Reflections on How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

Growing up with dogs, I never expected my favourite animals would be birds. My obsession with the avian species is fairly new – two years ago my partner and I moved to a suburb in Wellington adjacent to an ecosanctuary called Zealandia. Thanks to its three-metre-high perimeter fence, dozens of native birds have been reintroduced to Zealandia and flown out into the wider area. Most days we wake up to melodic birdsong and are visited by gorgeous endemic birds like the kākāriki, a red-crowned parakeet. In a way, the return of native wildlife has made us curious about the wider environment and transformed our sense of place.

Our friendly neighbour: the kākāriki. Credit: NZ Birds Online

Our friendly neighbour: the kākāriki. Credit: NZ Birds Online

So I was excited to learn that fellow birder Jenny Odell had written a book called How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I had an inkling Odell had thought much more deeply about the connection between birding (birdspeak for birdwatching) and disconnection. I got a hold of a copy as soon as I could.

Not your typical disconnection book

How to do Nothing offers a fresh perspective on the topic of disconnection, with the front cover immediately distinguishing Odell from other writers in the disconnection genre. Disconnection self-help books (such as Carl Newport’s Digital Minimalism) typically embrace simple aesthetics, while academic disconnection texts tend to be just as uncluttered. In contrast, the cover of How to do Nothing is a bright flowerbed of pansies – hinting a radical departure from the usual take on disconnecting from the internet.

How to do Nothing compared to other disconnection books

How to do Nothing compared to other disconnection books

How to do Nothing isn’t literally about doing nothing, but more about doing nothing that can be co-opted by capitalism. Take birdwatching. Wildlife tours may package birding as a luxury for the affluent, but what Odell advocates for is everyday birdwatching: the sort that can be undertaken during a commute, sitting on a public park bench, or even glancing out the window. According to Odell, everyday birdwatching resists capitalism because staring at birds is largely a passive activity that works best when you do it as little as possible, only requiring an allocation of your attention that cannot be turned into profit (unless the bird flies in front of a billboard). What’s more, given the number of birds that cohabit urban spaces, you don’t need fancy gear or guided maps to appreciate their beauty:

You can’t really look for birds, you can’t make a bird come out and identify itself to you. The most you can do is walk quietly and wait until you hear something and then stand motionless under a tree, using your animal senses to figure out where and what it is.

Odell is an artist and studio art teacher who provides an anti-capitalist perspective on the attention economy. While she agrees with the common view that tech companies have mastered the science of appropriating user attention for profit, Odell doesn’t call for people to delete Facebook and retreat to the woods (even if birds are there). Instead, Odell suggests that interacting with art and wandering through non-commercial spaces such as public parks or galleries (where no one is trying to sell you anything) offer alternate informational environments that can simultaneously expand and deepen our attention. Disconnection, from Odell’s perspective, shouldn’t be limited to retreating from the digital milieu; instead, it should be more about disengaging from the profit motive underlying the digital economy that demands our attention.

Conjuring an outside to productivity

How to do Nothing is packed with critical insights which hint at a possible future turn in disconnection discourse. The reasons why people are disconnecting from the internet have been well traversed in academia. So far scholars have observed a multitude of reasons that people may disconnect from the internet: to avoid distractions and be productive, resist surveillance or manipulation, seek solitude, or digitally detox. The question put forward by Odell is how to disconnect, and in doing so, interrogate what is being disconnected from.

What Odell really wants is for people to disconnect from the notion of productivity. By drawing a line in the sand about what she specifically wants to disconnect from, Odell conceptualises disconnection in a unique way. In a comprehensive review of the literature, Pepita Hesselberth argues that most studies on disconnection miss this wider point. The novelty of studying disconnection, according to Hesselberth, isn’t in the rediscovery of age-old themes such as productivity or solitude, but in the possibility of creating an outside to whatever is being disconnected from. In other words, disconnection isn’t revelatory because it reminds us of the benefits of time spent alone, but because of the actual action of disconnection itself: the disengagement from something. And by breaking a connection to something – a smartphone or mobile internet infrastructure – the act of disconnection can constitute an outside to whatever was disconnected from. The emphasis on the action of disconnection begs a bigger question: what if disconnection was about breaking the connection to a dominant idea or norm?

a dominant idea of our time

A central norm today is productivity. The spirit of Getting Work Done pervades most jobs and work spaces, offering a yardstick for determining a satisfying day at the office versus a grim one. Recent research suggests that disconnection has failed to escape productivity logic. In Counterproductive, Melissa Gregg charts the development of time management techniques to argue that reducing distractions at work is ‘mindful labour’, the latest version of efficiency engineering. And in a 2018 paper, Carina Guyard and Anne Kaun analyse a Scandinavian management program called Workfulness, concluding that the program encodes disconnection as a form of biopolitical self-governance. In these instances, disconnection does not constitute an outside to productivity but merely becomes an extension of productivity. That’s not to say that turning off the phone to concentrate is a bad thing, but rather that such work-related disconnection represents only a tiny fraction of what disconnection can be. In other words, when trapped within the clutches of productivity culture, only an impoverished or uninspired view towards disconnection can emerge. Surely there’s more to disconnecting than working more?

The co-option of disconnection by productivity culture

What makes How to do Nothing so compelling is the way that Odell positions disconnection outside of productivity culture. Odell argues that only by doing nothing or by disconnecting in ways that resist productivity can we begin to understand the grip that those ideas have over our lives:

the point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

Therefore, doing nothing isn’t just another Marie Kondo-esque fad – the latest mode of optimal living. Instead, doing nothing is about having breaks from news feeds and media cycles so critical analysis of media narratives can emerge, as well as allowing yourself to believe in another world while still living in this one. Only by having an outside to dominant paradigms can critical perspectives of associated ideas and systems be generated and sustained, and in turn, meaningful reform be enacted.

Creating an outside to the ethos of productivity

Is doing nothing political?

How to do Nothing suggests there is a political dimension of doing nothing. Existing observations on the political possibilities of disconnection tend to suggest there is a low glass ceiling. Laura Portwood-Stacer describes deleting Facebook and other forms of media refusal as a “holier-than-thou internet asceticism” while Anne Kaun and Emiliano Treré classify bottom-up disconnection as ‘lifestyle politics’. These perspectives suggest that the individual choice to disconnect from the internet is the equivalent of recycling your glassware and plastics. Both non/actions are symbolic gestures, but remain largely impotent in terms of addressing systemic structural change.

Odell is well aware of the privilege to be able to do nothing. And she deliberately distinguishes herself from the libertarians and techies who retreat to Burning Man or digital detox summer camps to escape politics. Instead Odell insists there is no escaping the political fabric of this world, pointing out that doing nothing in the form of leisure was the result of hard-fought 19th century labour union strikes. What’s more, doing nothing and carefully allocating one’s attention is the base requirement for all types of political activism:

attention undergirds every other kind of meaningful refusal: it allows us to reach [a] higher perspective and form the basis of a disciplined collective attention that we see in successful strikes and boycotts whose laser-like focus withstood all the attempts to disassemble them.

In all, How to do Nothing calls for a more visible politics of attention. Or put slightly differently, it argues that a politics uninterested in attention could derail any collective politics worth having. But Odell refuses to provide individual solutions for readers to takeaway, instead suggesting that we move away from Western and clinical understandings of attention and ground a politics of attention in community and place. Odell suggests ecological and indigenous perspectives could help to decentre the individual self and position attention as a sort of conservation project: something to preserve and in relation to flora and fauna in the wider ecology.

Seeing attention in this way reminds me why I go birdwatching in the first place. It’s quite humbling to discover the diversity of life that’s out there. Not that I need a reason. Thanks to How to do Nothing I’m reminded that birding doesn’t have to be a ‘productive’ or an optimal use of my time – it’s fine just as it is.