Book Review: How to Do nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
I get the feeling that her publisher titled the book, as “How to do nothing” is not a descriptive title. I was expecting a how-to book more along the lines of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. Instead this book feels more like the author’s Master’s thesis. It’s incredibly well researched, but it’s more of a philosophical treatise on the idea of not submitting to the attention economy combined with a personal journal of her journey resisting the siren song of Twitter and Facebook.
But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.
She traces the desire to avoid the anxiety, envy, and distraction of “mainstream culture” all the way back to the Greeks via stories of Diogenes, who is considered one of the founders of Cynicism. Diogenes considered popular culture toxic even back in Athens, and advocated for a simpler life more in harmony with nature.
By “nothing” the author doesn’t really mean nothing. She means do stuff that isn’t driven by a capitalistic impulses. The author uses her obsession with bird watching as an example throughout the book. Ultimately what she is advocating for is all of us having a better sense of place, and spending our time immersed in our place in the physical world. Whether that is in the woods chasing a bird call, or just chilling in the park down the street.
It’s hard to argue with that.
If you want a how-to on minimizing the negative impacts of social media Newport’s book is probably a better choice. If you want the meandering philosophical journey to harmony with the attention economy, this book is probably more your speed. Also, the author is a performance artist and I do have have a much better understanding of performance art after reading this. It’s not why I bought the book, but it’s a nice bonus that I can now better appreciate what performance artists are trying to do with their sometimes seemingly absurd exhibitions.