How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

I suspect that readers of this blog will enjoy Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I’ve been a fan of Odell’s work since reading her mind-bending essay There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch wherein she describes how the internet’s nightmarish realm of disembodied Instagram babble results in actual crappy objects. If you’ve seen either of the Fyre festival documentaries you’ll know how these “influencer” nightmares play out.

If you’re looking for a book about how to be more productive in a world of Facebook notifications, text messages and endless emails How to Do Nothing, despite the deceptive subtitle ain’t that book. But, perhaps, that’s the point. Maybe the problem with our culture is the need to “be productive,” to live in the myth of endless growth on a planet with finite resources.

Central to Odell’s book is Walter Benjamin’s quirky interpretation of a Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus. Benjamin says,

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Odell sees our role as like Benjamin’s Angel of History, looking backwards, facing the destruction and injustices of our past and working to undo the damage, to “make whole what has been smashed.” In Odell’s words, “When we pry open the cracks in the concrete, we stand to encounter life itself—nothing less and nothing more, as if there could be more.”

Odell floats the idea of a “manifest dismantling,” an inversion of the industrialization and colonialism embodied in John Gast’s silly painting American Progress. The examples of manifest dismantling that Odell offers range from monumental, such as the multi-year dismantling of the San Clemente Dam in Northern California, to the modest, such as the volunteers that sustain and maintain public gardens.

Odell asks for us to consider a present grounded in remediation rather than obsessed with grand teleological visions. What if our heroes were caregivers, gardeners, bird watchers and people who fix things instead of venture capitalists, tech bros and mars mission obsessed CEOs? Personally, I think the readers of this blog are the sisters and brothers of the great dismantling. Let’s open those cracks in the pavement.

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  1. Wow! Yes! It feels like we have all been chasing the wind! Time to stop and realize what is REALLY important. I have been drawn to books such as these so I will add this one to my reading list. Thank you.

  2. Hello! I like how unrelated sources somehow align themselves pointing to the same direction, or is it perhaps me who finds the constellations where there are just stars?

    First, I absolutely adored There’s no such Thing as a Free Watch. From the Bureau of Suspended Things, a.k.a. the dumpster. Garbage is, apparently, right on my mind. Coincidentally, only a couple of days ago I stumbled upon a garbology (yes, there is such thing!) project digging in Victorian dumpsters in England, appropriately titled: What the Victorians Threw Away,, which is completely fascinating. Go, take a look.

    And a couple of days before that, I read an article titled Focus as an Antidote for Wanting to Do Everything, by a certain Leo Babauta ( which is a lot like the title of your post suggests it is about. And also, so much self righteousness is a bit of garbage to a reader like myself. I still want to do everything – for instance now I want to sleep and to read blogs.

    Good night!

  3. YES!!! I’m reading “Falter” by Bill McKibben now and this echoes many of the things his book talks about.

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