BROOKE GLADSTONE I've just read a new book with what to some may seem an objectionable title, How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. It's by artist and writer Jenny Odell. She questions the wisdom of staying plugged in. She notes that we've all signed on to a project in which the external conflict that consumes our lives the very words that define it have been determined by other people. People seeking nothing more from us, and nothing less, than our attention, our time–the most precious thing we have. But Odell says certain kinds of thoughts requires certain kinds of places. We have to walk away to find them and do something that looks like, but really isn't, nothing.
JENNY ODELL I really mean nothing from the point of view of a very narrow sense of what we would consider something productive. Not only it doesn't seem like we're all working more but even when we don't think we're working. We're producing something like representations of our vacations or constantly checking back on things like Instagram and Twitter always needing to have something to show for your time. Just the decision not to do those things all the time appears strangely radical and so doing nothing really means doing something else that's closer to maybe observation or curiosity and doesn't necessarily have results that you can point to at the end of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What makes your argument different from the one about information overload that has been made ever since the creation of the Internet?
JENNY ODELL I really lean pretty hard on metaphors from ecology. Ecology In general, especially my local ecology, not only provides me with some sort of grounding that feels very different from the kind of placelessness of my online experience, but looking at any ecological community is a lesson in how there may be things or entities or individuals but they're so intricately bound up with other beings and other systems that it almost becomes hard to draw a hard line around anything. I mean if you think about like the experience of reading a headline, especially a click bait headline, and having a knee jerk reaction to it you think you have a grasp of something and you think you know what the hard outlines are of that thing. When you look at something in an ecological system you have to acknowledge that everything is influencing other things in real time in a way that is maybe unpredictable or at least kind of hard to pin down. That provides a really really crucial lesson for the importance of context and context is something that I see being lost very quickly online where you have like bits of information spreading very quickly out of context. And then that impulse to seek context becomes difficult to cultivate when everything is moving so quickly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in your book you really do go beyond, as you say, informational context online to an ecological context. You talked about atmospheric rivers.
JENNY ODELL Yeah. That was a really big moment for me in terms of thinking about wider and wider contexts. I had seen in a newspaper headline about an atmospheric river that was going to be arriving from the Philippines and I'm half Filipino. I've never been there but it just kind of struck me that I had never thought about where the rain here comes from. And an atmospheric river is basically, it's what it sounds like. It looks almost like a river when you look at radar images. So there was this kind of direct almost like transmission of water from the Philippines to the Bay Area. So I collected some of that water in a jar and actually still have it on my desk just as a kind of reminder, right? You know when you look at clouds they came from somewhere else, that everything is kind of constantly moving and being influenced.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If we spend too much time on the internet, we become sort of placeless. I mean, obviously it's such a cliche. People walking down the street looking at their phones. People at dinner looking at their phones and so on and so on. You took a bird watching and then you discovered that as you grew to identify the birds you started to identify the way they sound. Then you knew about the trees they spent a lot of time in. How the impact of the birds on the trees affected other organisms and this all sounds very touchy feel-y but the fact is it does have an impact. You're arguing it doesn't just make your life better. It improves the quality of your engagement on the political level.
JENNY ODELL Any place has not only any ecology but a history. And I have been very humbled by how much I have learned about those two things relatively recently, especially given that I have lived around the bay area my entire life. So I think that humility is also something you can learn, right? This acknowledgement that there is always more for you to learn. That you will be surprised that someone will tell you something that you don't know. You might change your mind about something. These are all things that to me feel very different than, for instance, having like a personal brand on Twitter where you're kind of not allowed to change your mind and you have this very monolithic and stable personality. Spending time thinking about any kind of context is really helpful for having more complex and nuanced conversations or even thought processes about something that might seem more cut and dried without looking at it more closely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So Charlie Warzel wrote in The New York Times online this week about the women's U.S. soccer teams striking victory over Donald Trump. He described how Trump's ability to hijack platforms and turn unrelated discussions into fights about him has scrambled the brains of his political opponents because the traditional approach is fact checking, for instance, require lending some portion of your platform and attention to the hijacker. Meeting the president on his own terms. But the women's team refused to do that. The team was occupying what you called a third space, neither submitting to a demand for attention nor blindly refusing it but just negating the terms of Trump's demand altogether.
JENNY ODELL Yeah. I think that's a really good example of this kind of phenomenon in which, you know, if you ask someone a question, you're already framing possible answers. Especially, I think, of something is asked in an aggressive way it can sort of bring up this fight or flight response in someone where they're already just thinking about like, 'OK what's my answer,' instead of this larger question of like, 'do I need to answer this question or can I answer a different question.'.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kind of like do you prefer chocolate or vanilla? Isn't the weather nice today is your response.
JENNY ODELL Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I started to really understand what you meant by the third space, not answering the question in their terms or answering a different question. When you pulled in Bartleby the Scrivener, which is the title character in Herman Melville's famous short story, to illustrate the third space. The narrator in that story is a comfortable well intended Wall Street lawyer in the 19th century who hires a copyist named Bartleby who performs his duties well enough until he's asked to check his own writing against an original.
MAN Bartleby, come here please. I have some copy to examine.
BARTLEBY I would prefer not to.
MAN Bartleby, did you misunderstand me? I haven't copied a check against the original. Come in here and help me.
BARTLEBY I would prefer not to. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From that point on, he continues to give the same answer to pretty much any question.
MAN Well you tell me Bartleby where you were born?
BARTLEBY I would prefer not to.
MAN Have you any relatives living? Would you tell me anything about yourself?
BARTLEBY I would prefer not to. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Will you do some work? In fact, he stopped working. He stops moving. And in frustration, finally the lawyer moves his offices and the next tenants have Bartleby sent to jail–where he apparently prefers not to eat and he dies. How does Bartleby inform your argument?
JENNY ODELL I prefer not to is just linguistically so interesting because it's not answering the question at all. He's not complying because he's not doing the work. He's also not saying no. The narrator says, 'I wished that he would just do combat with me on the same plane get angry or say like no I will not do that.' But it's it's not even no I will not do that. It's, 'I prefer not to.' I prefer not to what? Answer the question? Do the work? The actual story of what happens is very sad but the way it's written, I mean, I found myself laughing out loud because he have this person who just expects everyone to do everything that he asks. And then in the midst of everyone trying to be very productive, you have this person that just saying I would prefer not to. I will not only not do the thing that you're asking me to, I will not even answer your question. Like I will just kind of stand over here to the side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Inspiring, but hopefully not too inspiring, right? I mean it's a form of critical refusal but give me a productive example from real life. Give me the story of the San Francisco general strike of 1934.
JENNY ODELL So yeah I wrote about the general strike, which started as a longshoreman strike. Initially before the longshoremen were unionized, they would show up for work and you might get hired, you might not get hired. You might have a shift that's two hours. You may have a ship that's 30 hours–at the whims of the shipping economy and these gang bosses who were doing the hiring. So there was not a lot of opportunity to kind of reach out and, you know, make these networks of support. Because if--if you didn't accept those conditions than someone else would. They were kind of individually pitted against each other. And so there was a law that was passed in 1933 that allowed them to unionize in a new way that was actually kind of a genuine union that created this base that was very democratic and racially inclusive. The representatives were actual dock workers not salaried union officials. While these unproductive negotiations were going on, this rank and file group was, in a very disciplined and democratic way, making arrangements for this strike.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How was this, 'I prefer not to?'.
JENNY ODELL Because up until this law was passed, some of them were part of company run unions and so the negotiations were happening between these like salaried union officials and their employers–and it was just kind of this quagmire. In relationship to that, I see this rank and file organization that was happening as a kind of, 'I would prefer not to,' move. And like, 'ok, this situation over here is totally unproductive. Let's refuse the terms of this question altogether and just stop working.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you describe the longshoremen in that period, and in the period just prior, you drew what appears to be the kind of obvious parallel with the gig economy today. Where the rules of engagement are pitting one person against another in competition for a job when they ought to be allies. You suggest that this is perhaps another arena in which many people might prefer not to.
JENNY ODELL Right. But I think I also acknowledge that being able to afford to refuse is a really important variable and I think it's very telling that the strike happened after that legislation was passed allowing them to unionize in that way. And then, you know, not that long afterwards there was more legislation that made it harder for unions to coordinate in a strike. So you become less able to refuse and then the situation kind of continues to get worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you think people who can afford to refuse ought to.
JENNY ODELL Yes that's definitely a responsibility that I feel with the fact that I don't live a life where I am constantly trying to figure out the math of doing three different jobs and surviving. I would not ask someone in that situation to prefer not to. But I have some time and I have some attention that I can give to that project.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There is this tension between what makes us feel better and what makes the world better. And there was a big section of your book–I mean, you've taught art, you're an artist yourself–and you talked about the kinds of art that are so minimal. The non musical work of John Cage where you're basically listening to the sounds in the room. The panels of Ellsworth Kelly with the single colors. But if you stare in front of it long enough, it vibrates and becomes more and more fascinating. The sounds in the room where the orchestra is not performing in accordance with Cage's piece enables you to hear sounds more when you leave the hall. Do those things that enable you to engage more fully with the natural sounds and sights of the world make you a better citizen?
JENNY ODELL I think they do. Artists spend a lot of time thinking about attention. They spend a lot of time thinking about how to direct a viewer's attention. Oftentimes to recreate for the viewer or listener the original experience of discovery and attention that the artist had where the piece teaches you how to notice more–or to notice something different that could potentially change someone's life. My life was changed by that John Cage piece because I realized that I hadn't really properly listened to non musical sounds for my entire life. After seeing this very strange John Cage performance at the symphony, which utilized things like a blender and shuffling cards and very strange vocalizations, I walked outside and I heard the bus, the cars, footsteps on the sidewalk. Of course, I had heard those things before but I had not consciously heard them. I think the same thing has happened to me with birdwatching, where of course I've pointed my eyes at these animals before but I didn't see a goldfinch or a Junco. What I'm seeing is actually very different. It suggests to me that there are further things that I could discover if I paid more attention. There will always be more and I think that that is related to this agency and seeking context. Because if I acknowledged that what I think I see in front of me is not the whole story then I'm going to have an incentive to seek out more information and also to be more open minded to things that are different from what I thought I knew.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're arguing for a project of reconfiguring how we take in the world. Your book is called How to do Nothing, but it's not really about nothing is it?
JENNY ODELL No. It's not actually about nothing. I think nothing is still a very useful word to use and that we associate it with emptiness. And I think emptiness is a really useful figure right now because it implies that kind of openness seeing without immediately judging. Allowing oneself time and space to let things come in rather than being sort of assaulted by things all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You acknowledge how difficult it is to walk away, to unplug. But you can't notice things until you do and it's when you notice things that you care about them. And when you care about them on that visceral level, you're more likely to return to the world and act in a way that is productive on your own terms?
JENNY ODELL Yeah. The example that sometimes I give is the difference between reading a million horribly depressing articles about climate change. And in Oakland getting familiar with the populations of shorebirds that come to Lake Merritt every winter. If they were to decline in some way that was observable, that feels very different. I have a personal and contextual relationship with that loss--
BROOKE GLADSTONE And more likely to prompt action?
JENNY ODELL Definitely. It provides some sort of traction, right? It's like this problem expressed on a scale that I can understand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But for those among our listeners who talk about impact, will embracing and responding to the argument in your book, will that make the world better than what they're doing now?
JENNY ODELL I don't think so, necessarily. I really consider my book a stepping stone. I think I describe in the beginning as like a rest stop on the way somewhere else. I see it as giving the reader permission to step away long enough to ask higher level questions than you're going to be able to when you're in this endless cycle of anxiety and distraction. I also think that there is a really important role for giving yourself time to mourn the things that are happening. The idea that you would not give yourself any time to process any of that is just sort of ridiculous. If you're trying to have an impact I don't think that you are able to think as deeply without that space about how should you be organizing your attention and your energies and your time. I see my book as addressing this space before you do something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jenny, thank you very much.
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JENNY ODELL Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jenny Odell is author of How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Asthaa Chaturvedi and Xandra Ellin. We had more help from Chloe Nosan. And our show was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week or Sam Bair and Josh Han. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC he's vice president for news. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
UNDERWRITING On The Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.