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Time to "Do Nothing" -- and rise up against the "attention economy"

Reading How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell and enjoying it immensely. (It was one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2019. I miss having a president who reads.)

How to Do Nothing is less a manifesto on laziness and more a call to re-evaluate the cult of productivity and what I would call the tyranny of distraction posed by corporate social media.

The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

One thing Odell laments is the lack of context provided when people bark opinions and “facts” at one another in a state of constant distraction, not only benefiting corporate social media, but feeding the cult of “personal branding.”

… the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and affect the way we think about our offline selves and the places where we actually live. …

I see people caught up not just in notifications but in a mythology of productivity and progress, unable not only to rest but simply to see where they are. And during the summer that I wrote this, I saw a catastrophic wildfire without end. This place, just as much as the place where you are now, is calling out to be heard. I think we should listen. …

To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognizing and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn’t always stop at the boundary of the individual. …

The first half of “doing nothing” is about disengaging from the attention economy; the other half is about reengaging with something else. That “something else” is nothing less than time and space, a possibility only once we meet each other there on the level of attention. …

Ultimately, I argue for a view of the self and of identity that is the opposite of the personal brand: an unstable, shapeshifting thing determined by interactions with others and with different kinds of places.

Odell issues a lovely call for nuance, context, and attention away from the “attention economy” that encourages the toxic back-and-forth on Facebook and Twitter, which these companies regard as merely a “bounteous uptick in engagement.”

Just as a series of rooms are dissolved into one big “situation,” instantaneity flattens past, present, and future into a constant, amnesiac present. The order of events, so important for understanding anything, gets drowned out by a constant alarm bell. …

As the attention economy profits from keeping us trapped in a fearful present, we risk blindness to historical context at the same time that our attention is ripped from the physical reality of our surroundings.

It’s a cruel irony that the platforms on which we encounter and speak about these issues are simultaneously profiting from a collapse of context that keeps us from being able to think straight. This is where I think the idea of “doing nothing” can be of the most help. For me, doing nothing means disengaging from one framework (the attention economy) not only to give myself time to think, but to do something else in another framework.

There’s too much great food for thought here, and I’m still reading it. (I recommend you do the same, viewing these snippets in their proper context.) It helps me to jot down notes here (as is the function of a commonplace book, which is part of the point of this site) and think about it all.