Thursday, June 4, 2020

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

While reading this book, I kept thinking about this article I read once while crammed onto the packed and sweaty train. In one of many social media influencer scandals, a raw vegan lifestyle influencer was coming under fire because she was caught eating a meat dish while out at a restaurant with friends. Needless to say, it was the internet and people were MAD. And yes, you might say that she had every right to eat that meat-- it is her life. But when you are manufacturing your entire brand around the idea that eating meat is bad, and raw vegan is better, the message starts to ring a little false if you don't walk the walk (or veg the veg). You know what they say-- talk is cheap. Her life was her brand and she went off-brand, and people felt duped.

Jenny Odell doesn't do anything so deceptive in her book, HOW TO DO NOTHING, but the message rings similarly false for a wide variety of reasons. It isn't that I don't believe she isn't living her brand: it's that her brand comes at a cost that is really not affordable for a very large number of people.

First, a caveat: on Goodreads this is shelved as self-help and psychology-- it is neither. This is a philosophical treatise on how the author feels that we can live in a better world by disengaging from the attention economy and finding authentic, meaningful things to focus on instead of spending all our time on social media (more on that to come). It reads a lot like the lifestyle influencer's hot take on THE SUBTLE ART OF NOT GIVING A F*CK, another book that cherry picked its way into an argument and really annoyed me. (Maybe I just shouldn't be reading philosophy self-helps.)

✨ The author is an artist and an art teacher at Stanford (which she will mention several times). One of the things she suggests focusing on instead of social media is art (as well as nature). There are many passages where she waxes on the transformative nature of art and the many museums she's had the pleasure of exploring in the Bay Area. There is a sort of intellectual snobbery placed here in the subtext: things like social media are reduced to "shouting into the void," and one can't help but feel like one is down in the stands while the author sneers from her the sky box in her high tower. "Oh the rabble!" one can't help but feel she is projecting with this mindset, "Mired in their Facebooks and their Pinterests like the opiates of the masses!" as she waters an artisinal fern. Art and nature are wonderful, but those are things that are not readily consumed by all, and often require privilege to access, and I think it's offensive to deduce that there are no meaningful conversations or discoveries occurring on the internet, where discourse and art are shared freely. Plus, not everyone is going to get something out of nature and art, and they will not enjoy it to the same degree. The internet offers many opportunities to those who might otherwise have none, and even though social media is by no means a perfect democracy, it has helped democratize information and resources, and help others be seen who might not otherwise have been seen.

The author is a proponent of bioregionalism, which I had to look up and is apparently, according to the Oxford dictionary, "belief that human activity should be largely restricted to distinct ecological and geographical regions." Which again, smacks of privilege because this is coming from someone who lives in the Bay Area and freely consumes the fresh produce, natural parks, abundant artworks, and cultural diversity that thrives here. But what if you live somewhere where there's a food desert in a low-income region of a big city where getting fresh food, let alone local food, might be difficult or even impossible? What if you live in a climate with frequent poor weather conditions, or where resources to better oneself are few? Bioregionalism only really works in regions that thrive already: regions, in other words, with privilege. 

✨ The author seems to place a very high premium on authenticity and unique experiences (hence the nature and art). She frowns on algorithms for being too comfortable and for preventing those outlier experiences that may prove to be transformative (the example here is that Spotify gives her a "chill" mix, but she finds enjoyable songs from other genres on the radio). She bemoans how Burning Man has essentially become a glamping corporate retreat, and yearns for those rustic days of illicit bonfires and bare bones exchanges of gifts and resources. But this too is a sort of privilege; it implies that one has the time and resources to risk a purchase or experience that isn't familiar, comfortable, or safe. Not everyone can afford such a luxury, and while algorithms have their problems-- I'm thinking of that article that showed how watching right-wing videos on YouTube gradually takes you down a rabbit hole of extremism that results in racist, fascist rhetoric-- they are not completely evil. I actually found this author's book through Goodreads's recommendation algorithm: it was suggested reading for Marie Kondo's Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which is hilarious, because that is another book that also fails to check its own privilege, and probably appeals to the same demographic as this one.

✨ To her credit, the author does make a last-ditch effort in the conclusion to say that she understands that nature and art are not readily accessible everywhere, and that one should not finish this book leaving with just one conclusion. So it's clear she does have some degree of self-awareness when it comes to the accessibility of her message. But when the entire book is built on condemning everything that makes social media easy and addictive, and building up luxuries as necessities, it's hard to swallow that message and not grimace. At the end of the day, social media is like medicine or a tool: something that can be abused and become dangerous in the wrong hands, but that serves a purpose and is essential for carrying out certain functions or making things run well. I recently received a digital detox workbook which I ended up discarding because I found it too frustrating. With the work that I do, I can't afford to just step away from email for the day.

With Black Lives Matter happening right now, there's been a lot of controversy about creators, influencers, and social media presences who have chosen to step away from social media rather than get involved. And I get that refusing to get involved in protests against civil rights violations is a VERY different matter from turning off Spotify or not using email for the day, but both scenarios carry with the the same basic fundamental elements of privilege: the only people who can afford to step away from the conversations are the people who already know that they won't be negatively impacted by the outcome. Black individuals can't step away from the Black Lives Matter movement. They don't get to block and curate their way to a "safe space" where the unpleasant discourse goes away: Black Lives Matter is their reality, their conversation, and it's one that they are fighting to change. Similarly, people who don't have land lines, or who might not live near a library, and rely on Facebook and the web for their important day to day communications and essential information can't afford to "go dark" for their own mental health, and the transformative experiences that await them in the wilderness or the financial or artisinal districts of their nearest cities might be too far to drive to. Those living in rural or low-income places, devoid of natural or physical resources, can't step away from the conversation that keeps everything running.

There's a chart in psychology called Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that basically states that you can't really focus on self-actualization until all of your basic needs are met. This book would have you skip right to the top, and while it's nice if you're at that point and things are working so well for you, a lot of people aren't at that place and some of them never will be. HOW TO DO NOTHING is a book that only appeals to a very niche demographic, and it appeals to a demographic with a very specific range of hobbies and interests which might not be shared by all. I found it incredibly frustrating and irritating by turns, and only finished out of a sense of stunned awe. I'm sure this author is not advocating a total cessation of social media, and maybe if she had framed her points better, and focused on points that were more relatable, this would have been a much better book. But in the beginning, she issues a caveat essentially saying that this book wouldn't be linear and doesn't take you to any specific conclusion, and that she changes her mind several times (paraphrased). Which, okay. That sounds like a cop out to me, and if you're not sure what the message is of the conversation that you'd rather we'd have instead, why should we bother to listen?

Of course, this is my reading of this book and your own opinion may vary drastically from mine. I write this as someone who loves art and culture, eats locally, and tries to enjoy nature whenever she can, but also as someone who understands that it is my privilege that enables me to enjoy these things. I also write this as a blogger and creator who heavily relies on social media to do my work and has perfected the art of "shouting into the void" to achieve meaningful discourse. I can see why HOW TO DO NOTHING appeals to so many, but I also completely sympathize with every negative review where the writer found the book too pretentious or too privileged to relate to.

For many, it will be.

1 out of 5 stars

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