Let’s start with the obvious: this is not a book about doing nothing. Doing nothing could make for an interesting topic—and many Zen masters over the centuries have tried to write about it—but it is clear within the first few pages that the San Francisco Bay Area artist and writer Jenny Odell is not following in their footsteps.
Her subtitle, Resisting the Attention Economy, comes closer to revealing her true theme. “I want to be clear that I’m not actually encouraging anyone to stop doing things completely,” she confesses in the first chapter. For Odell, “doing nothing” is a metaphor for doing what you truly want, rather than what is most productive or profitable—either for yourself or for anyone else. As she puts it, “The first half of ‘doing nothing’ is about disengaging from the attention economy; the other half is about reengaging with something else.”
The resulting volume is closer to a loosely connected collection of erudite essays than to a singular manifesto. The various chapters cover topics as diverse as bird-watching and context collapse, progressive politics and industrial design. What unifies the bold (though occasionally meandering) prose is Odell’s refusal to surrender her attention to the highest bidder. Her book is a call to arms against the myriad temptations of distraction.
She offers a much-needed critique of our modern, connected lives: “There is nothing to be admired about being constantly connected, constantly potentially productive the second you open your eyes in the morning,” she proclaims early on, “and in my opinion, no one should accept this, not now, not ever.” And yet, of course, so many of us do accept exactly that. Why? How did we get to this place of maximum distraction?
Odell places more of the blame on technology and social media than I would. “The logic of advertising and clicks dictates the media experience, which is exploitative by design,” she claims, although she offers no particular evidence that this is, in fact, the intention of the designers and engineers behind such platforms. She herself worked as an artist-in-residence at Facebook, the epicenter of social media, but if she collected any anecdotes there revealing such nefarious motives, she shares none of them in her book. Perhaps she finds her charge to be self-evidently true, but my own experience working at Facebook was largely otherwise. (I see our devilishly distracting devices as a result of a series of unintended consequences rather than as evil plots.)
Odell’s book is most powerful when she moves away from conspiracy theorizing and back toward the practical. And that seems to be where her heart is anyway. “I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention,” she explains. This is, in effect, the movement the Buddha himself worked to create, some 2,500 years ago—not just before the dawn of social media and smartphones, but before books and paper. The challenge of honing and owning our attention is not new, and the fundamental logic has not changed. As Odell puts it, sounding as much like a meditation master as an activist: “To pay attention to one thing is to resist paying attention to other things; it means constantly denying and thwarting provocations outside the sphere of one’s attention.”
Along the way, Odell quotes several famous “do-nothings” of the past, primarily from the Western canon, such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. But curiously, there is little reference to the long Buddhist tradition of nothingness. This is an odd omission. Formal meditation—perhaps the purest practice of pure attention—goes unmentioned as well. Perhaps such a basic, ancient solution to this modern-day struggle feels insufficiently radical.
Odell seems to find the problems more political than spiritual. “It’s tempting to conclude this book with a single recommendation about how to live,” she writes. But she does not. For her, “doing nothing” means more than “logging off and refusing the influence of pervasive design techniques.” It also involves the “intersection of issues of public space, environmental politics, class, and race.”
And yet, almost in spite of herself, she does close with some more concrete advice. “I find that I’m looking at my phone less these days,” she explains toward the end:
It’s not because I went to an expensive digital detox retreat, or because I deleted any apps from my phone, or anything like that. I stopped looking at my phone because I was looking at something else, something so absorbing that I couldn’t turn away.
The Buddha might add that you don’t need to go bird-watching or visit a rose garden to find reality so absorbing. Every moment deserves our full attention, and with practice, every moment can command it. Odell does us a great service by encouraging us to put down our phones and experience this timeless truth.