Starting to Pay Attention

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, Melville House, 256 pp.

While I was living in Bronxville during college, I would regularly walk a trail along the Bronx River, beside the fast moving highway. The trail went for a long while. Once I biked it for about two hours, finding myself several towns over and not at the end. Most of the time, I would stroll around a section of the river slowly, either by a circular path or by crossing the lone bridge. I would sit on a bench with a book sometimes, observe changing leaves or notice pigeons. While not a site of drama in those frantic few years, this trail was a place I returned to over and over. This patch of greenery alongside an industrial highway was a place of centering for me. Why is it unusual to consider as significant these places and practices that sustain and hold us? Having them and slowing down makes so many other things possible, after all.

I thought of the significance of these walks for me while reading the artist Jenny Odell’s new book How To Do Nothing: On Resisting the Attention Economy. Odell starts by “grounding” herself in a place of similar sustenance, the Morcom Amphitheater in Oakland California (aka the Rose Garden). Following the cataclysmic 2016 election, she describes shifting from regular to daily visits to the Rose Garden. She starts in the Rose Garden because it “encompassed everything I wanted to cover: the practice of doing nothing, the architecture of nothing, the importance of public space, and an ethics of care and maintenance.” She (and the Rose Garden) are located in Oakland, physically close to the tech industry. “Doing nothing” is challenging now in our internet moment so focused on productivity, with apps and advertisements constantly encroaching on our attention. Maintenance is difficult to reward as a virtue in our age of “disruption.”

Already at this early point, one can see Odell’s wide ranging and fascinating ambitions for this book. Odell’s book is at first attractive for responding to questions about living online now. You know the kind of question: how can I make Facebook, this doom-worthy news and all the other websites stop controlling my time and mind? This kind of question is her impetus, but the way Odell answers is slant. Rather than continuing along the expected paths of writing on the internet, Odell takes her reader to entirely different places. She reminds us how many different (and compelling) places our attention could go and what that shift could make possible, both for ourselves as individuals and collectively. As much as anything else, this is a book on ethics and, perhaps surprisingly, activism. To do something, of course, requires moments of solitude and controlled thinking. As well, as Odell describes it, “simple awareness is the seed of responsibility.”

One of the most wonderful and challenging things in writing about How To Do Nothing is how much the book resists simple summary. This is a book rich with ideas, not simply variations on one idea. My maps are different from Odell’s. For me, at least, the book expanded while I was reading as other examples and interests came to mind. Odell’s book itself became a space in which to pause and reflect. One of the most urgent sections for my own interests came in Odell’s thinking about looking at art. Odell finds that the ability to recognize the other as a separate consciousness, rather than simply another part of oneself, can be developed in looking closely at artwork (or trees or birds). This capacity can extend to a sense of social and ethical responsibility. Odell notes, observing the crows which visit her window, that “eventually, to behold is to become beholden to.”

As fascinating as the writing on art was, the most exciting parts to me in the book would have not been predictable before reading. Odell describes the difference between the algorithmically planned Spotify playlist, only made up of the songs you are expected to like, and the radio, which plays things you might not be assumed to like. She notes that “if we’re able to leave room for the encounters that will change us in ways that we can’t yet see, we can also acknowledge that we are a confluence of forces that exceed our own understanding.” It is these encounters, continues Odell, that are “the surest indicator that I’m alive.”

The surprise in Odell’s book like this for me was how intensely gripping I found her nature writing. In one section, for example, she returns with a friend to the creek she grew up near in industrial suburbia:

Sneaking through the midst of the banal everyday is a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages, of a million crawling things, of spores and lacy fungal filaments, of minerals reacting and things being eaten away—all just on the other side of the chain-link fence.

This is ultimately how Odell makes her points so strongly. She shows why the natural world around us, locally, is so compelling, how we might start to see it more fully and what this might make possible. For me, while reading the passage above, I could think of nothing more interesting than this “deep weirdness” that is so easy to miss. Why spend all of my attention refreshing a newsfeed when I could put my attention to all these “flowerings” instead?