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.

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Image an economy in which you were paid to do the things you like to read about on this blog: gardening, beer brewing, jam making, beekeeping etc. Or how about a world in which teachers, nurses and caregivers made more money than tech CEOs? Sadly, we don’t live in that utopia. Instead we have an economy that often rewards people who either do nothing all day or whose work degrades our lives.

Anthropologist David Graeber takes up these questions in his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Judging from the many months I waited for the library’s copy of Bullshit Jobs, Graeber hit a nerve. In fact, the original essay version of this book, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” went viral.

Graeber’s bullshit job research began with a casual question in Twitter asking if people felt their jobs were worthless or unnecessary. He got a torrent of responses. Typical is the experience of this receptionist for a Dutch publishing company:

The phone rang maybe once a day, so I was given a couple of other tasks:

  • Keep candy dish full of mints. (Mints were supplied by someone else at the company; I just had to take a handful out of a drawer next to the candy dish and put them in the candy dish.)
  • Once a week, I would go to a conference room and wind a grandfather clock. (I found this task stressful, actually, because they told me that if I forgot or waited too long, all of the weights would fall, and I would be left with the onerous task of grandfather clock repair.)
  • The task that took the most time was managing another receptionist’s Avon sales.

In the book Graeber develops a taxonomy of Bullshit jobs and estimates that at least 50% of jobs could vanish and no one would notice. And, no, we’re not just talking about government jobs. It turns out that capitalism produces prodigious amounts of useless jobs despite those who claim that the alleged efficiency of markets makes this impossible.

While many of the examples in the book, such as the Dutch receptionist, are amusing behind them lies a lot of human misery. It turns out that being paid well to look like you’re busy when you’re not can crush the human soul. Worse are jobs such as telemarketers who, in order to get by, have do something deceptive or destructive.

Sadly, in our economy, with a few exceptions, the more useful your job is the more likely you are to not be paid well. On Thursday, here in Los Angeles, public school teachers are set to go on strike for better wages and to prevent creeping privatization by charter school companies. It’s very expensive to live here and a teacher’s salary amounts to a lower middle class wage. You probably won’t starve but you’ll never be able to afford to buy a house. Instead our economy rewards finance sector employees who have no idea what they were hired for and who spend their work days pretending to do something while they are actually just looking at Facebook. Worse, Graeber shows how those in power foster resentment between those in bullshit jobs and useful workers such as teachers and utility workers.

Much of this inequity falls on women, who are more likely to occupy low paid but useful jobs taking care of other people. Lost in the tedious debate over the percentage of female Google engineers is why we pay hospice nurses less than the people who figure out how to serve ads for outdoor grills while we search for porn.

Graeber goes on to describe the history of our attitudes towards work from the medieval guild system to the bloated bureaucracies of the present. Along the way he delves into the theology of why we think terrible jobs are good for us. He concludes with an argument for universal basic income that had me (a skeptic of UBI) partly convinced.

If you’ve read this book or experienced a bullshit job leave a comment!

Being the Change: Peter Kalmus Book Appearances

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Peter Kalmus, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and our guest on episode 39 of the podcast, has a new book out, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. In the book Peter shows you how to slash your fossil fuel use to 1/10 the average and still live like royalty. If you’d like to hear Peter speak you have two chances:

Wednesday Aug 9, 7:00pm: Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena
Friday Aug 11, 7:30pm: The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles

Hope to meet some Root Simple readers at Peter’s talks!

Getting Online Hearing Aids

SilverDia2_CMYK_1024x1024I was born with crappy hearing. High frequencies such as high pitched bird calls and bleeping electronic devices run above my hearing range. Worse, I will often confuse “s” sounds with “t” sounds thus turning my perception of ordinary conversations into a never ending avant-garde poetry reading.

Good hearing is part of a good life. Friends and relatives get frustrated when they have to yell or repeat things. And there’s research indicating that hearing problems can contribute to dementia later in life.

Generally I’m not a fan of Silicon Valley’s “disruption” tactics, but if ever there was an industry that needed shaking up it was the hearing aid biz. Until just a few years ago hearing aids were expensive, costing thousands of dollars each for a device that’s far simpler than our much cheaper smart phones. For most people in the U.S., insurance won’t pay for hearing aids.

When I first got a hearing aid ten years ago from HearX, at $2,000 per ear, I could only afford one. It’s an outrageous price since, according to the New York Times, the device probably costs around $100 to manufacture. It’s just a microphone and speaker with a modest amount of signal processing. The computer on which I’m typing out this blog post also has a speaker, a microphone and much more sophisticated audio signal processing capabilities. It can also play cute cat videos and costs half as much as one hearing aid. And why, if I just went to my doctor for a hearing test, am I paying for someone at HearX to do the exact same test?

When it came time to replace the overpriced hearing aid which HearX would no longer service, I checked out Costco. Their hearing aids were half the price of HearX but they still made you go through another hearing test. A friend (annoyed with my bad hearing) sent me an article on new online hearing aid services and I discovered that they were half the price of Costco at around $500 to $600 an ear. I ended up going with Audicus and I’ve been pleased with the two hearing aids I purchased. I went to my doctor and got a hearing test (she also did an MRI to make sure that there was not something else going on). I sent the hearing aid test to Audicus and a week later they sent me a box with two hearing aids.

With my Audicus hearing aids the part that goes in the ear is a one-size-fits-all plug as opposed to the custom earmolds used by HearX. This cuts down on costs and means that you don’t have to go in for a fitting. I haven’t noticed any significant difference in terms of audio quality or comfort between my Audicus hearing aids and my HearX hearing aid. I’ve been using my Audicus hearing aids for two years with no problems.

I have a few important tips if you’re considering a hearing aid:

  • When I first got hearing aids a friend who is an audiologist told me to wear them all day everyday even if I was alone. This is because they take awhile to get used to. For me I was hearing sounds I had never heard before some of which were unpleasant.
  • Even when you get past the early phase you should still wear them as much as possible. I’ve been bad about this lately. It’s important to remember how important communication is for ourselves and for our relationships.
  • And don’t worry about aesthetics. Hardly anyone will notice that you are wearing them. People don’t look at your ears when they are talking to you they look at your eyes. I went with the silver colored mode above rather than a flesh colored hearing aid.

Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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I’m actually writing this review before I’ve even finished Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, because I’m savoring it so slowly it’s taking me forever to finish, and at the same time, I’m so excited about the book I couldn’t wait any longer to tell you all about it.

In her faculty bio, Robin Wall Kimmerer is described as a mother, plant ecologist, writer and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

It’s typical of her that all these descriptors are laid out in the first sentence of her biography, because she does not compartmentalize her different selves (scientist, mom, Potawtomi woman), but rather weaves them together, like sweetgrass basket, to make an integrated whole. In the same way her prose, which takes the form of story telling, will use one unlikely metaphor, like her long fight with pond muck, or tapping maple trees, to bring out moments of unexpected beauty, connection and inspiration.

My first exposure to Dr. Kimmerer came via one of my favorite podcasts, On Being. Here’s a link to that episode: The Intelligence of All Kinds of Life. 

I remember first listening to this podcast while walking around our neighborhood one evening at twilight. As she spoke about the intelligence of all living things and the importance of our relationship with plants, how we are meant to love and live in a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world, tears came to my eyes because the things she was saying were the things I have always believed–always known— but which are not supported by my culture.

As a result, I often feel a little crazy, or unmoored, because trying to live my ideals in this world is like swimming upstream. In fact, it is all but impossible. But hearing an author, a professor, a scientist on a big radio program speaking my truth in a calm, clear voice, as if it were fact, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world, eased my heart. I hope you have a chance to hear this podcast, or read her books, and if you’re like me, I hope it eases your heart, too.

At one point, and I can’t remember if this was in her interview or in the book, maybe both, she tells of asking her grad students a question. She asks them, “Many of us love the natural world. What would it mean if you knew the world loved you back?”

Her students, all being budding scientists, could not accept that proposition (anthropomorphism, sentimentality, etc.). So she tweaked it a little for their comfort and said, “Okay, make it a hypothetical. Hypothetically speaking, what would change if you knew the world loved you back?”

Then they lit up with ideas and possibilities. “Everything would change!” they cried.

I agree with Dr. Kimmerer. The world does love us back. It cannot speak, but it shows its love through selfless acts of giving, like a mother. Plants shower us with abundance. They give us food, medicine, textiles building materials, and less material gifts like beauty and solace. They even give us oxygen: their love for us fills our lungs with every breath. Plants are the basis of the food chain, so at the root of things, our lives are wholly sustained by and dependent on the beneficence of the plant world, and yet we so rarely take a moment say thank you.