How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

Jenny Odell

Finished Reading:
Jan 4, 2020

Edition Publisher:
Melville House

Edition Release:
Apr 19, 2019

Recommendation Rating:

Purchase Search via DuckDuckGo:
ISBN 9781612197494

Highlights & Annotations

“What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest-destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious. Such ‘nothings’ cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables.” (Intro x)

“I want this not only for artists and writers, but for any person who perceives life to be more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized. A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, or somehow not enough.” (Intro xi)

“I am opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic. I'm concerned about the effects of current social media on expression – including the right not to express oneself – and it's deliberately addictive features. But 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.” (Intro xii)

“Bioregionalism, whose tenets were articulated by the environmentalist Peter Berg in the 1970's, and which is widely visible in indigenous land practices, has to do with an awareness not only of the many life-forms of each place, but how they are interrelated, including with humans. Bioregionalist thought encompasses practices like habitat restoration and permaculture farming, but has a cultural element as well, since it asks us to identify as citizens of the bioregion as much as (if not more than) the state. Our ‘citizenship’ in a bioregion means not only familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together.” (Intro xviii)

“Useful for what? Indeed, this is the same question I have when I give myself enough time to step back from the capitalist logic of how we currently understand productivity and success. Productivity that produces what? Successful in what way, and for whom? The happiest, most fulfilled moments of my life have been when I was completely aware of being alive, with all the hope, pain, and sorrow that that entails for any mortal being. In those moments, the idea of success as a teleological goal would have made no sense; the moments were ends in themselves, and not steps on a ladder.” (Intro xix)

“...simple awareness is a seed of responsibility.” (Intro xxii)

“We're riddled with pointless talk, and same quantities of words and images. Stupidity is never blind or mute. So it's not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don't stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of rain in the rear, and everywhere, things that might be worth saying.” (4)

Re: removal periods – (9-11)

“Most people have, or have known someone who has, gone through some period of ‘removal’ that fundamentally changed their attitude to the world they returned to. Sometimes that's occasioned by something terrible, like illness or loss, and sometimes it's voluntary, but regardless, that pause in time is often the only thing that can precipitate change on a certain scale.”

  • // how I was talking about how I couldn’t ‘hear myself’ anymore for the better part of 2019
  • Everything was tinged with comparison, bitterness and anger and the drive to just keep going
    • I had to get all those negative emotions sorted, and figure out what the various parts of myself needed

Multi-hyphenate identities (11-2)

  • // Anil Dash - not using labels
  • Reductive nature identity

“It turns out that groundedness requires actual ground. ‘Direct sensuous reality’, writes [David] Abram [in Becoming Animal], ‘and all its more than human mystery, Remains the sole followed TouchDown for an experiential world now inundated with electronically generated Vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions at now claim us.’

When I realized this, I grabbed on to it like a life raft, and I haven't let go. This is real. Your eyes reading this text, your hands, your breath, the time of day, the place where you're reading this– these things are real. I'm real too. I'm not an avatar, a set of preferences, or some smooth cognitive Force; I'm lumpy and porous, I'm an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I'm different one day to the next. I hear, see, and smell things in a world where others also hear, see, and smell me. And it takes a break to remember that: a break to do nothing, to just listen to, to remember in the deepest sense what, when, and where we are.” (21-2)

  • // talk about simulation → Work in Progress with Ilana Glazer
    • The simulation is the amount of change we’re seeing and the unraveling of the systems

Re: Death and Life forces – (26)

“The Death Instinct: separation, individuality, Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path – do your own thing; dynamic change.

The Life Instinct: unification; the eternal return; the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations, equilibrium.

The life force is concerned with cyclicality, care, and regeneration; the death force sounds to me a lot like ‘disrupt’. Obviously, some amount of both is necessary, but one is routinely valorized, not to mention masculinized, while the other goes unrecognized because it has no part in ‘progress’.”

“...we are all familiar with the phenomenon of selfless care from at least some part of our lives” (27)

  • Re: Mr. Rogers asking folks to sit and think about people that helped and believed in them – often makes people well up with emotion 

“A lot of people withdraw from society, as an experiment...So I thought I would withdraw and see how enlightening it would be. But I found out that it’s not enlightening. I think that what you’re supposed to do is stay in the midst of life.” (30)

  • I think a retreat is often taken with a desire to eventually return though → maybe not to where you left literally; you take a break, so you can come back → clean the glasses, let the snow globe dust settle

“...only an individual could decide whether he had been ‘cured’” (36)

  • You have to have a cognitive shift, and envelop the idea within your set of truths/beliefs
  • // having a new belief stick only if it become part of the gut response

“The explorer who will not come back or send back his ships to tell his tale is not an explorer, only an adventurer.” (55)

“In one of those books, Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton reflects on the relationship between contemplation of the spiritual and participation in the worldly, two things the Church had long articulated as opposites. He found that they were far from mutually exclusive. Removal and contemplation were necessary to be able to see what was happening, but that same contemplation would always bring one back around to their responsibility to and in the world. For Marton, there was no question of whether or not to participate, only how:

If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living ongoing events. To choose the world acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world, in history and in time. In my time, which is the present.”

  • Go away and come back // the note re: quotation from page 30

“...we absolutely required distance and time to be able to see the mechanisms we thoughtlessly submit to. More than that, as I've argued this far, we need distance and time to be functional enough to do or think anything meaningful at all.” (60)

“By spending too much time on social media and changed the news cycle, he says, ‘[y]ou are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it's yourself you're thinking about or anything else.” (60)

  • //  not being able to hear myself anymore → going to Japan

“...the custom is shown to be not the horizon of possibility, but rather a tiny island in a sea of unexamined alternatives.” (67)

  • re : the artist (Pilvi Takala) who caught the attention of coworkers when she was continuously seen staring into space for long periods → “appearing as if you’re doing nothing is seen as a threat to the general working order of the company, creating a sense of the unknown” (64) 
    • Compare very clearly ‘doing nothing’ vs ‘looking like you’re working’ when you’re on social media, etc.
  • People get so worked up by folks breaking the norms

“...he neither assimilated to nor fully exited society; instead he lived in the midst of it, in a permanent state of refusal.” (68)

“If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another...break the law….Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” (75)

Re: problems of distracted brains 

“If we think about what it means to concentrate or pay attention at an individual level, it implies alignment: different parts of the mind and even the body acting in concert and oriented towards the same thing. 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. We contrast this with distraction, and which the mind is disassembled, pointing in many different directions at once and preventing meaningful action. It seems the same is true on a collective level. Just as it takes alignment for someone to concentrate and act with intention, it requires alignment for a ‘movement’ to move. Importantly, this is not to talk down formation, but rather a mutual agreement among individuals who pay intense attention to the same things and to each other. 

I draw the connection between individual and collective concentration because it makes the stakes of attention clear. It's not just that living in a constant state of distraction isn't pleasant, or that a life without willful thought and action is an impoverished one. If it's true that collective agency both mirrors and relies on the individual capacity to pay attention, then in a time that demands action, distraction appears to be (at the level of the collective) a life-and-death matter. A social body that can't concentrate or communicate with itself is like a person who can’t think and act. In chapter 1, I mentioned Berardi’s distinction between connectivity and sensitivity in After the Future. It's here that we see why this difference matters. For Berardi, the replacement of sensitivity with connectivity leads to a ‘social brain’ that ‘appears unable to recompose, to find common strategies of behaviour, incapable of common narration and of solidarity.

 This ‘schizoid’ collective brain cannot act, only react blindly and in Miss line ways to a barrage of stimuli, mostly out of fear and anger.” (81-2)

“ endlessly strange reality is when we look at it rather than through it.” (103)

I-It vs I-Thou (104-5)

  • I-It → existence as an instrument or means to an end
  • I-Thou → irreducibility and absolute equality of the other

“But if we allow that what we see forms the basis of how we can act, then the importance of directing our attention becomes all too clear.” (109)

Re: bias → “...but that’s how bias starts: a flicker – unseen, unchecked – that taps at behaviours, reactions, and thoughts.” (113)

  • You have to learn how to catch yourself constantly
  • “I kept watching for that flutter, like a person with a net in hand waiting for a dragonfly. And I caught it, many times. Maybe this is the beginning of how my own prejudice ends. Watching for it. Catching it and holding it up to the light. Releasing it. Watching for it again.”
  • // watching for the ‘knots’ - Thich Nhat Hahn, Peace Is Every Step
    • Knots are “internal formations,” problems our minds circulate around in the absence of clear understanding.  If we do not untie our knots when they form, they will grow tighter and stronger.

“We experience externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like ‘annoying’ or ‘distracting’. But this is a grave misreading of their nature. And the short-term, distractions can keep us from doing the things you want to do. In the long-term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the life you want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, and the words of Harry Frankfurt, to ‘want what we want to want’. The sorority practical implications lurking here for freedom, well-being, and even the integrity of the self.” (114)

“‘Ethical persuasion’ means persuading the user to do something that is good for them, suging ‘harmonious designs that continuously empower us instead of distracting and frustrating us.’ Reading this, I can’t help but ask: Empower me to do what? Good for me according to whom? And according to what standards?” (116)

“By contrast, at its most successful, an algorithmic ‘honing in’ would seem to incrementally entomb as an ever-more stable image of what I like and why. It certainly makes sense from a business point of view. When the language of advertising and personal branding enjoins you to ‘be yourself’, what it really means is ‘be more yourself’, where ‘yourself’ is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital.” (137)

“Extrapolating this into the realm of strangers, I worried that if we let our real-life interactions be so corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenge, or changed – never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege. That's not to say we have nothing to gain from those we have many things in common with (on paper). But if we don't expand our attention outside of that sliver, we live in a world where nothing has meaning outside of its value and relation to us. And we're less prone to the encounters with those who turn us upside down and reorganize our universe – those who stand to change us significantly, should we allow it.” (138)

“As a black lesbian feminist comfortable with the many different ingredients in my identity, and a woman committed to Rachel and sexual freedom from oppression, I found I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only one I integrate all parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restriction of externally imposed definition. Only then can I bring myself in my energies as a whole to the service of those struggles which I embrace as part of my living.” (152) Audre Lorde 

Re: crying in moments of natural beauty (182-3)

  • The wish to preserve the world = self-preservation – connectedness