HOW TO DO NOTHING: Resisting the Attention Economy. By Jenny Odell. Melville House. 232 pages. $25.99.
In his 18th-century poem "The Tables Turned," William Wordsworth encouraged his readers to look up from their pages and go out into nature: Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife / Come, hear the woodland linnet, / How sweet his music! on my life / There's more of wisdom in it.
Wordsworth worried that people were lost in their heads, disconnected from the great natural community of which they were a part. As a poet, he asked them to put down their books. Even poetry books.
Jenny Odell, author of “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” seems a rightful heir to Wordsworth. In fact, if you changed Wordsworth's "Books!" to "Screens!" you might have a good introduction to her project. Yet Odell is not an 18th-century Romantic, she is a 21st-century artist who teaches at Stanford in the heart of Silicon Valley. As such, she deepens and expands Wordsworth's invitation for those of us who are now enmeshed in the habits and patterns of modern digital life.
Screens surely have become a "dull and endless strife" or at least such a distraction from the world around us that the more virtually connected we become, the more lonely we are.
It might sound as if “How to Do Nothing” is a self-help book for the social media age; don't worry, it isn't. The book is not an invitation to self-help so much as self-awareness, something that Odell argues is threatened by the diminishing attention span our devices have helped create.
She is not opposed to technology, she writes in the introduction, but to "the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic."
Put another way, Odell begins with a critique of the ways we have been encouraged to give away our attention. She wonders what would happen if we took back control of our attention. Instead of letting internet giants and social media platforms decide what we see and when, with an eye toward monetizing our interests through the selling of services and advertisements, what if we decided what we see in the interest of cultivating meaningful lives?
Odell's project begins in the Rose Garden near her home in Oakland, where she watches the birds. Birding stories are threaded throughout the book and hold it together.
Odell tells stories of the night herons she meets, the crows she feeds and the sparrows she watches. The stories ground a larger narrative that includes a great many philosophers of attention, including Diogenes, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Buber, Thomas Merton and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Throughout, Odell asks questions about how to live balanced lives, how to refuse to participate in that which dehumanizes us and diminishes the natural world, how to reconnect with those around us, and how to deepen our practices of contemplation, reflection and action.
Yet the book never feels pedantic. Just as Wordsworth's poems convey an infectious invitation, so do Odell's chapters feel animated with wonder. "I find that I am looking at my phone less these days," she writes. "It's not because I went to an expensive digital detox retreat, or because I deleted any apps from my phone, or anything like that. I stopped looking at my phone because I was looking at something else."
The "something else" that Odell is looking at is the world in all of its strangeness and beauty. In order to see it, however, we need to reclaim space, time and context in a way that only can be done physically. So while Odell doesn't ask us to rid ourselves of our smartphones, she asks us to realize that the world they create is, in many ways, illusory.
If we spend too much time and attention online, we will not only miss the world we are living in, but likely do it irreparable harm. Ultimately, the world we inhabit is our true home and the beings with whom we share it are our true relations. Yet we must look to see. "Eventually," Odell writes, "to behold is to become beholden to."
At its heart, then, “How to Do Nothing” is inviting us to do something; it's something Wordsworth would understand. He concluded his poem: Enough of Science and of Art; / Close up those barren leaves; / Come forth, and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.
Readers of Odell's book will have a hard time picking up their phones after they put it down. They might pick up a birding guide instead and go outside.