Book review: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

I hadn’t really expected to be reading a book about disconnecting myself in the middle of a global pandemic, but here we are.

I’d had a copy of Jenny Odell’s polemic against the attention economy – broadly speaking, the society which inculcates in us the idea that our time, metered, is worth money and is wasted unless it is being used “productively” – for a while, but it took a moment of enforced quietude to make me read it.

I’m glad I did.Odell’s book reads as a collection of longer essays about various reasons why we might want to ease back on the idea of needing to ascribe value to (or to allow work to usurp value of) to all of our time. There’s arguments for disengagement with the current popular notions of how our time should be used, and there’s examples of how time could be used. Importantly, Odell is not, as many who haven’t read the book may believe, demanding a blanket disconnection from social networks: it’s more about figuring out how to resist in place. How to use these tools – if that’s what you choose – without buying into the paradigm that requires your attention to function. To cultivate a meaningful identify, both individual and collective, that exists outside of filtered public opinion.

To capitalist logic, which thrives on myopia and dissatisfaction, there may indeed be something dangerous about something as pedestrian as doing nothing: escaping laterally toward each other, we might just find that everything we wanted is already here.

The arguments in the book came, the author states, from years of teaching studio art, often to students who didn’t understand why you’d make art. While art involves technique, and time can be spent productively honing that technique, anyone who’s been creative will tell you that a fair whack of time is spent ruminating on the work; reaching a point that enables it to happen. Art wouldn’t happen without this time – rumination and gestation is useless in an attention economy framework – so it seems natural that a defence of such elastic time would come from someone with an artistic background. Time is necessary if we’re to have meaningful thoughts.

The removal of economic security for working people dissolves those boundaries— eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will — so that we are left with twenty-four potentially monetizable hours that are sometimes not even restricted to our time zones or our sleep cycles.

Odell positions her resisting-in-place against an increasing awareness and exploration of nature. The essays celebrate a burgeoning familiarity and connection with nature and place, a sort of cri de coeur for momentary devotion, for mindfulness. The scope of her knowledge, and the growth of same is proof that Odell’s approach can work – we can choose to direct attention to something meaningful on a local level, rather than to a series of likes and ratios.

I haven’t read a lot of theory in the past couple of years, so this book is occasionally a little deep in those weeds for me. I’m familiar with Rebecca Solnit’s writing on place and fitting in (or the opposite), so I could keep track of some elements, but at other times I was a bit lost, fittingly.

(This could be rectified by consulting some of the copious references in the work, mind.)

While I didn’t feel that the book made its points as effectively as it could have, I very much enjoyed reading it for the vistas it suggests, for the benefits that could ensue. I’m tempted to engage my inner Bartleby and follow Odell’s lead. What’s the worst that could happen?

(My Goodreads profile is here.)

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