Nicholas Cannariato is a writer and editor based in Chicago.
Doing nothing could save your life. What a notion in our productivity-manic times. The very idea of doing nothing is sure to provoke unease in people who treasure careerism and respectable living and who pursue, or feel compelled to pursue, socially sanctioned excellence. In her approachable and incisive new book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” Jenny Odell makes a case for turning away from our devices and social media and toward engagement with the world in a more personal, aesthetic and cooperative way. 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.
In writing about doing nothing, Odell could have given us a self-obsessive and self-indulgent tome or, conversely, a sanctimonious or pedantically utopian work. But she sails with capable ease between the Scylla and Charybdis of subjectivity and arid theory with the relatable humanity of her vision.
Though she doesn’t strike the pose of a radical, there is a radicalism in her program of doing nothing that transcends normal classification. It’s at once a kind of political ideology, a spiritual practice, a moral imperative and an aesthetic reconception of the world as it can be when attention isn’t monetized, weaponized and atomized. It’s a form of liberation that doesn’t frame itself in direct antagonism to something else so much as it calls for a radical refocusing of attention toward the world around us.
To explain why we should refocus our attention, Odell notes the tension between being connected online and disconnected in the real world. We tend to stay online too much, she suggests, because digital platforms are structured to keep us connected for their own profit. It is necessary to escape to engage in sensitive, actual human interaction. Though these are not necessarily new observations, it’s worthwhile to reiterate that, for all the social unity and disunity social media sites promote, the profit motive is the reason most of them exist.
In one of the book’s most persuasive sections, Odell discusses the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who is more commonly known through anecdotes about his way of life rather than his philosophy, which was about living simply, naturally and without shame, all while rejecting the artificial trappings of society. Her portrait of Diogenes is instructive in an unexpected way for understanding the art of doing nothing. Diogenes is famous for, among other things, living in a tub (or barrel) that he’d roll around Athens and walking around with a lantern, saying he was looking for an honest person. Noting Plato’s characterization of Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad,” Odell astutely observes that whereas Socrates “famously favored conversation, Diogenes practiced something closer to performance art. He lived his convictions out in the open and went to great lengths to shock people out of their habitual stupor, using a form of philosophy that was almost slapstick.” Diogenes famously lived doing nothing, refusing to accept the values of others. But he wasn’t a hermit, and he wasn’t a recluse. He lived engaged with the world, all the while living apart.
Quite late in the book, Odell addresses the pernicious effects of social media on attention. She explains that Facebook and Twitter catch and kill sustained attention by eliminating context. Social media, she writes, casts users into a void composed solely of the present, where our focus is redirected so often that, perversely, it becomes one of the only places — sometimes the only one — where we can focus at all anymore. But that place lacks context and humanity and, therefore, sustainable meaning.
Given all this, how can doing nothing fix such a vast and complex social, cultural — and political — problem? She sees a need for a kind of Diogenes solution: Be engaged but apart. We must be able “to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed,” she writes. She calls this standing apart. “To stand apart,” she observes, “is to take the view of the outsider without leaving . . . It means not fleeing your enemy, but knowing your enemy, which turns out not to be the world — contemptus mundi — but the channels through which you encounter it day to day.”
By standing apart, one may be able to refocus attention on the world, mitigate its social divisions and inequality, hear and see it in all its strangeness and richness. Doing nothing really means doing something: living in accordance with nature, community and careful observation of the world. “When we pry open the cracks in the concrete,” Odell writes, “we stand to encounter life itself — nothing less and nothing more.”
By Jenny Odell
Melville House. 232 pp. $25.99