How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

It’s rare that I have a book recommended to me multiple times, by multiple people. Few books hit the sweet spot between being timely, relevant, popular, and fairly easy to read (thus multiple people actually being able to work through and recommend it). How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell is one of those books.

Odell’s book follows the wave of critisizing our culture of always being “on.” Social media, news cycles, and white-collar careers have morphed into this weird space of being so interconnected and wired together. And as a result, even the smallest agitations can cause the whole network to shake.

The subtitle of the book is Resisting the Attention Economy, and although critiques of social media is a part of the book, it’s not the core of Odell’s message. Instead, I got the impression that Odell wanted to communicate a deeper sense of pulling ourselves out of the networks that many of us have found ourselves in. Stressing that a lot of the career circles and social media communities are net negatives in our lives.

I’ll bite. I think Odell has a lot of great points in the book.

Odell is right in saying that many of the networks we find ourselves plugged into are not a net positive in our life. And I think she presents a healthy solution in finding what she calls, “third spaces.” Terminology she uses to describe communities or internal modes of thought that are outside of the network, but still “facing” the network. In other words, an external observer.

Odell also exmaines why leaving these networks are so hard in the first place, and attempts to offer some takes on how we might find it easier to disconnect if we seek refuge in the physical spaces around us.

I don’t hook onto these ideas as much. It’s easy to say, “disconnect from your phone and just look up and around” when you have nice views around you. Unfortunately, most Americans and much of American life is unsexy, unglamarous, and in some areas down right terrifying. Try watching videos filmed in Kensington, Philadelphia and tell me if you think you’d be able to “disconnect” from your phone for your busride through the area.

I think the book’s arguments are underpinned by the idea that individuals have immense power to affect their attention and focus. That individuals just need to begin to take the steps of “resisting the attention economy,” and all these downstream positives will take effect.

But I’ll paraphrase some of the technologists in the space (e.g. Tristan Harris, Jaron Lanier), “these companies have super computers pointed at your brain.”

I fear that this book appeals to groups in a certain socio-economic position. The college students and early career chasers that are being faced with the constant agitations from their networks, and are looking for an out – who can afford an out. But perhaps out of the scope for the book is how to change on a systemic level.

I felt like I was having an individual dialogue with Odell about how to make my life better in the face of the attention economy. But that wasn’t the conversation I was hoping for or looking for. I wanted to talk about how to make our lives better in this twisted business model. Mostly because I think the conversations around the individual are overstated (at this point, anyway).

There are too many self-help books, professors, speakers, newsletters, essays, etc., etc. that have given commentary on how to break away from the system as an individual. And the idea is not new. Many writers (as Odell explores) have communicated the essence of why it’s important to be able to break away from our institutions and networks and be able to reflect on them.

Perhaps the conversation on systemic change is there and I’ve missed it on account of my poor reading.

Either way, I think the book is worth engaging with. But there are still many more ideas to find and wrestle with.