(Author's note: this article was original published in the zine Indoorsy Mag #2)
If you read one book during quarantine, let it be Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Refusing the Attention Economy, which the author describes as an “activist book disguised as a self-help book.” The book was written in response to a crisis that precedes our current one. Early in 2017, still reeling from the 2016 presidential election, the artist Jenny Odell was called to deliver a keynote address to an art and technology conference. She found herself writing a lecture she titled “How to Do Nothing.” In it, she explained how her response to the fear and confusion of the time was to visit the Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses in Oakland, CA, known as the Rose Garden, and simply sit. She conceived of this solitary time, not as separate from her artistic practice, but as the precursor to a deeper practice of engagement with the present.
In the lecture, Odell drew a connection from this “doing nothing” to her work as a visual artist, which is less concerned with the act of creation than with recontextualizing existing objects. In her interactive and ongoing project "The Bureau of Suspended Objects", Odell developed a digital catalogue of 200 objects she reclaimed from the dump, and displayed them physically from June to September 2015. How To Do Nothing is created with a similar methodology, as Odell draws on memoir, personal anecdotes, art criticism, and ecological thought to develop her theory of how “doing nothing” might be a way to reclaim our attention as a resource.
Odell conceives of “doing nothing” not as a passive process but rather an active reorienting of one’s attention outward. Her original exercise of “doing nothing” was sitting in contemplation of the Rose Garden, but as the book progresses, so does Odell’s capacity to pay attention to the world around her. A curiosity in the crows that appear outside of her apartment window grows into an interest in classifying the birds in her neighborhood, which grows into an ability to recognize bird-songs all across Oakland. Odell is clear that paying attention is a contagious process: it’s not that Odell strove to become an expert bird-watcher, but she was carried there by her curiosity.
According to Odell, cultivating one’s attention by “doing nothing” affords individuals an opportunity to break with the attention economy mentioned in the book’s subtitle. Odell’s attention economy mostly refers to social media, particularly the ways in which apps’ and websites’ revenues come from capturing and monetizing their users’ attention. Although activists use platforms like Twitter to spread information, Odell argues that these platforms lack the context, privacy, and physical space to be effective venues for organizing. “Doing nothing” via limiting media consumption is not a rejection of being well-informed, but simply a rejection of certain channels of media. She argues that withdrawing one’s attention from the attention economy, itself a miniscule act, can set the foundation for greater acts of refusal, like refusing to work without hazard pay or refusing to pay rent while landlords’ mortgages are frozen.
So while How To Do Nothing is not per-se a handbook for quarantine, its themes align well with our current moment. I imagine Odell would be cautiously optimistic about the kind of activism that could bloom even among social distancing. Being unexpectedly sequestered, we might reevaluate our relationship to how we spend our attention; being confined to a neighborhood could lead to us to understand the importance of being situated in a community. Even the phrase “shelter in place,” in the right light, mirrors a theme of the book: that the ground we stand on will be the place that we meet each other, meet another vision for the world, and begin to build a shelter.