What are you doing when you "do nothing?" Lately, between working, doomscrolling my news feed, incessantly checking Instagram, and generally fretting about the state of our ongoing global crises, doing nothing consists of me attempting to further distract my brain with anything I can get my hands on: Netflix, more social media, listening to podcasts, and an overwhelming feeling of being stuck. When I do pick up a hobby or take a walk, I find that I'm distracted with the idea of "productivity," the need to create Instagram-worthy perfection (a "side hustle") out of whatever little project I'm working on. My mind just can't seem to rest.
Jenny Odell's 2019 book How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy explores the modern "attention economy" and the toll it has taken on our sense of self, the environment, and our communities. Odell explores how our overconsumption and oversharing on social media and the frantic, uncategorized presentation of context-free news bites in our feeds, has created a global society where our identities are tied to our social media accounts and are therefore without nuance, and where the idea of "more, more, more" is better.
How To Do Nothing is what I call a "smart person" book. Odell references a LOT of old white male philosophers to illustrate her concepts, and things can get, well, thesis-y at times. If you're looking for a self help book on how to take a digital detox, this is not it. Odell is more interested in exploring the reasons behind our urge to consume, to share, to like, and presenting historical models of where that status quo was challenged. Her solution to the attention economy is to "resist in place," to resist what capitalism has deemed important, namely productivity and consumption, and to find solace in our community spaces where capitalism is not in control: places like public parks, the library, our neighborhood streets. "The point of doing nothing, as I define it," Odell writes, "isn't to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive."
During our book club discussion, one of our members threw out a poignant (if not sarcastic) question: "If you did something on a Saturday and didn't post about it, did it even happen?" Echoing the tree falling in the woods line, I think this perfectly illustrates Odell's point. To "do nothing" is to resist posting. To go out into our communities and our natural spaces and be an observer. To harness our attention like currency and spend it wisely.
I very much recommend Jenny Odell's book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy to anyone looking to expand their perspective on what "productivity" means, and our place as humans, as activists in the world today. I know my view on where I spend my energy and attention will shift as a result of reading this book, and I hope yours does too!