How to Do Nothing

I devoured this book, reading it in two long sessions, thinking, underlining, and thinking some more. Jenny Odell presents one of the most compelling arguments I’ve seen for how to think about and interact with social media and how to take space away from that world. How to Do Nothing made me think even more than I already have been about how I spend my time, right at a time when I’ve made significant shifts in what I’m choosing to give attention to.

Odell packs so much into this book and I found myself thinking about two of her ideas after I finished it. The first is that we usually present different versions of ourselves and our stories to different people. This is normal, as she quotes a book from 1985 by Joshua Meyrowitz and how he told different versions of European adventures to different people, such as his family versus his friends versus professors. This story in the context of thinking about social media, struck me and has stuck with me. Today we’re often told to bring our whole selves to all the various situations we find ourselves in, but is this truly what we do? Should this be what we do? Is there only one version of us and the entire world should see this version?

This ties in with Odell talking about how social media doesn’t allow one to change her mind. We’re to stay the same, as if we are a brand, for our entire lives. This doesn’t allow for growth which is a normal part of the human experience. But in our online lives, with the context of everything taken away, we’re not given the latitude to change, to struggle, to go through what are normal human experiences.

This brings me to her ideas about bioregionalism and knowing the places where you are. I’ve moved to a more rural area, a small town, and I run in a place with no cars. Some times I see other people walking and running or cycling, but often times it’s me and the birds, squirrels, maybe a deer or rabbit is nearby. I’m very close to a major interstate, but the area in which I run is teeming with wildlife. I’ve begun to take an interest in learning more about it all, which birds are these? What are the trees and bushes I’m surrounded by? How can I put native plants in my garden to attract and nourish the local wildlife?

Odell isn’t actually calling for us to do nothing, she’s calling for us to be deliberate with our attention, to focus it on the things we care about and that matter. In many senses I felt her calling for us to be more aware of our local community rather than focusing on the broader community and in a time where so much of what we see and hear is difficult and depressing, I find these ideas appealing. And it’s given me a better vocabulary to talk about what I’ve been doing this summer, less time online, more time with my community.

I underlined and made notations all over this book, but here are a few favorite nuggets:

As I disengaged the map of my attention from the destructive news cycle and rhetoric of productivity, I began to build another one based on that of the more-than-human community, simply through patterns of noticing. (p. 122)

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. (p 179)