Cover image for How to do nothing : resisting the attention economy
How to do nothing : resisting the attention economy
Physical Description:
xxiii, 232 pages ; 22 cm.
The case for nothing -- The impossibility of retreat -- Anatomy of a refusal -- Exercises in attention -- Ecology of strangers -- Restoring the grounds for thought -- Conclusion : Manifest dismantling.
A galvanizing critique of the forces vying for our attention--and our personal information--that redefines what we think of as productivity, reconnects us with the environment, and reveals all that we've been too distracted to see about ourselves and our world. Nothing is harder to do these days than nothing. But in a world where our value is determined by our 24/7 data productivity ... doing nothing may be our most important form of resistance. So argues artist and critic Jenny Odell, who sees our attention as the most precious--and overdrawn--resource we have. Once we can start paying a new kind of attention, she writes, we can undertake bolder forms of political action, reimagine our role in the environment, and arrive at more meaningful understandings of happiness and progress. Far from a simple anti-technology screed or back-to-nature meditation, How to Do Nothing is an action plan for thinking outside of the narratives of efficiency and techno-determinism. Provocative, timely, and utterly persuasive, this book is a four-course meal in the age of Soylent. --


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Book 303.4833 ODE 0 1
Book 303.4833 ODE 0 1
Book 303.4833 ODE 1 1

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After the American presidental election of 2016, Jenny Odell felt so overstimunated and disoriented by information, misinformation, and the expressions of others, that reality itself seemed to slip away. How To Do Nothing is her action plan for resistance. Drawing on the ethos of tech culture, a background in the arts, and personal storytelling, Jenny Odell makes a powerful argument for refusal: refusal to believe that our lives are instruments to be optimised. She argues that nothing can be quite so radical as doing... nothing.

Author Notes

Jenny Odell is an artist and writer who teaches at Stanford, has been an artist-in-residence at places like the San Francisco dump, Facebook, the Internet Archive, and the San Francisco Planning Department, and has exhibited her art all over the world. She lives in Oakland.

Reviews 1

New York Review of Books Review

IN 2015, Jenny Odell started an organization she called The Bureau of Suspended Objects. Odell was then an artist-in-residence at a waste operating station in San Francisco. As the sole employee of her bureau, she photographed things that had been thrown out and learned about their histories. (A bird-watcher, Odell is friendly with a pair of crows that sit outside her apartment window; given her talent for scavenging, you wonder whether they've shared tips.) Odell's first book, "How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy," echoes the approach she took with her bureau, creating a collage (or maybe it's a compost heap) of ideas about detaching from life online, built out of scraps collected from artists, writers, critics and philosophers. In the book's first chapter, she remarks that she finds things that already exist "infinitely more interesting than anything I could possibly make." Then, summoning the ideas of others, she goes on to construct a complex, smart and ambitious book that at first reads like a self-help manual, then blossoms into a wide-ranging political manifesto. Though trained as an artist, Odell has gradually become known for her writing. Her consistent theme is the invasion of the wider world by internet grotesqueries grown in the toxic slime of Amazon, Instagram and other social media platforms. She has a knack for evoking the malaise that comes from feeling surrounded by online things. Like many of us, she would like to get away from that feeling. Odell suggests that she has done this, semi-successfully, by striking a stance of public refusal and by retraining her attention to focus on her surroundings. She argues that because the internet strips us of our sense of place and time, we can counter its force by resituating ourselves within our physical environment, by becoming closer to the natural world. Many of the chapters in "How to Do Nothing" consist of Odell methodically setting out an idea that's key to her philosophy. Among the most important is refusal, which she vividly illustrates through a variety of disciplines. Refusal, she writes, was exemplified by the Greek philosopher Diogenes, whose life's work was to point out the absurdity of conformity. Refusal was also the staple act of Melville's Bartleby, one of Odell's favorite refuseniks (she admires the brilliance of his stock phrase: "I would prefer not to"). And refusal was the fundamental act undertaken in 1934 by a longshoremen's union that led to a strike that spread from the Bay Area to ports throughout the West Coast. Odell understands and acknowledges that doing nothing - by which she means taking time out of one's day to engage in an activity without considering whether it's productive - isn't something that's available to everyone. But her book is least convincing when she suggests that meaningful political change would follow if the strategies she has adopted were taken up en masse. Though she acknowledges that she's lucky to be able to exercise the freedom to while away the hours in her favorite rose garden or to go bird-watching, Odell seems to disregard just how individualistic her strategies are. She lives an artistic life, one that lends itself wonderfully to aesthetic expression but is less useful in the political realm. And yet Odell's book, which complements other recent nonfiction, including Shoshanna Zuboff's "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" and Michael Pollan's "How to Change Your Mind," has the potential to improve a reader's behavior. Recently, on a short vacation in Miami, I caught myself putting on my headphones as I set out to explore the city on foot. I left them behind and discovered something lovely: Birdsong was everywhere. Jonah engel Bromwich is a reporter for the Styles section of The Times.



How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy Chapter 2 The Impossibility of Retreat A lot of people withdraw from society, as an experiment...So I thought I would withdraw and see how enlightening it would be. But I found out that it's not enlightening. I think that what you're supposed to do is stay in the midst of life. -AGNES MARTIN If doing nothing requires space and time away from the unforgiving landscape of productivity, we might be tempted to conclude that the answer is to turn our backs to the world, temporarily or for good. But this response would be shortsighted. All too often, things like digital detox retreats are marketed as a kind of "life hack" for increasing productivity upon our return to work. And the impulse to say goodbye to it all, permanently, doesn't just neglect our responsibility to the world that we live in; it is largely unfeasible, and for good reason. Last summer, I accidentally staged my own digital detox retreat. I was on a solitary trip to the Sierra Nevada to work on a project about the Mokelumne River, and the cabin I had booked had no cell reception and no Wi-Fi. Because I hadn't expected this to be the case, I was also unprepared: I hadn't told people I would be offline for the next few days, hadn't answered important emails, hadn't downloaded music. Alone in the cabin, it took me about twenty minutes to stop freaking out about how abruptly disconnected I felt. But after that brief spell of panic, I was surprised to find how quickly I stopped caring. Not only that, I was fascinated with how inert my phone appeared as an object; it was no longer a portal to a thousand other places, a machine charged with dread and potentiality, or even a communication device. It was just a black metal rectangle, lying there as silently and matter-of-factly as a sweater or a book. Its only use was as a flashlight and a timer. With newfound peace of mind, I worked on my project unperturbed by the information and interruptions that would have otherwise lit up that tiny screen every few minutes. To be sure, it gave me a valuable new perspective on how I use technology. But as easy as it was to romanticize giving everything up and living like a hermit in this isolated cabin, I knew I eventually needed to return home, where the world waited and the real work remained to be done. Excerpted from How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Surviving Usefulnessp. ix
Chapter 1 The Case for Nothingp. 3
Chapter 2 The Impossibility of Retreatp. 30
Chapter 3 Anatomy of a Refusalp. 63
Chapter 4 Exercises in Attentionp. 95
Chapter 5 Ecology of Strangersp. 127
Chapter 6 Restoring the Grounds for Thoughtp. 155
Conclusion: Manifest Dismantlingp. 186
Acknowledgmentsp. 205
Notesp. 207
Indexp. 219