Jenny Odell – How To Do Nothing

How To Do Nothing

Jenny Odell wrote a book about how to do nothing, but it is actually about how to do meaningful things.

Odell wants to help us move away from the attention economy to a physical, public reality, through “doing nothing”. She shows us that doing nothing does not mean turning away from the world and live like a hermit, discarding all contact with the world. Alternatively, through turning away from the breaking-news attention seeking media, and instead focusing our attention to details in the real, physical world, we can discover a more satisfying and meaningful way of living.

What we should aim our attention at to be meaningful to the world, is our local environment. I do not know if Odell has invented the term, but she is a great proponent of Bio-regionalism: an attention, interest and familiarity with our local ecology. Which gives us valuable insights into the complex relations with other things.She herself found bird-watching an interest that lifted her attention for her local environment. It makes her drop out of the linear time, and when coming back to everyday life, see things differently.

Odell links in John Cleese – and I love that reference – in a Youtube performance on Creativity. But What I like most about the John Cleese video is this:”Pondering leads to creativity and insurrection.”

She describes uselessness as a strategy. I love this idea. The example Jenny Odell given is an extremely old ugly tree with lots of knots and bolts. How did it get this old? By being so ugly and gnarly. The tree is too difficult for lumberjacks to cut down. All trees around her have been cut down over the past centuries, but she has survived because she is useless. Another similar strategy is being too weird to be of any use. Remain weird, hard to categorize. Exercize “resistance in place” – be hard to appropriate by any capitalist value.

In social media, everything needs to be monetized. Time becomes an economic resource we can not spend on doing “nothing”. However, a sensible way to do nothing has benefits to offer: move away from your FOMO to NOMO – Necessity Of Missing Out, and a sharper ability to listen – ” Deep Listening”.

We should protect out spaces and time for non-instrumental, useless – in the sense of non-commercial – activity and thought, maintenance and care.

Odell tells us to value maintenance over productivity. Instead of productivity, value:

  • maintenance
  • non-verbal communication
  • experience

Of course this reminds of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, but interestingly enough she does not reference him anywhere. Which reminds me of the highly related article Newport recently wrote for the New Yorker on why people are quitting their jobs after the pandemic.

She quotes Epicurus: source of a troubled mind: unnecessary mental bagage due to runaway Desires, Ambitions, Fear and Ego.
An answer to the attention economy could be totally turn away from society, but Odell proposes another approach: “standing apart”, in which we contemplate, and participate, look at the world with a futurist view, instead of a view dominated by perceived urgency. We should not retreat, but practice refusal, boycott and sabotage.

If we apply Cicero‘s Will, Perseverance Drive and Discipline, we can deny provocations outside the sphere of the desire attention. And improve acuity of our attention for other things.

Jenny Odell quotes David Hockney’s critique on photography as being the “cyclops view of the world, but for a split second” (paraphrasing). Instead, reality is a collage, a personal construction of images.

Reality or perception changes when you look at it rather than through it. Like Jeff Wall’s approach to photography. He reconstructs reality instead of taking a picture of it when it appear to him. In such a way he avoids his viewers to look through the picture at the subject rather than at it.

Looking attentively is like jumping into Alice’s rabbit hole. It is fun to do and revives our curiosity. Also it allows us to transcend the self and gain new understanding of things. It helps you not to marinate in conventional wisdom but to be open to change and deviating ideas.

Where (social) media throw context-poor factoids at you, researching a topic more deeply gives you a full understanding of the context of things. That is such a danger of the urgency-driven media: the lack of context they give.

It is not about doing nothing. It’s about doing the right thing, with attention, focus, discipline.

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