‘Because I’m busy, busy doing nothing
I find I never find the time to rest
Being busy doing nothing
I’m busy doing something
Doing nothing is the something I do best’
– Christopher Robin (2018)
Many of us have been wanting to do nothing for a very long time. Thoreau devoted a whole book on the act of idleness in Walden. The Tao Te Ching asks readers to consider the Confucian concept of wú wèi (无为), a term literally translated to mean ‘without exertion’, and understood more abstractly to refer to an attitude of complete disinterest at typical human affairs – a state of ‘total chill’, if you will. The Italians have captured the delightful joy of doing nothing into a phrase: dolce far niente (sweet idleness), the ability to completely enjoy and savour a moment. Even the psychedelic bros (the drugs, not the music) turned the art of doing nothing into a movement. By suggesting others to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’, head bro Timothy Leary proselytised on the intoxicating effects of LSD and psilocybin; their propensity to bend a person’s notion of time and space resulting in an ego death that swirls within a vortex of chemically-induced wú wèi.
Or at least that’s been my own perception of these stimulants, one of the very few life hacks that allow me to unselfconsciously sit still and stare into space. It’s where I can trigger the feeling of being completely calm in my body, without the guilt and confusion of deliberate idleness gnawing at me. Other activities include reading, cooking, and people-watching at the pub – but these can almost too easily dissolve into a farce. When am I reading for reading’s sake (not because I think it’s somehow going to contribute to my writing career)? When am I cooking so I can take that perfect food photo that will augment my social media profile? And how long can I sit by myself without any visible distractions, before someone starts thinking I’m looking to pick up?
There are hours in which I self-impose a small degree of ‘no screen time’, ostensibly to concentrate on the screen of reality around me. I stash my phone in a sock drawer on days off and try to forget about its existence altogether. I sit ramrod straight on public transport, phone deep in my pocket, staring out the window or ahead. When the limit is as much as I can bear, I frantically relocate the dastardly device: have I missed out on a job? What are other people doing? Is it time to finally switch off and level up on Clash of Clans? What new things have I missed?
In a time where more and more things demand our attention, the inverse inevitably occurs. As such, ‘digital detoxing’ has become an industry in itself – sociologists like Sherry Turkle have warned us about the pitfalls of technology affecting human interaction from as far back as 1995, generating platitudes such as ‘we’d rather text than talk.’ Self-help material with tips on how to ‘log off’ abound: How To Stay Connected After Disconnecting, How To Break Up With Your Phone, The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept With Her iPhone) Pulled The Plug on Technology and Lived to Tell The Tale. In 2013, Randi Zuckerberg (yes, Mark’s sister) published Dot, a children’s book about a young girl who discovers the joys of playing outside when her mother takes away her devices.
In a time where more and more things demand our attention, the inverse inevitably occurs – ‘digital detoxing’ has become an industry in itself.
More recently last year, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook crowed about monitoring and ‘slashing’ his own iPhone usage with Apple’s new Screen Time feature. If quantifying the time you look at your phone with Screen Time doesn’t suffice, you can choose to meditate with an app called Calm – which I only know about through ads on Words With Friends and Instagram. Its ad copy reads: ‘Stop scrolling. Take a breath. Rest here.’
Multi-disciplinary artist and writer Jenny Odell wants to set herself apart from all this, with her new book How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy (Melville House, forthcoming from Black Inc. in November). Originally a keynote presentation, then a Medium essay, the book is a 200-page treatise on holistically moving away from our devices, and the many ways they have allowed needless distractions and busywork to creep into our extremely networked lives. Despite its title, Odell is adamant that this isn’t a self-help book. Instead, it’s an imaginative, critical text that attempts to question why society views productivity the way it does now, and how we can constructively disengage from the habits that this mentality enforces in order to more mindfully re-engage with it.
Odell argues for a ‘placefulness’ that ‘yields sensitivity and responsibility to the historical (what happened here) and the ecological (who and what lives, or lived, here)’, purporting that ‘capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness and an abusive stance towards the environment all co-produce one another’. This is inexorably linked to the notion of productivity and sociality that are becoming enmeshed with how people use technology, in the sense that our ‘connectivity’ is directly proportional to the profits that Facebook and Google end up generating. After all, when tied to devices that many now say we can’t live without, and ‘when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock’, it’s easy to find ourselves working 24/7.
How To Do Nothing makes a point of emphasising that this isn’t about boycotting smartphones or permanently logging off. Referencing historical examples of individuals who tried to break away from the mainstream by retreating from the greater public or by starting remote, ostensibly self-sufficient communes, Odell recognises that complete abstinence comes from a place of privilege. After all, how much wealth do you have to have before you feel as if you can quit your job and start a permaculture retreat somewhere in the sticks? Similarly, how much social clout do you have to have before you can decide to quit social media and the internet altogether? Citing the work of Laura Portwood-Stacer who interviewed people who quit Facebook, she files the act under ‘conspicuous consumption’ – an individualistic undertaking which has no impact on those still participating within the platform; like deciding to go ‘off the grid’, you simply disappear and the world continues to function without you. Basically, dropping out doesn’t fuck the system as much as the person doing it thinks it does – in fact, sometimes it even has the opposite effect, creating a microcosm that reinforces the systems that people claim to oppose, like in the case of the Drop City and Bryn Athyn hippie communes, which Odell refers to.
How To Do Nothing isn’t about boycotting smartphones or permanently logging off…Dropping out doesn’t fuck the system as much as the person doing it thinks it does.
With more and more people in the world able to access technology, how many can or want to quit altogether? Already, it has been shown that the new digital divide is no longer about who has access to a computer or a smartphone, but is skewing towards who is more informed about algorithms versus those who are not. Like telling someone you grew up in a house with no TV or that you only eat organic food, opting out can all too easily become a class position, an act that insinuates that you can afford to do something that others cannot. As Odell asserts: ‘a real refusal refuses the terms of the question itself.’ This is particularly poignant in an age of the late-capitalist ‘hustle’ within the gig economy – as technology becomes more and more intertwined with our day-to-day lives, a person’s livelihood can be increasingly dependent on digital connections and being tethered to devices. Inside the attention economy, a lifeline can be a click away.
In my life, I’ve often struggled with the idea of productivity. My deep roots within the punk subculture meant that I was introduced to theories against capitalism at an early age, and with that naturally came socialism. These concepts, such as Paul Lafargue’s ‘right to be lazy’ and the Situationists’ thoughts on work and leisure (‘leisure is working’), try to prod at ‘laziness’ as an inherently capitalistic construct, much like Marx’s belief in the transformativeness of free time away from labour time.
But within the current model of western late-stage capitalism, the prospect of idling feels more and more distant the less privileged you are. The Situationists may have iconified ‘I didn’t go to work today…I don’t think I’ll go to work tomorrow’, but it’s impossible to consider that unless I have financial safety nets. As economic inequality increases, and as it seems like people are fighting tooth and nail over crumbs, how can we visualise a future where we don’t turn to the attention economy as an easy form of distraction and/or as a potential of opportunity? What does boredom look like alongside our extremely online lives?
In Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, Patricia Meyer Spacks observed that ‘many people will deny their own boredom, but they’ll often attribute it to others’, if only to appear more interesting or to have more of an inner life. Boredom, Spacks writes, ‘almost always suggests disruptions of desire, the inability to desire or have desire fulfilled.’ When ‘doing something’ becomes progressively fetishised in many societies, the attention economy ends up becoming inextricable from the face of boredom: am I really bored if I’m distracting myself with social media while waiting in line or getting ready for bed?
Like the films Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, which focus on intentional, slow-motion shots of landscapes laid over evocative music and zero dialogue, or the langourous, aimless performance art of artists such as Tehching Hsieh, How To Do Nothing hopes to unsettle how society thinks about ‘outcomes’ amid capitalism. Odell wants us to consider this: ‘why is it that the modern idea of productivity is so often a frame for what is actually the destruction of the natural productivity of an ecosystem?’ Even if it seems incredibly idealistic to re-imagine alternatives to the current system as it increases its vice-like grip over many aspects of our day-to-day, allowing yourself little pockets of time to enjoy boredom feels to be the most realistic option. I want to allow myself to float somewhere without getting carried away into the spiral of production.
Even as Odell’s writing sometimes screams ‘tech hippie’ (perhaps by way of her Bay Area roots), her multidisciplinary background shines through in the text: she situates a 1991 John Cleese lecture on creativity alongside Gilles Deleuze’s ‘right to say nothing’, the story of ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, dystopian TV show Westworld, and the slow, agitative art of Pilvi Takala, among others. The art that she makes also frequently deals with seemingly disparate themes, put together painstakingly or presented in a deliberately simplistic fashion – the kind of work that at first glance looks to be either nonsensical or childish, but actually contains multiple layers of meaning. For example, her ongoing digital print series All The People From Google Earth, modifies screenshots of crowds taken via satellite imagery, removing everything but the people in it – a comment on both surveillance culture and the non-performative selves that come out of being captured unawares.
Despair, Odell writes, is ‘the very stuff the attention economy runs on’, at the same time as it ‘offers a useful attitude’ towards treating it.
There are moments in How To Do Nothing that remind me of social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson’s ‘digital dualism’, a concept he coined in 2011 to describe the divide between ‘real life’ and ‘online life’. It’s a distinction he contends as needless, especially as society moves away from an early internet made up of anonymous message boards to the one we have today, where many parts of ourselves are displayed clearly in service to our digital avatars. When Odell implores readers to consider the crumbling ‘actual’ world over our constructed digital realms, or suggests that we talk more to our neighbours instead of our Twitter followers, it made me think of times where I or others have wielded the attention economy to our advantage and didn’t necessarily suffer for it.
New generations of people have made use of the mechanisms that underpin the attention economy and turned it in their favour: organising massive protests, crowdfunding money for dire situations, and signal-boosting important information. Many platforms have tried to exist within the status quo, only to manipulate and disrupt it, such as Riseup, a volunteer-run email platform, knowledge-centric subreddits such as r/AskHistorians, and radical mental health forums like The Icarus Project. To her credit, Odell doesn’t skim over these possibilities either: she brings up open-source social networks like Mastodon (touted as a Twitter alternative) and Patchwork, which rely on decentralised, open-source servers that make it impossible for these platforms to go bankrupt or be censored by the state. These networks are used very much like Twitter and Facebook, except that they focus less on metrics, and more on the sharing of information and fostering personal connection.
But as much as these initiatives are useful, there’s also no denying the paradox that the attention economy tries to fix despair and also breeds it, an ouroboros that inadvertently ends up eating its own tail. Despair, Odell writes, is ‘the very stuff the attention economy runs on’, at the same time as it ‘offers a useful attitude’ towards treating it. My engagement with the attention economy can be as mindless as it can be thoughtful, but ultimately there are times I feel as if I’m being pulled along by an almost dissociative sense of inertia. As a result, the question is not so much about whether or not we should participate, but rather how we do so. Like Odell writes, ‘it helps me distinguish what it is I really feel like running away from.’