I heard a recommendation for “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” on a podcast sometime in mid-February. After reading parts both before and after the pandemic hit, I think it has important ideas for the interested reader. The book is about reclaiming human experiences from online efforts such as Facebook or Twitter to grab our attention.
The book's genre is somewhere between long-form essay on modern life, memoir and academic thesis. I use each of those terms mostly as a compliment. The book amounts to a description of Jenny Odell's efforts to discover the world surrounding her. In a simple example, she describes solitary visits to a public garden, observing the plants and birds in new ways.
Later, she describes going to a concert that included pieces written by John Cage. He, somewhat famously, wrote a “piano” piece where the musician plays nothing for about four and a half minutes. The author describes how listening to the music forced the audience to be more aware of everyone around them. As she walked home, she then described all the street sounds she heard for the first time.
The way the author smoothly moves among these topics – biology, modern music and urban living – is impressive. She has thought deeply about these ideas and connected them in ways that make me feel like she is largely right.
Odell has perhaps the best biography I have ever read on a book jacket. She is an art professor at Stanford. More importantly, an earlier job was as an artist-in-residence at the San Francisco dump. If I had ever done anything that cool, I would brag about it for the rest of my life.
In a long passage, she describes a philosophy called bio-regionalism, in which people try to self-identify using their surrounding geology. For example, I could describe myself as living near the joining of the St. Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers instead of from Fort Wayne. She describes a slow discovery of a small river (creek? ditch? stream?) near her childhood home.
In my charitable moments, these portions felt like an honest, insightful memoir. The author was discovering the world around her and writing an honest description. In my uncharitable moments, these portions also felt like a person discovering biology is more than a high-school textbook. There is a reason people become scientists and study environmental biology for their careers. In brief moments, she seems to dismiss the personal experiences of scientists as if scientists don't have interior lives or fulfilling, personal relationships with the subjects they study.
The charitable moments, however, far outweigh the uncharitable ones. Odell describes discovering that a large fraction of the rainwater in her area comes from an atmospheric river that starts near the Philippines, where her mother lives. Her reaction to this discovery was surprising. She put a container outside and collected water for awhile. She then used the water with simple dyes to make a watercolor painting of the Filipino national flower and sent it to her mother. That is exactly the sort of thinking I love reading about.
A larger portion of the book, however, deals with our lives online. I have no idea how well these sections would read in our current era of quarantine and Zoom-work, Zoom-dates and Zoom-family meetings. Two ideas she highlights strike me as fundamentally correct.
First, the push toward personal branding online is unhealthy. She describes the slow evolution of her Spotify account (a streaming music service) toward a single type of song. She is basically correct that a personal brand relies on the idea that a brand does not change. McDonald's and Coke are somewhat famous for being nearly the same everywhere and all the time. A person should not be like that. A person should change, have different moods and, for example, enjoy different music that can often be hard to explain.
Second, she describes how most social media collapse any social context around a conversation. Twitter is perhaps the worst offender. Tweets, limited to 280 characters, prevent any ideas from being understood within a social context. The people speaking and listening, the history of each person's experiences – all of that is gone.
Her reaction is to refuse to engage. She manages the balance of not being anti-technology, but instead really examining the effect each specific technology has on our human experiences. I have not read anyone with a deeper insight on the topic.
I hesitate to make a blanket recommendation of this book to anyone, however. At times the writing can be excessively academic, in the bad way. Working through that layer to get at the author's ideas can be frustrating at points. If the ideas are interesting and probably basically right, as they are in this case, it is worth the frustration.
Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this column for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.