Literally 2 Cents: Doing Something

The podcast has been on a bit of a hiatus, but we’re back in force! This week, we talked about Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” It ended up being a really long, interesting conversation, so we’ve only released the first part so far.

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Odell talks about how we, collectively, need to find ways to more firmly ground ourselves in reality — instead of, for instance, the context-less virtual zone of social media platforms like Twitter. In other words, we need to touch grass. Reading this book was an interesting study in, once again, staring in the mirror and recreating the Spider-Man pointing meme with myself; I am reading about how internet content and the attention economy can be isolating, about how pulling our attention to collective activities in the “real world” is not only beneficial but necessary for human beings … and then I’m talking and writing about that on the internet. This podcast has always been an ouroboros but it is especially an ouroboros today.

However, I choose to believe that by talking about the book and analyzing some of its key points, Alex and I are adding to the discourse surrounding the politics of the attention economy — bringing attention to Odell’s ideas about what we could and should be doing with our time (e.g., collective action, building community, fighting climate change).

Here is an important passage from the book:

I would be surprised if anyone who bought this book actually wants to do nothing. Only the most nihilist and coldhearted of us feels that there is nothing to be done. The overwhelming anxiety that I feel in the face of the attention economy doesn’t just have to do with its mechanics and effects, but also with a recognition of, and anguish over, the very real social and environmental injustice that provides the material for that same economy. But I feel my sense of responsibility frustrated. It’s a cruel irony that the platforms on which we encounter and speak about these issues are simultaneously profiting from a collapse of context that keeps us from being able to think straight.

This is where I think the idea of “doing nothing” can be of the most help. For me, doing nothing means disengaging from one framework (the attention economy) not only to give myself time to think, but to do something else in another framework.

She goes on to say that it’s important to show up for each other and interact with one another with intention. The work doesn’t just do itself — you have to be intentional about how you move through the world and how you think about “place.” The public sphere is no longer a physical space (unless you count the wires and tubes that make up the actual physicality of the internet… and I don’t), but reclaiming our attention might require us to “relearn how to care about place.” Odell spends a lot of time in public parks and in natural scenery.

Now, there are a lot of caveats to this book, from my perspective. Principally among them is the fact that Odell’s observations come from an extremely privileged perspective. She is able to have these removed thoughts because she has the time and the mental space for them, as an artist and art professor living in the Bay Area. She does acknowledge that privilege in the book, but there are points where I really felt the different perspective.

Anyway, you should check out the podcast, and check out the book if you’re interested in learning more.

Realities are, after all, inhabitable. If we can render a new reality together — with attention — perhaps we can meet each other there.

Jenny Odell, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy”

Published by Liz

I'm a writer living and working in Cincinnati, OH. I've been writing for ages and ages. Somehow now I'm actually getting someone to pay me to do it.

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