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Pete Lawrence - 06 Oct 2019


"The more we have extreme climate events, unfolding in real time, people will need to be communicating information to each other very quickly, so something like a social network is very important."

What is the nature of doing nothing and how can it manifest itself in the most positive ways? The cliché is that mindfulness is the first point go essential self-care.

Jenny Odell's book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House) examines the practice which is becoming increasing popular - and urgent. The book isn't so much self-help, it is a companion text for relearning how to listen, for re-establishing place and community, for needing to put your phone down so you can pay attention to life in a more meaningful, reality-expanding way.

Odell says. “If you think about your mindset when you go to a place you’ve never been, especially on vacation, the way that you look at things is quite different than how you would normally look at things while on your way to work. A lot of what I’m describing is trying to apply that same mindset to things that you’ve seen many times – you will always be surprised.”

In this interview with Porterhouse Review, Odell answers the question about what “doing nothing” entails - and its relationship to technology is of particular interest

Odell: I think the easiest thing I can compare doing nothing to is listening. It’s obviously not literally doing nothing but it’s nothing compared to the mentality of needing to do something or say something or make some kind of judgment. So really doing nothing is a state of openness and willingness to be surprised, to take some time to understand the details of what’s in front of you.

I often compare doing nothing to sleep, as sleep is something that is obviously necessary for the functioning of waking life, even though we still don’t really have a grasp of what happens while we’re sleeping. We at least know that it’s important—that it has a very important place in how we ultimately act throughout the day—and in a way, I think it’s important that sleep remains in a realm of mystery.

So doing nothing is almost this kind of dark space or off time that is necessary for emotional survival, as well as other kinds of survival.

 Brickner-Wood: In the book, you don’t condemn social media as being inherently evil, but instead consider how its capitalist nature contributes to a much larger problem. I’m curious how you think sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram could become noncommercialized. Or, if they can’t, how can they serve communal, public interests rather than privatized, corporate ones?

Odell: I’m not sure. It remains to be seen whether that’s even possible. Maybe you’ve heard about this, but there’s an experiment where some people using Instagram can’t see the number of likes they get on a post. I’m very curious to see what the reaction will be to that.

There’s a group of former tech people called Time Well Spent, which is this deign ethics group trying to fight against persuasive design in technology. They just came out with this whole new initiative. It’s funny—a little bit of coverage has invoked my book as the counter to their argument. Or not necessarily a direct counter but it’s obviously a different approach. Yet it seems like the biggest difference between me and them is what we think is possible within a capitalist framework. For me, the problem is inherent in the idea that the platform is making money and as long as it has shareholders and needs to demonstrate growth we will always have some new problem like this. Whereas the Time Well Spent argument is that we need to find a way to make it profitable for companies to not make themselves so horrible. I don’t think that’s a bad argument, but it’s a difference of opinion at that point, what you think is possible. And as I said, it remains to be seen; maybe their initiative will end up working.

To give another example, you look at something like Craigslist where Craig Newmark specifically disavowed this path of growth. And even though people were constantly suggesting to him to sell the company, he was like, “No, I made this thing and it’s useful and I’m going to leave it essentially how it is,” even though he could have made tons and tons of money off of it. Craigslist is still useful; it is what it is. It’s a bulletin board service. There’s nothing about it that wants to keep you on Craigslist. You need to sell something, you look for something, and then you leave. To me that’s proof that platforms like that could work.

Brickner-Wood: I know you have a Twitter—I don’t know what other social media platforms you use—but has your relationship with these services changed? And how do you use them after leveraging such a staunch argument against their capitalist ethos?

Odell: It hasn’t changed that much. I feel like my book exists in the meantime where I’m holding out imaginatively for some noncommercial decentralized network, but also recognizing that this is what we have until that happens, if it ever happens. As I talk about in the last chapter [“Restoring the Grounds for Thought”], I think something like social media is quite useful. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The more we’re going to have extreme climate events, events that are unfolding in real time, people will need to be communicating information to each other very quickly, so something like a social network is very important.

Obviously, what I’m talking about is not needing to be on social media all the time, but I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use it at all.

Unfortunately, in the moment, we have these super commercial platforms and that’s where everyone is. It’s funny, because when the book first came out people were like, “Well, you have a Twitter,” and I was like, “Yeah that’s not what my argument is about.” There are certain other books that are making that argument, but mine is not one of them.





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