When San Diego county issued their “stay at home” order, I thought I might find more time to write, since I wouldn’t be commuting or driving my kids to various activities. I was very wrong about that – all sorts of new activities popped up to fill the time (I have never spent so much time and energy on buying groceries, for instance) and also, my attention span was in tatters. I could barely focus long enough to read a book, let alone try to write a meaningful blog post. I have several drafts that I started and just couldn’t muster the mental power to shape into something publishable.
I did eventually manage to start reading. I also found a new routine for listening to podcasts, which used to be my accompaniment on my commute. I added solo walks in my neighborhood to my daily walks with my kids, and listen while on those solo walks. One of the first podcasts I listened to on a walk was Ezra Klein’s recent interview with Jenny Odell. I had listened to and enjoyed his earlier, pre-pandemic conversation with her and listening to the second interview convinced me that it was time I read her book, How to Do Nothing.
The title of the book is deceiving: It is not, in fact, a book about doing nothing. It is a book about attention, and how our attention has become a commodity in modern social media. Odell is an artist, and one of the most interesting things in the book for me was her description of how certain art experiences changed what she noticed. She does an excellent job of explaining this attention-expansion as a key function of art, and I am a bit ashamed to say that I’d never thought of that aspect of art before. If that was all I took away from the book, it would have been worth the time to read it, because it has changed the way I think about art.
The book has much more to offer, though. Odell does not deliver a prescription for how to live, but she does provide a framework readers can use to try to figure out their own approach to life in an economy that has commoditized our attention, and in many ways our selves.
There are two concepts that I found particularly useful. The first is the idea of “resistance-in-place.” I cannot capture the full meaning of this in a short blog post, but for me it boils down to finding a way to choose a path that feels right to you without throwing up your hands and walking away from all of modern life. Odell explores examples of people walking away, from Epicurus to hippie communes to modern day “digital detox” retreats, and finds them wanting. Instead, she suggests the option of reframing the problem, of hearing a yes-no question and giving a different answer altogether.
Odell’s “third space” is frustratingly hard to pin down. There is no recipe in her book for finding it. But this is perhaps the point: That “third space” is going to look different for each person. What she is advocating for is for us to reclaim our attention from the “attention economy” and focus it on finding our own third space. She gives the example of Herman Melville’s famous short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in which a clerk answers all requests from his employer with the phrase “I would prefer not to.”
I still need to think about this concept and what it means in a life like mine. The work I do as a project manager is focused on productivity, and I suspect Odell would see me as more akin to Bartleby’s employer than Bartleby. But I have always considered it part of my job to make it possible for the people on my projects to have space in their life for more than work – I consider it a personal failure if someone on my project has to work long hours to meet our goals. Beyond that, my focus on productivity has always been about noticing where your time goes, so that you can make sure it is going to the things that matter to you.
The thing in my life that seems most inline with the concept of “resistance in place,” though, is how I decided to use Instagram. I wrote about this earlier, but when I got an Instagram account so that I could figure out the rules for my tween daughter who wanted an account I decided to use it as a tool to help me notice more. I did not manage to keep up the habit of posting one thing I noticed every week, but most of my posts are still of things I notice – primarily flowers, and these days those are primarily seen on walks around my neighborhood. I think I have continued to use Instagram as a tool to help me notice more and not let it become just another place for companies to try to sell me things. Odell’s book gave me a wider framework in which to understand what I am trying to do with that practice. I need to think more about what my personal “third space” would look like, though. It is not just an Instagram feed full of flowers.
The other concept from the book that I find particularly useful is the idea that progress can include maintenance and restoration, not just building new things. She writes about this in terms of a “Manifest Dismantling” of things that have done harm, using the removal of the San Clemente Dam as an example. It is a good example, but I think the idea goes deeper than dismantling harmful things. To me, part of our problem as a culture is that we’re too focused on building new things, and don’t always see the value in preserving and perhaps restoring what we already have. This is problem is rife in my professional world of information management – the projects that build new systems and new databases get all the attention and money, but the work of maintaining what we have is just as important.
On a wider scale, I also notice this problem in the way we replaced vibrant, walkable neighborhoods with malls, and are now trying to restore that “downtown” feeling with mixed success. Too often, we end up with malls masquerading as “town centers” and only succeed in creating a frustratingly inefficient mall experience. I wrote a little bit about this effect in my travel post about our visit to LA in March. I don’t really know how we fix this problem, but I don’t think malls masquerading as small town main streets is the answer.
I think we’ll need to find a balance between preserving the good things we have, restoring good things we’ve lost, and building new good things. I have no idea how we find that balance as a society. Perhaps it starts with more of us trying to find the balance in our own lives. It is in that personal realm that How to Do Nothing most speaks to me. If you’ve been feeling frustrated with social media and modern life in general but don’t think “opting out” is the answer, get a copy of this book and see if it speaks to you, too.