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How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy Paperback – August 11, 2020
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"She struck a hopeful nerve of possibility that I hadn’t felt in a long time."—Jia Tolentino, THE NEW YORKER
"How to Do Nothing is genuinely instructive, elaborating a practical philosophy to help us slow down and temporarily sidestep the forces aligned against both our mental health and long-term human survival. You can knock the hustle — and you should."—Akiva Gottlieb, LOS ANGELES TIMES
"Approachable and incisive. . . . The book is clearly the work of a socially conscious artist and writer who considers careful attention to the rich variety of the world an antidote to the addictive products and platforms that technology provides. . . . [Odell] sails with capable ease between the Scylla and Charybdis of subjectivity and arid theory with the relatable humanity of her vision."—Nicholas Cannariato, THE WASHINGTON POST
"The sentiment behind How to Do Nothing is one of defiance.”—Casey Schwartz, THE NEW YORK TIMES
"An erudite and thoughtful narrative about the importance of interiority and taking time to pay close attention to the spaces around us."—Annie Vainshtein, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
"An eloquent argument against the cult of efficiency, and I felt both consoled and invigorated by it."—Jennifer Szalai, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
"The path to freedom lies within the covers of this book."—Lauren Goode, WIRED
"How to Do Nothing mimics the experience of walking with a perceptive and sensitive friend, the kind of person who makes you feel, in your bones, that it’s a miraculous gift to be alive."—Katie Bloom, THE SEATTLE TIMES
"Odell’s great strength as a writer is her ability to convey art’s unique power without overestimating or misstating its social impact. . . . Ultimately, what sets her book apart from self-help is not a less quixotic set of demands but a more life-affirming endgame."—Megan Marz, THE BAFFLER
"Thoughtful, compelling, and practical."—Clay Skipper, GQ
"Jenny Odell’s brilliant How to Do Nothing is the book we all need to read now. With wonderful precision, passion, and artfulness, Odell finds the language to meet this cultural moment. She has written a joyful manifesto about resistance that is also an eccentric and practical handbook on how to reclaim your colonized and monetized attention."—Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others
“Self-help for the collectively minded, How to Do Nothing is as thoughtful and morally serious as it is fun to read. This book will change how you see the world.”—Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days
“Your chaotic, fraught internal weather isn't an accident, it's a business-model, and while 'thoughtful resistance' isn't 'productive,' Odell proves that it is utterly necessary.”—Cory Doctorow, author of Radicalized and Walkaway
“In a media and tech ecosystem simultaneously obsessed with "digital detox" and building personal brands, How to Do Nothing is a breath of fresh air grounding readers in the complex, interdependent actual ecosystems of the physical world. Jenny Odell writes with remarkable clarity and compassion. Each chapter reads like going on a fascinating walk through a park in conversation with an old friend (who happens to also be able to tell you about every single bird in the park, which is awesome). It's a book I already know I'll be returning to and referencing for a long time.”—Ingrid Burrington, author of Networks of New York
“In How to do Nothing Jenny Odell breaks through the invisible yoke that binds 21st century first-worlders to our app-driven devices. With a thoughtful look at the attention economy, Odell’s book is a self-help guide for re-learning how to look at the world. The book braids threads of ancient philosophy together with contemporary visual and technological culture, and weaves an original route to re-wilding the mind. Wide-ranging and erudite, this book is also entertaining, and brings the reader along with enthusiasm to Odell's philosophy of “manifest dismantling.” —Megan Prelinger, author of Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age
"Odell introduces the idea that within our world there are endless other worlds; many of the alternatives sound much better. We need only pay attention."—VICE'S Broadly
About the Author
Jenny Odell is an artist and writer who teaches at Stanford, has been an artist-in-residence at places like the San Francisco dump, Facebook, the Internet Archive, and the San Francisco Planning Department, and has exhibited her art all over the world. She lives in Oakland.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
Chapter 2 The Impossibility of Retreat
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.
If doing nothing requires space and time away from the unforgiving landscape of productivity, we might be tempted to conclude that the answer is to turn our backs to the world, temporarily or for good. But this response would be shortsighted. All too often, things like digital detox retreats are marketed as a kind of “life hack” for increasing productivity upon our return to work. And the impulse to say goodbye to it all, permanently, doesn’t just neglect our responsibility to the world that we live in; it is largely unfeasible, and for good reason.
Last summer, I accidentally staged my own digital detox retreat. I was on a solitary trip to the Sierra Nevada to work on a project about the Mokelumne River, and the cabin I had booked had no cell reception and no Wi-Fi. Because I hadn’t expected this to be the case, I was also unprepared: I hadn’t told people I would be offline for the next few days, hadn’t answered important emails, hadn’t downloaded music. Alone in the cabin, it took me about twenty minutes to stop freaking out about how abruptly disconnected I felt.
But after that brief spell of panic, I was surprised to find how quickly I stopped caring. Not only that, I was fascinated with how inert my phone appeared as an object; it was no longer a portal to a thousand other places, a machine charged with dread and potentiality, or even a communication device. It was just a black metal rectangle, lying there as silently and matter-of-factly as a sweater or a book. Its only use was as a flashlight and a timer. With newfound peace of mind, I worked on my project unperturbed by the information and interruptions that would have otherwise lit up that tiny screen every few minutes. To be sure, it gave me a valuable new perspective on how I use technology. But as easy as it was to romanticize giving everything up and living like a hermit in this isolated cabin, I knew I eventually needed to return home, where the world waited and the real work remained to be done.
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If you’re looking for a digital detox guide, go elsewhere (though she does spend time dismantling the very concept). If a capitalist critique (by a woman in academia, no less) gets your knickers in a twist, avoid. If you want some genuine inspiration as to how to exist, resist, and survive in the world as it is today, you won’t be disappointed.
How to Do Nothing is an amazing exploration of our current attention-competing, dizzying world of information overload—and it would be a fabulous book if it just stopped there. But Odell actually offers insights into how to fight this modern cacophony of too-muchedness, leaving us with an improbably optimistic and refreshing view on a decidedly 21st-century problem.
I'm anxiously awaiting my nieces' and nephews' transitions into adulthood, so I an share this work with them. Because it's just that necessary.