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Jenny Odell on the Importance of Doing Nothing

Sep 30, 2019 09:30AM

photo by Ryan Meyer

by Julie Peterson

Jenny Odell, a visual artist and writer based in Oakland, California, is known for her creative use of second-hand imagery from Google Maps, YouTube, Craigslist and other online sources. Her work has been exhibited locally and internationally, and was featured in Time LightBox, WIRED, The Economist and The Atlantic.

Odell, who has been teaching internet art and digital design at Stanford University since 2013, says she is compelled by the ways in which attention (or lack thereof) leads to consequential shifts in perception. Her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, proposes that we use our attention to rebel against the seductive pull of 24/7 availability and manipulation by algorithms.

She tells us that redirecting our attention toward nature allows us to gradually remake our lives and forego the mentality that tells us that we must have a constant return on investment. True productivity, in the end, may very well be connected to our role in the environment and our understanding of happiness, and to make those connections, we must put our attention to doing nothing.

What is the “attention economy” and why do you believe it’s important to resist it?

The attention economy includes anything designed to capture and direct human attention. The entire history of advertising has been about exploiting attention. But the attention economy takes on new dimensions with something like social media, whose notifications, pop-ups and design are aimed at keeping someone on a platform…[contributing] to a general feeling that one needs to be always on… participating… available.

Someone who participates deeply in the attention economy is liable to be kept in a loop of anxiety, fear and shallow reaction. Ironically, this feeling drives them back toward the attention economy, creating an unhealthy spiral of attention that could be more meaningfully directed elsewhere.

What inspired you to rethink conventional wisdom about productivity, progress and the mentality that we must have a constant return on our investment—including how we spend our time and where we direct our attention?

Right after the election, in late 2016, a warehouse fire in Oakland claimed the lives of many artists. I became aware of how difficult it was becoming to step away and process anything, not to mention mourn. I found that it was only by stepping away that I was able to ask questions about what it was I really wanted and how I could act meaningfully.

Both social media and the cult of productivity are seductive, and when we’re caught up in them, we don’t question them. Understanding anything requires perspective and standing outside of it; productivity is no different. Temporarily ascending to a broader, removed view, you might find that you’re struggling in all the wrong ways, or in the wrong direction.
 
How is “doing nothing” different from meditation?

It certainly shares some of the same goals. But whereas certain forms of meditation emphasize physical stillness, “doing nothing” for me includes things like wandering and observing.
 
What is the relationship between our well-being and being unproductive for a part of each day?

When we’re caught up in the idea of productivity, we’re often not thinking about our own well-being. And yet, the “unproductive” part of one’s day is likely the one in which you remember to take care of yourself or even listen to the needs of your mind and body at all.

How do we go about challenging the forces that are disconnecting us from nature and each other?

I think the first step is simply a movement of attention. Addictive as social media may be, it is not difficult for me to move my attention from that to what is happening in physical space. Sometimes this leads to meeting other people; I’ve had great conversations with strangers when we were both peering up at the same tree, looking at the same bird.

What do you hope people will take away from the message of your book?

I hope it creates a space in which someone might begin to look at the ways they currently direct their attention and how they might want to change that. I also hope it helps people find each other. Rediscovering one’s bio-region or local history is a great way to meet others who might not exist within your social media bubble.


Julie Peterson writes from rural Wisconsin. Reach her at [email protected]
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