Books

Why it’s important to do nothing

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on June 22, 2020 Published on June 22, 2020

Title: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy Author: Jenny Odell Publisher: Melville House Price: $39.99

Jenny Odell’s take on avoiding the seduction of the online world is a must-read for Covid times

Bertrand Russell wrote his seminal essay In Praise of Idleness in 1932, a period when work was a big deal. A tyranny of workaholism ruled the everyday lives of people in the post-World War I period, so much so that having idle time was near blasphemy. Russell’s essay demolished this regime. “A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work,” wrote Russell.“The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich,” he added.

“Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines. In this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever,” he concluded.

Cut to the current times. The idea of work has undergone a transformation. Technology has changed it multi-dimensionally and, in the process, catapulted capitalism into unknown and unforeseen territories. As a result, a different kind of tyranny has arrived. The tentacles of data companies such as Google and Facebook have now penetrated every nook and cranny of human work and life. ‘Platform capitalism’, a term that explains the power, spread, function and influence of digital platform companies like Google, has given life a new meaning. This has helped capitalism find new economies, new markets and new products.

Online takeover

Thanks to its uncanny ability to adapt and expand, modern capitalism has benefited a lot from these new developments. For instance, as Shoshana Zuboff observes in Surveillance Capitalism, technology-powered data companies now anchor on big data analytics tools to track people’s online behaviour and use the data they accumulate to create “prediction products” such as targeted advertising that “anticipate” consumers’ current and future choices.

This scenario is wickedly interesting, especially for the role platform capitalism plays in this. Technology is the Mr Know-All today, and is cited as the ready remedy for all maladies, from complex governance problems to petty personal grievances. Gaps in welfare distribution? Create a unique id. Had a break-up? Change your profile picture on social media and “share” or “post” sweet nothings on Instagram so that the world is in the know. Clearly and evidently, people enjoy gratification through such behaviour. But when such online acts start replacing crucial offline behaviour, a problem arises.

Most people enjoy such behaviour for myriad reasons. A key argument for maintaining such online presence and behaviour is that cyberspace offers spaces where people can ‘connect’ and get the ‘attention’ they deserve, which in most scenarios is missing in the offline world. As a result, people spend a lot of time online, creating what French theorist Guy Debord (author of The Society of the Spectacle) would call “spectacles”, by curating their personalities through posts, shares, comments and even finding work online. The key takeaway here is the presence of what social scientists call the ‘attention economy’, a term coined by Nobel-winning psychologist-economist Herbert A Simon.

Simon felt that attention was the “bottleneck” of human thought. It limits our ability to think about what we can do in environments where there is a lot of action, energy and activities, much like cyberspace. Simon famously observed that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Sensible netizens would agree. Today, we are inundated by what we do online and our lives are umbilically linked to the online world in more ways than we can imagine. The enmeshment of human life with the digital world is so intricate that getting out of the attention universe is nearly impossible for most people.

Resist the attention

But survive we must. If we have to make a creative difference to the society at large, as individuals and as an important cog in social systems, we must find ways to resist the attention economy by finding ways to wean us out of the seductive but toxic charm of the online world.

This is the general backdrop for How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, an artist and writer. Even though the book came out nearly a year ago, its reading becomes extremely relevant during these difficult times, when the entire world is withdrawn into the living rooms and bedrooms and the fact that most people are not able to become productive is creating a sense of demoralisation, forcing people to enter a rat race of online activities that help them upgrade, adapt and emerge a winner, as motivational literature would put it.

This is not special for Covid times. Staying away from the attention economy is scandalous today. When this reviewer decided to quit Facebook a few years ago, a lot of people called it career hara-kiri. The reasoning behind most of the advice received resonated with what American author Annie Dillard once said: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” But in this case, what mattered was how we spend our days online. Attention is unavoidable. Doing nothing (online) is impossible for existential reasons. But my experience so far suggests that I have not missed much by abstaining from Facebook (I still keep a limited presence on Instagram and Twitter) and privacy controversies that dogged Facebook in the recent years, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, reaffirmed the harm attention capitalism could incur on people’s lives.

Odell’s doing a Russell. She is not an academic and, hence, her prose is bereft of the phrasal complexity that similar books usually warrant. Most of her ideas about staying away from the chaos of the online world and finding meaning in the immediate physical worlds that surround us were formed over years of teaching studio art and arguing its importance to design and engineering majors at Stanford. It’s interesting to know this wasn’t the result of an academic exercise. The book has six lucidly written chapters and a conclusion. The names of the chapters are as intriguing as their content is: The Case for Nothing; The Impossibility of Retreat’; Anatomy of a Refusal; Exercises in Attention; Ecology of Strangers; Restoring the Grounds for Thought; and the conclusion: Manifest Dismantling.

Philosophically rich and peppered with anecdotes, cute case stories, insightful observations and cross-references to brilliant works in art, philosophy, sociology and economics, Jenna Odell’s book is an essential read for the pandemic times, where the online has executed a hostile takeover on the offline. This is our survival kit.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Jenny Odell is an artist and writer. She teaches at Stanford and has been an artist-in-residence at Facebook, the Internet Archive,and the San Francisco Planning Department.

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Published on June 22, 2020
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