How to Do NothingReview - How to Do Nothing
Resisting the Attention Economy
by Jenny Odell
Melville House, 2019
Review by John Mullen
Jul 9th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 28)

First things first. This book is not about how to do nothing, as the author is at pains to point out on several occasions. It's about how to stop doing something, to wit, falling victim to the "attention economy." What attracted me to the book was the promise of an analysis with recommendations of the threats of universal digitalization in general and social media in particular. That expectation was fulfilled. The author has an impressive background as a Stanford University faculty member and a working artist-in-residence at such places as a police department, a dump, and internet archive and a planning board. This is important because it is that artist's eye and sensitivity that enlivens and brings home her message.

It begins strong with an interesting point, that we the people suffer from what she follows Robert Louis Stevenson in calling "busyness", "a symptom of deficient vitality." (Both Byron and Kierkegaard had written of the virtues of idleness.) She suspects that underling this busyness "… is impatience with anything nuanced, poetic or less-than-obvious." As a hint to the puzzling title, the author writes, "Such 'nothings' cannot be tolerated because they … proved no deliverables." So here it is. We live in a world that evaluates human action on the basis of material productivities. The culture of such a world excludes nuance, poetry, friendship, the patience to realize context, conformity and other things not countable. Personal note: Think of the looks I must have gotten throughout my long life when, to the question of, what do you "do"?, I answer that I am a philosopher. Or, the piece of literature that has perhaps most affected me, Miller's Death of a Salesman. In that, Happy, the seemingly successful brother tells the failed brother Biff that he predicted Biff's failure "in business" when Biff once "whistled in an elevator." Real men, productive men, must be serious men. Serious men don't whistle. No mention in Miller's 1950's of productive women.

So, it is an old story that the culture of the west prioritizes material success and status, measured in money, perhaps a bit more in the U.S. than elsewhere. But the author points to something new and perhaps more insidious, which is of course digitalization and social media. The author writes, "The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process." This situation, she writes, is rendered all the worse by the blatant commercialization of social media, "… its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy and distraction … [it's] cult of individuality and personal branding." Commercialized social media transform our minute slices of attention, our Facebook visits, tweet and selfies into dollars. Whereas "back in the day" our discrete twenty-four-hour segments divided into 1. work (making money for others), 2. relaxation (doing what we want) and 3. Sleep (re-energizing). Nowadays, that has been broken apart so that even our discussions with friends make money for others. And in the increasingly gig economy, every minute holds the potential for increasing personal wealth, where the former unionized taxi driver works for Uber.

There are no sustained arguments to prove or convince concerning these claims. No charts detailing numbers of hours, median lengths of visit times or content analysis of visits to social media. No controlled experiments, using university students as subjects. The writer is an artist, not a social scientist. Her strength lies in illustrative examples, story-telling and personal accounts. Her goal is to create a manual for disengagement, a how-to, not for dropping out, but for refocusing.

The author's thoughts about disengagement are the heart of the book. She discusses research concerning attention, deep listening, her own joys of bird watching (which she recommends be re-titled as "bird noticing"). There is a wonderful account of the eccentric ancient Greek, Diogenes of Sinope walking backwards through the streets of the city state, entering theatres only when other are leaving, of course holding a lantern in the night seeking one honest person, all "… highlighting the cracks in the crushingly habitual …" There is a recounting of Robert Houriet's research into some of the communes of the "sixties." And I was happy to return, after so many years, to thinking about B. F. Skinner's tongue-in-cheek utopia of operant conditioning, his novel, Walden Two. The same is true of her review of the great Martin Buber's 1923 book, I and Thou, a treatise on how to "see" others.

There are other recommendations for how to inoculate oneself from the effects of the attention economy. Perhaps the best of these comes in a discussion of the importance of (small) community and a sense of, and respect for, place. The author recounts her days in San Francisco and the importance for her of its parks, each one being not "leftover land", but a "… a small crack in the continuum of catastrophe." (For anyone near the city of Boston, I recommend visiting what is called (but no longer is) "the seaport", a municipal catastrophe.) The idea of place, implies sharing and community. Often these communal places need to be defended. "Our fates are linked, to each other, to the places where we are, and everyone and everything that lives there." The "everything" in the prior sentence connects the sense of place with the protection of, and respect for, life itself where an unlimited number of communities can be discovered.

This work isn't perfect. I would have wished, particularly, for a clearer delineation of the author's target. In the introduction we find the phrase, "capitalist productivity", which is misleading. Later we read of "neoliberal determinism", which I recommend the reader should ignore. Clarity does come, but through examples and stories. It's a bit frustrating for someone of my ilk

But I recommend this book very heartily.


© 2019 John Mullen


John Mullen is a philosopher living and writing in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He is the author most recently of the novel, The Woman Who Hated Philosophers, Philadelphia: Swallow Tail Press, 2017, and longer ago of the widely read, Kierkegaard's Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age. His recent story, "In Father's Eyes" appeared in 2017 in Fiction on the Web,


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