How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

“Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute is captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.”

Those are the first lines of How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. I’m Quinn Rose, and this is Recently Read.

You may think that producing a podcast episode about a book that is all about escaping the attention economy is too ironic for your tastes, and I understand—but it’s an irony that we can’t escape. I picked up How To Do Nothing because I saw people talking about it on Twitter. I read it on the subway with my AirPods still in my ears, ready to switch to a podcast as soon as I reached my destination and needed to walk instead of read. Chapter 2 is literally called “The Impossibility of Retreat,” about the various ways that opting out entirely is not feasible for the vast majority of the population.

I will remain brief here, however, so we can all move onto something that inspires slightly less cognitive dissonance. If you’re not familiar with the term “the attention economy,” it refers to today’s world full of social media, advertisements, and other structures that monetize our attention. Our time and minds have always been our most valuable resources, but now they are being quantified and siphoned away at a dizzying pace.

I expected this book to mostly be about social media and perhaps to present a few strategies for breaking smartphone addiction. Instead, I discovered a complex narrative about modern society, physical space... birds. It’s all intricately woven with social science research, historical events, and personal anecdotes. The ultimate message was not the typical “put down your phone” public service announcement that’s around every corner. Odell doesn’t suggest that deactivating your Facebook account will restore you to perfect productivity. Instead, she investigates the very idea of productivity and the way we interact with each other and the environment around us. In the attention economy, as with nearly every modern issue, there are ways to improve your personal experiences within a system and there are ways to fight against that system to make things a little better for everyone. Odell reaches right into both and produces a sharp book that is vitally important—maybe not necessarily vitally important for everyone, but since you’re listening to a podcast right now, I’m guessing it is for you.

I’m Quinn Rose, and this has been Recently Read.