Jenny Odell, author of “How to Do Nothing,” on resisting the attention economy
Published on June 21, 2019
Jenny Odell lives in the Bay area. She teaches at Stanford. She’s a digital artist. And she’s obsessed with the in-between.
But if you ask the author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy what has her attention right now she will tell you she’s reading a lot about time. That she’s all about using the iNaturalist app on her phone to identify plants. That even someplace like the Bay area has seasons, if you’re paying attention, “Just things like when the trees have acorns, when they have flowers or even when certain birds are in town and when they're not.”
And there are a lot of people interested in what Odell is paying attention to. How to Do Nothing has found an audience among those concerned about the amount of time we spend on the internet, the troubling stats emerging about social media use, and questionable policies around data privacy. In the past year, alone we’ve seen Congress question Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter ban literal neo-Nazis from their platform. And yet, many of us can’t seem to put our phones down and just walk away from it all. Could the answer be as simple as just taking a walk around the block?
Well, no, maybe not. While Odell is moved that her book is resonating deeply with so many people, over the phone, she tells me, “After the book published, I realized how specific to me a lot of the stuff is and maybe doesn't work for everyone. Even just simple things, like not everyone loves the outdoors. Everyone has difficulties with doing nothing for different kinds of reasons.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t develop your own form of resistance. “I have been trying to talk about the core ideas from the book, but make them translatable to a wider context than me liking birds.”
Central to Odell’s book is the tension between consuming a reality created for you versus creating your own reality.
Retrain your attention, save the planet
In large part, Odell’s new book is about how developing a fluency in the flora and fauna in her daily life allows her to stay present in the real world, instead of retreating into the digital landscape of the internet. It’s about attention as activism. “When I talk in the book about moving your attention around or directing your attention—those are kind of intentional things that you can do with your own consciousness.”
She asks in the introduction, “What does it mean to construct digital worlds while the actual world is crumbling before our eyes?” Odell argues that when we lack an understanding or awareness of our place in the natural world, our lives are stripped of context and we’re more prone to abandon what’s real for the allure of whatever’s happening on the internet. But with the link between social media use and increased depression and loneliness established, this disappearance into the digital ether is no peaceful escape.
Central to Odell’s book is the tension between consuming a reality created for you versus creating your own reality. Each social media platform, streaming service, or any other entity of the internet desperate for your time serves as a gated community for attention, walling you off from the distractions of the physical world. The internet is vast and shape-shifts based on algorithms designed to present you with what you want.
Odell explains, “The more time you spend on it, it feels like everything's being represented there, 'cause it's a lot. Like, you're seeing a lot of different things.” But you’re not. You’re only seeing what is intentionally being served to you. Unlike the unexpectedness of nature with its blooming flowers and migrating birds, growing and thriving independent of you and your thoughts and your wants and your desires and the need to sell you something.
Odell’s book could be reduced to a hippie appeal to save Mother Earth with a modern gloss-white tech veneer – Less screen time, more time outdoors! But it’s smarter than that and Odell is far more interesting than that. She poses that retraining your attention on nature is a way of “giving yourself the critical break that media cycles and narratives will not, allowing yourself to believe in another world while living in this one.”
Actively choosing how you wield your attention is a modern-day survival skill. This is resisting the attention economy. It’s a refusal to allow the act of consumption consume your life.
America offline isn’t the answer, but in the meantime...
She understands that for most of us, completely dropping off the internet isn’t a practical solution. Many of us would be harming our livelihood if we left social media, or, at the very least, our social calendars. And even if you don’t consider yourself outdoorsy, empowering yourself to retrain your attention is Odell’s suggestion for surviving the right now while we figure out how to achieve that better, other world. Put another way, it’s a way to inhabit the in-between. “It's not possible to completely exit the situation,” says Odell. “And so, I think of a lot of the stuff in the book as being something that you do in the meantime—the ‘meantime’ being between now and an ideal situation.”
If you frequently feel overwhelmed by how unsolvable many of the problems of our time feel, Odell’s advice is for you is, “There’s nothing that you’re going to be able to do on an individual level that's going to address large, structural problems that are squeezing everybody to different degrees.” In the face of this reality, actively choosing how you wield your attention is a modern-day survival skill. This is resisting the attention economy. It’s a refusal to allow marketers on the internet to decide what should consume your time. It’s a refusal to allow the act of consumption consume to your life.
Odell’s mother is from the Philippines and her father is white and sometimes she wonders if orienting her life around the in-between comes easier to her because she’s biracial. “I don't know if this is just me, but it makes it easier for me to do other things that are also kind of in between—like, interdisciplinary work or writ[ing] a book that's half about technology and half about like, birds and trees. It just made me more comfortable with combinations of things and that something interesting and new will emerge at the intersection of that.”
We are the in-between. This endless loop of attempting to bridge what is inside of us to all that is going on outside of us, this constant mapping of the borderline between I and the Other.
Trying to be 3D in a 2D world
This sense of the intersections of her identity also drives Odell’s concerns about how the internet tends to flatten what makes us what we are by anchoring around a few core facets of our personality. “Not only are you becoming more and more one thing; you're becoming more and more one thing that's reverse-engineered by public opinion, which is the worst possible thing.”
Life through the filter of Instagram strips away everything that falls outside of the frame. Odell describes it as a “kind of narrow quality of experiences as they're portrayed.” What you’re left with is “a product—the clean, finished version of all of these processes that are often hidden. Then the same thing happens with a person or a life, where you get these product-like moments in someone's life. And that product is accentuated by the fact that it's then evaluated in real time—almost like customer reviews of it.”
But this product does not speak to the expansiveness of our actual reality. Odell offers the beauty of a recent hike as an example. She doubts she posted anything to Instagram from the hike, but if she did it’d be meaningless when compared to her actual experience. “There's no way to represent that time. There's no way to represent where my head was at. And all I can say is that it was incredibly fulfilling. That's it. It's so the opposite of a pinpoint-moment-in-time product type thing. Its nature resists being Instagrammed.”
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves
Since humans began telling stories, there has always existed this space between our experiences and our representation of our experiences. And if you’re willing to get a little abstract, you could argue that we’re defined by this space. That we are the in-between. This endless loop of attempting to bridge what is inside of us to all that is going on outside of us, this constant mapping of the borderline between I and the Other. We are driven to make sense of our world by creating context through our connections and relationships to what lies beyond us.
Spiritual teacher and New York Times bestseller Eckhart Tolle popularized this idea that we are not our thoughts, we are the space between our thoughts. And although Odell has rooted How to Do Nothing in nature and the physical world, her understanding of the world and Tolle’s align. By removing our attention from the simulacrum of who the internet thinks we are and placing it in nature, we can gain access to our most authentic selves, tap into who we are on a spiritual level.
We are more than our data
Odell has said elsewhere that she doubts anyone who is concerned enough about the state of the world and our online lives to buy her book is actually interested in doing nothing. Doing nothing is just the in-between on the way to doing something. For some, maybe that something is simply thinking differently about the internet and social media and the algorithms.
I’ve been on Facebook for more than a decade and I could be described as a super user—several posts a day, high engagement on friends’ threads and active in multiple groups. Their algorithm should have thousands upon thousands of data points about me. In some sense of the word, they should know me. But near daily, I’m bombarded with ads for shorts with built-in underwear despite the brand’s marketing focus appearing to be exclusively for men (because the hardship of wearing more than one layer below your waist is, apparently, highly gendered). The fifth time Facebook offered up an ad for a gray sweatshirt featuring a blonde police officer holding hands with a pint-sized Mickey Mouse, I reposted it on my newsfeed questioning its claim to be “the perfect gift for anyone.”
If, like Tolle teaches, we are not our thoughts, and as Odell argues, our experiences cannot be fully represented in a virtual plane, then all the bits of data and information social media is gathering about us can never truly define who we actually are. And therefore, our most essential selves lie beyond a place that can be marketed to or manipulated for monetary gain. When we’re aware, we don’t have to be controlled by anyone else’s idea of who we are, and there is a freedom in that. We are not our data points. We are more than our buying power. Who we are isn’t fixed in space and time.
Odell has written a book about attention, about a spiritual kind of activism, but beneath all of that is this unaddressed question of the soul. The soul will always be at odds with anything that strives to define it. In How to Do Nothing, Odell is essentially making the audacious argument to value our existence based on nothing more than the magic that we exist. This is a radical notion in a world powered by productivity and obsessed with optimization. And I suspect Odell knows that. So in the meantime, she’ll be listening to the birds and smelling the flowers while she waits for the rest of us to get real.