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Jenny Odell Wants You to Put Down Your Phone and Smell the Roses

The politics of refusal in the age of distraction

September 23, 2019
by Nina Renata Aron

Jenny Odell first started doing nothing in 2016. Despondent over the presidential election results, she took refuge in the Morcom Rose Garden near downtown Oakland.

She sat overlooking the garden’s geometric walkways meditating on the things that felt real to her: the physical environment, the animals (mostly birds) that flocked to the garden, and her relation to them. “It turns out groundedness requires actual ground,” she would later write. The garden came to encompass everything, “the practice of doing nothing, but also the architecture of nothing, the importance of public space, and an ethics of care and maintenance.” You might say that Odell, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2008, became an expert on nothing in that garden. And from all this nothingness something sprang.

The attention economy, Odell argues, has shoehorned our identities into “a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised and appropriated, like units of capital.”

How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, published by Melville House this spring, is the resulting treatise on “the revolutionary potential of taking back our attention.” It would be easy to mistake the book for a millennial lifestyle guide, with its hot-pink-heavy floral-pattern cover that looks like it belongs on the shelves at Urban Outfitters. I expected bulleted lists of ideas for how to “unplug,” but found something far more nuanced—and radical.

“When you put ‘how to’ in your title, but you don’t write a how-to book,” Odell says when we meet for coffee, “there’s a risk that people might get frustrated and throw the book across the room.” She laughs. “I think some people have done that, but the majority of readers have been along for the ride.”

The book is also not really about “doing nothing.” Rather than arguing for sitting on your couch trying not to check the Likes on your latest Instagram post, Odell is pushing an informed politics of refusal, a blueprint for a more intentional life that rejects the capitalist definition of productivity. It’s activism masquerading as self-help. “I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter,” Odell writes, “than I am in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together?”

Take a walk and learn about the history of your neighborhood, she suggests. Notice the continual labor of upkeep, the productive work of “maintenance and care” that sustains life in the place where you live. Take in the faces of fellow passengers on the streetcar, as Odell does, and consider each person “with an entire life—of birth, of childhood, of dreams and disappointments, of a universe of anxieties, hopes, grudges, and regrets.”

We are sitting at Oakland’s Boot and Shoe Service (newly renamed Sister), a restaurant on Grand Avenue where everything is artisanal and meant to evoke the kind of nothing—which is to say the kind of intentionality—that Odell espouses. I arrived, anxious, 15 minutes early and, faced with the choice between playing self-consciously with my phone or making notes in a Moleskine, smugly chose the latter.

I had imagined Odell would cut a more commanding figure, given that she’s been a keynote speaker and taught at Stanford for the last six years. Instead, she looks more like a student. This is the woman who calls herself a “bird lady” on Twitter? She has a gentle, open California manner. But when she answers my questions, her language is precise, even as she’s talking about the freedom—the right—to be nebulous.

Odell is the first to admit that she has the same issues as the rest of us when it comes to screen time. But they have only made her want to try harder to disengage.

The attention economy, Odell argues, has shoehorned our identities into “a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised and appropriated, like units of capital.” The book is a battle hymn for reclaiming our complicated, ever-changing selves: “I am not an avatar, a set of preferences,” Odell writes. “I am lumpy and porous, I’m an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I’m different one day to the next.”

Unlike advocates of the “digital detox,” Odell isn’t concerned only with the loss of individual productivity that tech overuse entails. She is also deeply concerned about the political implications for a society of phone-absorbed personal brand builders. “In a time that demands action,” she writes, “distraction appears to be (at the level of the collective) a life-and-death matter.”

Odell was raised in Cupertino in what seems like a precious, one-child laboratory of love and support. Her mother worked at HP when Odell was young, so she grew up around technology, but her parents offered stimulation in the form of live performances and plenty of time in nature. Odell “grew up always assuming there was something to be looked at in front of me.” When it came to reading or making art, her parents simply let her be for as long as it took until she felt finished. “I would make a really detailed painting—something very detailed on purpose,” Odell tells me, “and they would leave me to that.” The important adults in her life all encouraged her tendency toward deep, patient thinking and close observation. Noticing that she seemed bored, her teachers at Sedgwick Elementary School even let her write her own curriculum. Later, she says she found the same nurturing environment in UC Berkeley’s English Department, which was academically rigorous without being cutthroat.

The kind of ornate, deep-dive thinking Odell does—in her multi-disciplinary visual artwork and her written work—has the pleasing quality of feeling at once old-fashioned and totally of-the-moment. Her recent 6,400-word New York Times Magazine article on the provenance of mysterious Amazon packages delivered to a student’s parents’ house, for example, takes the reader on a dizzying ride down a bizarre Internet rabbit hole, tracing the packages to an evangelical university with questionable origins. The content, with its detailed unpacking of consumer Internet culture, could only come from this moment in time.

But in Odell’s willingness to investigate and to linger, in her attention to minutiae, there is scholarly care of the sort that’s becoming rarer, as it’s increasingly hard to monetize. In the book, it is clear that Odell enjoys doing for the sake of doing, especially when that means dwelling in “ambiguity and inefficiency.” In a “blasted landscape of neoliberal determinism,” she sees these hidden spaces (where it seems nothing is happening, but in fact a lot is happening) as a radical refuge.

How to Do Nothing is not a polemic against the Internet, and Odell is hardly a Luddite. She recognizes that social media has made her work visible and accessible to a broader public. Tumblr in particular was responsible for her exposure as a visual artist—opportunity came early when an important curator discovered her work online. Her artwork reflects a preoccupation with the intersection of analog and digital life: a series of photographic attempts to “re-enact moments on Google Street View,” for example, or collections of satellite imagery that, ripped from their context, look like collage.

She was, however, a late adopter of the iPhone, which afforded her more time to develop a critical view of its function in people’s lives. “By the time I got one [in 2013], I already had thoughts and opinions about it,” she says. The same goes for social media—when Odell finally started using Instagram, she’d been watching others use it for a few years, and was skeptical of its power to connect or fulfill. This hasn’t made her impervious to the addictive nature of Instagram or Twitter. Odell is the first to admit that she has the same issues as the rest of us when it comes to screen time. But they have only made her want to try harder to disengage. A passage in her book argues that our current technology creates “false targets for self-reflection, curiosity, and a desire to belong to a community.” But what if we looked to the non-digital world to serve these needs, as we once did? “Could ‘augmented reality’ simply mean putting your phone down? And what (or who) is that sitting in front of you when you finally do?”

Odell, an avid bird-watcher, can recognize each by their sound and greets them, “‘Hi raven, robin, song sparrow, chickadee, goldfinch, towhee, hawk, nuthatch.’”

As Odell points out, many of the creators of some of the Internet’s most addictive qualities themselves have opted for this more natural “augmented reality,” and are eschewing the technologies they created and foisted on the rest of us. Take for example Justin Rosenstein, the creator of Facebook’s “Like” button who had his assistant set up parental controls on his phone to stop him from downloading apps, or Loren Brichter, the Twitter engineer who created “pull-to-refresh,” who said in a 2017 Guardian interview, “Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things.” Odell writes, “Without personal assistants to commandeer our phones, the rest of us keep on pulling to refresh, while overworked single parents juggling work and sanity find it necessary to stick iPads in their kids’ faces.”

Odell invites us to imagine who we might be outside of the technology we use, and who we might be outside, full stop. How to Do Nothing is thick with description of the physical landscape of Oakland. It is so much a book about this place that I mentally group it with Tommy Orange’s 2018 debut novel There There, which is also largely set in Oakland. Both authors grapple with the enormous changes that gentrification and the tech boom have wrought, but they also demonstrate the inevitability and importance of rootedness in the natural environment, an “insistence on the local and the present,” in Odell’s own words.

Odell is especially interested in what she calls “a model of the self that is ecologically determined, open to influences and surprise.” Her book is devoted to the idea that we should disengage from a tech-dominated understanding of ourselves and our productivity—in order to re-engage in our material world. She draws on the 1970s concept of bioregionalism, which advocates for greater harmony between humans and their natural environment.

Our meeting on Grand Avenue takes place not far from some of the landmarks she describes in her book, like the KFC where she observes night herons. The practice of bird-watching “changed the granularity of my perception,” she writes. Odell, an avid bird-watcher, can recognize each by their sound and greets them, “‘Hi raven, robin, song sparrow, chickadee, goldfinch, towhee, hawk, nuthatch.’”

When I ask whether her practices of doing nothing have reverberated outward into her community, Odell tells me it’s really the other way around. “I just absorbed what was going on around me,” she says. “The book is so indebted to the city, and specific groups of people and venues like [the 13th Street bookstore] E.M. Wolfman.” Her favorite reading took place there. It included a conversation with historian Liam O’Donoghue, who hosts the podcast East Bay Yesterday and who created a Long Lost Oakland map of animals and places that can no longer be found in the area—a map mentioned in the book. All the audience questions at that event were about Oakland. For Odell, these kinds of experiences are reminders that community exists where we make it, in the places where we choose to lift our heads and pay attention. “It’s like a flower growing out of its particular situation here,” she says. “That might sound cheesy, but it’s true.” 

Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor in Oakland. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New Republic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her memoir, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls, will be published in 2020.  

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