rawness is obtaining its own currency.

Odell grew up in Cupertino (where Apple’s headquarters are located), worked in San Francisco and now resides in Oakland; California plays the lead role in much of the collisions and tensions she sketches out in How To Do Nothing. There are plenty of warranted jabs at craven technocrats, Burning Man and the rapid gentrification that has transformed the state. But Odell spends most of the book extrapolating ideas from the California where so much of the country’s activism, progressivism, counterculture and conservation – led by artists, academics, immigrants, workers and indigenous peoples – has taken root. Her most forceful case for the radical possibilities of refusal, for example, comes from the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike that led to a mass general strike of over 100,000 San Francisco workers. Community Memory, the first ever electronic bulletin-board system, erected in a Berkeley record store in the ’70s, is demonstrative to Odell of how social media could be used to serve and strengthen localised communities.

This fixation on place converges in the second half of the book, which explains how reorienting ourselves around our natural, local environment can act as a grounding balm to the “context-collapsed” world of the internet. Odell links environmental decimation to our wayward attention, and prescribes a mandate of care involving regeneration, preservation and even removal. By immersing ourselves in these acts of maintenance, we can counter the capitalist logic that innovation, creativity and success can only arrive out of accelerating growth.

Typically then, Odell’s book is filled with imaginative, lyrical descriptions of rose gardens, national parks, atmospheric rivers and resilient redwood trees. At one point, she describes the transformation of her own perception of Cupertino – which she once saw as listless and drab – in encountering the creek bed below the city’s offices and shopping malls: “Snaking through the midst of banal everyday is a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages of a million crawling things, of spores and lacey fungal filament of mineral reacting and things being eaten away.”

Sometimes Odell’s writing can slip into a hippy dialect, and this can lead to moments of unchecked idealism (the claim that collective action or mass civil disobedience can be spurred by the individual act of deep, disciplined attention seems like an overstatement). But it’s also these same moments that contain Odell’s most persuasive argument for withdrawal: Odell’s own expansive, maniacal curiosity, which oozes from every page. By the end of the book, I felt strangely compelled to lose myself in knotty theoretical inquiries into the oddities of my own environment. My phone didn’t even factor into the equation.

Isabella Trimboli

Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic from Melbourne whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper and The Lifted Brow. She is also the co-founding editor of music magazine Gusher.

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