Review and reading notes: "How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy" by Jenny Odell

I've had an on-and-off thing with GTD for over 15 years. I've tried, and paid for, more apps and plugins than anyone needs in their lifetimes. Every January meant a new paper planner with a new promise, and every February meant a new hangover after the planner got neglected.

Funny thing, among all this - I was doing so well. I had jobs, and jobs upon jobs. Bringing home the bacon, you know? Living the dream. People's projects kept coming, and I kept saying "yes", because I always felt like work was the thing to do - to help. After a while, I knew I was doing too much, but still kept fooling myself, saying I could manage, I could cut back any time.

What I'm saying is, I needed - still need - people like Jenny Odell and books like hers.

"May I have your attention, please"

"How to Do Nothing" is more than an invitation to cut ourselves some slack. That would be a much shorter book. This one goes deeper. The first thing it helped me uncover was the way in which our attention is used, snatched, diverted, and worn thin - by what Odell calls "the attention economy".

If Zuboff's diagnosis of "surveillance capitalism" is correct, then "How to Do Nothing" manages to paint a companion piece. The concept itself is over 50 years old, but remains relevant. Attention is not endless. And it's not always like a renewable resource, either. We can only take in so much, before our "processing capacity" begins to feel the strain.

I wonder how much worse things got between 2019, when Odell's book got published, and 2023, when I'm writing these words. I think I could trace my email inbox back that far; It's just after Black Friday here, and it would be tempting to see the year-on-year uptick in promotional email reaching me. Ironically, I don't think I have enough executive function for this experiment.

The point, made patiently and humanely by Odell, is this: while Zuboff's "surveillance capitalism" sets itself up to "case our joint" - making sure we're identified, traced, mapped, analysed - it's the attention economy that actually "breaks and enters" to grab the goods.

They paved paradise

"How to Do Nothing" is a book whose value deepens, though, as it begins to gaze beyond this digital battlefield. Jenny Odell does the much-needed work of examining the things which turned human attention into another "frontier" to conquer. In doing so, the book actually begins to points to lines of escape - more on that later.

The "information superhighways" that clog our inboxes with spam are modeled on actual superhighways that cut up our landscape. The monoculture of social media, turning into "five websites with nothing but screenshots of the other four", is built upon the concrete hegemony of urban developments. And the confidence with which the tech colonialists decide to "disrupt" industry after industry has always been there, ever since white men decided that land is theirs to "civilise".

Geography and history combine to make attention economy seem like an inevitable and logical conclusion. There's hope in Odell's book, though - lots of it.

You don't know what you've got

Every crisis - natural or manufactured - seems irresistible, irreversible and unstoppable, until real people begin to work to resist, reverse and stop it. In "How to Do Nothing", this process and this work is patiently, beautifully traced. It matters, because the work is not obvious, and sometimes it involves doing the opposite of what "work" means for us.

This is where my productivity system addiction rears its ugly head again. Rushing to "fix" things, to "engineer a solution" or to turn a problem into a "job of work" - despite best intentions, sometimes - can end up being even more harmful. Everyone whose work on a problem ended up creating different problems down the line knows this. According to the book, this can often be attributed to the way in which our attention gets "short-circuited". We think in projects, in campaigns, in working days and billable hours. Channelling all our energy and talent through a capitalist toolkit - even if it's purely to help fix a capitalist problem - sometimes will only help another capitalist problem to arise somewhere else.

Odell describes industrial action and protests in her home town of Oakland, leading to the reversal of several harmful government and/or corporate decisions. She writes about communities coming together to show support and togetherness in the aftermath of natural disasters. And she also shows how it all begins: she shows how people can change the way they see things through art, or change the way they listen to their environments through music, or modify the way they see their cities by looking for the non-human companions that were there before us.

It's possible, after reading this book, to imagine ourselves in a space which has room for thought. To think of future days filled with some appreciation for what surrounds us. To trace lines of escape and connection - to human and non-human neighbours, to the landscape, to the ten thousand things which we might begin to notice beyond our screens.

If you're feeling motivated to start working towards this vision, now's a good time to mindfully slap yourself on the wrist.

Don't just do something, stand there

Jenny Odell seems to know how tired, distracted, and polarised we've all become. She writes a lot about attention (here) and about time (in her other books). It would be ill-advised, I think, to finish "How to Do Nothing" with a rousing call for action...

Instead of this classic Anthropocene staple, what we get is a series of narratives and perspectives on time and attention. Yes, there's the scientific angle: Odell quotes researchers who show us why it's best to replace a harmful myth of "laser-focused attention" with the minute-by-minute practice of "bringing the focus back". But there's also the artistic perspective (Hockney, John Cage, and her own art, all helping us to find new ways of seeing, hearing, and caring). There's philosophy and cultural criticism (I was expecting to find Alan Watts here, and Donna Haraway - bingo!).

Most importantly, however, "How to Do Nothing" features Odell's own story. The author begins by digging where she stands. From her local park, and the crows on her balcony - out towards more parks across Oakland, saved from "development" by determined communities - and out again, to trace a river, discover a bay, sit in a cabin to listen to the rain. We each have our own way of getting back to some attention sanity; Odell describes hers.

Is this privileged? Yes, and the book isn't afraid of mentioning this. Some of us simply can't switch our phones to silent after we finish our shifts. For some, the attention economy is even more difficult to resist. Odell argues (sometimes, maybe, not forcefully or thoroughly enough) that the people who can afford to "switch off and touch grass" mustn't shy away from doing so. My local "fungi guy", leading mushroom discovery walks in local parks (yes, really) would agree: his role seems privileged, but is just as necessary as that of the key workers. Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

Conclusion: pause and rewind

Underneath the constant stream of messages, sent our way by humans, institutions, businesses and robots, Odell discovers what's always been there, like a river under concrete. We were never alone. We were never "here first". We were never individuals, egos, the chosen ones.

The promise of the new media was to connect us globally - but it also makes us more distracted, more polarised, more complacent and more isolated. For Odell, this is an attention crisis. It won't be fixed by a mindfulness app or a new setting on your operating system.

Instead, she says, try something else. There are tons of ways to start bringing your attention back - and "How to Do Nothing" is an invaluable starting point for these. All along the way, there will be more downtime than go-time, more stops than starts, and possibly more dismantling than building. From the vantage point of our baroque hamster wheels, this will feel weird at first.

Stay with it. Don't just do something. Sit there. Read the book.

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