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.

Saturday Tweets That Should Have Been Posted on Saturday but Are, Instead, Posted on Sunday Evening Because I Was at a Met Opera Telecast (Dialogues of the Carmelites) Followed by a Wedding and Was Too Tired by the End of the Day to Sit at a Computer and Come up with Clever Titles

129 The Garden Is the Teacher: a Conversation With EagleSong

Our guest on this episode of the podcast is EagleSong Gardener. From her bio: EagleSong is human being, green witch, herbalist and crofter dedicated to deep transformation on an individual and planetary scale. She tends the Spiral Garden at the Pacific Wise Woman Center in Monroe, WA and inspires the Pacific Women’s Herbal Conference on Vashon Island, each fall. During the podcast we discuss:

You can find EagleSong’s website and blog at www.eaglesong-gardener.com.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected] You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Le Phone Freak

I can’t believe how much easier my life has been since last year’s Western Electric/Apple merger and their introduction of a new card dialer. No more fumble-fingered spins of the dial! No more explaining rotary dialing to visiting young folks!

With the handy cards I can easily share all my contacts with friends instead of scribbling numbers on a napkin.

Of course, with all these handy dialing cards I’m beginning to forget my friend’s phone numbers when I need to use a pay phone. Maybe Western Electric/Apple will introduce a pay phone that accepts cards?

Okay, enough of the silliness. What caught my eye with this oddball piece of transitional phone technology is the punch card, invented in the early 19th century to control looms. I’m tackling Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow this spring after one failed attempt to read it in the 1990s. The book is full of loom metaphors such as this one, “While the great Loom of God works in darkness above,/And our trials here below are but threads of His Love.”

The loom represents for Pynchon a way to evoke the sinister command and control of the punch card operated looms of the industrial revolution and, ultimately, the semi-autonomous V2 rockets of the Nazis. As novelist and (superb) podcaster Michael S. Judge has pointed out, Pynchon’s book is eerily prescient, seeming to foresee an era when we’re all monitored and controlled by a enormous electronic loom in the form of the interwebs.

Not that I’m in favor of going backwards, but sometimes I can’t help but be nostalgic for my simpler, less mediated, 60s/70s childhood when Western Electric was still around making sturdy, oh-so-beige gadgets like this thing.