How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

Rating: ★★★★

Though How to Do Nothing's subtitle is “Resisting the Attention Economy,” it’s less a screed about modern technology and more an exploration of the concept of attention and the question of how we direct it. Though I disagreed strongly with some of the book, I enjoyed it a lot and recommend it.

I think this video of photographer Stephen Shore talking about attention makes a nice companion to the book.

Here are some ideas I found particularly interesting:

The problem of public by default

Meyrowitz said that public by default means two possibilities: either offend somebody or be so bland you won't offend anyone. You can't strategize what to say to the online audience – you don't know who you're talking to.

When you can choose your audience, you have a third option. "In this form of encounter, neither I nor anyone else has to waste time or energy on wrangling context, or packaging our messages for the lowest common denominator of public opinion. We gather, we say what we mean, and then we act."

The Montgomery bus boycott leaders offer a model for communication. Before speaking to the public at large, they deliberated and made decisions behind closed doors.

The necessity of politics

Skinner (of Skinner box fame) "proposed avoiding politics altogether" and said we should just design culture. But this hides "the locus of power ... either disappearing into the passive voice or being associated with abstractions like design or technology"

Arendt said that fundamental unpredictability combined with a plurality of agents means that politics is an inevitability. "Politics necessarily exist between two individuals with free will; any attempt to reduce politics to design (Thiel's 'machinery of freedom') is also an attempt to reduce people to machines or mechanical beings"

Retreating from the world to improve it

"[T]here is an important distinction to make between isolating oneself versus removing oneself from the clamor and undue influence of public opinion"

Epicurus used his garden to insulate his students and himself from the outside world. But he also published his school's writing and so showed care for the outside world. Radical experiments in retreating are only valuable with exchange with the outside world.

Le Guin said that "[the] explorer who will not come back or send back his ships to tell his tale is not an explorer, only an adventurer."

Observing real things

Odell says that she finds "[e]xisting things infinitely more interesting than anything I could possibly make."

I completely agree. This is why I love photography as a medium — it's all about obsession with concrete examples of existing things. Real life is super neat. It's also why I like the TV shows Nathan for You and How To with John Wilson. They exhibit the same obsessive attention to the depth, beauty, and absurdity of life as it exists.

Information overload

Modern life is pervaded with a "nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought."

"Unless we are vigilant, the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way, deliberately creating false targets for self-reflection, curiosity, and a desire to belong to a community."

Berardi says suppression of critique in Italy "relies on proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent, and critique banal and ridiculous." Censorship is marginal compared to "immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention."

Barassi quoting an ecological activist: "Online censorship is applied through the excess of banal content that distracts people from serious or collective issues."

Digital detox can be misguided

Digital distraction is not bad because it hurts productivity but because it wastes your life.

Tanner says that digital detox "reinforce[s] neoliberal ideals, privileging the on-the-move individual whose time needs to be well spent - a neatly consumerist metaphor."

Privilege in attention

Techies banning tech for their own kids paints a bleak picture. It suggests the "frightening potential of something like gated communities of attention: privileged spaces where some (but not others) can enjoy the fruits of contemplation and the diversification of attention."

But this doesn't mean you should just pass up opportunities to opt out. Not everyone can opt out, so "it's even more important for anyone who does have a margin - even the tiniest one - to put it to use in opening up margins further down the line. Tiny spaces can open up small spaces, small spaces can open bigger spaces. If you can afford to pay a different kind of attention, you should."

If you have the opportunity, use it! If you can, try to do it in a way that opens the same opportunity up for others.

Predictability and repetition

I disagreed with this passage totally.

"If I think I know everything that I want and like, and I also think I know where and how I'll find it - imagining all of this stretching endlessly into the future without any threats to my identity or the bounds of what I call my self - I would argue that I no longer have a reason to keep living. After all, if you were reading a book whose pages began to seem more and more similar until you were reading that same page over and over again, you would put the book down."

Again, I completely disagree. If there's beauty in that repetition, it's totally fine. It's even good. I love repetition, though.

On attention

Hockney says that looking is a skill that people rarely practice.

William James said that "[m]y experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind - without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos."

Odell: "Eventually, to behold is to become beholden to."