Nothing Doing

Michael Hayward

Recently a friend, feeling over-scheduled and overbooked, remarked how nice it would be to do absolutely nothing. But according to Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House), doing nothing is harder than you’d think; in fact (Odell believes), thanks to the distractions and demands of today’s digital technologies, “nothing is harder to do than nothing.” Nowadays “our value is determined by our productivity,” and the world is dominated by the “attention economy,” which assigns value to our attention. All the major platforms: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google, monitor the content we interact with—the videos we watch, the links we click on, the posts or photographs we “like”—and monetize this personal information, selling targeted ads based on our interests. As a side effect of our participation in this “attention economy,” we gradually come to consider idleness—doing nothing—as a form of economic waste. The first part of How to Do Nothing, which began as an essay written in the aftermath of the 216 US election, is galvanizing. In it Odell identifies her most serious grievances with the attention economy, namely “its reliance on fear and anxiety, and its concomitant logic that ‘disruption’ is more productive than the work of maintenance—of keeping ourselves and others alive and well.” In the faint hope of avoiding a repeat of the 216 US election, I can’t help wishing that Odell was encouraging her readers to do something in 22, instead of nothing.

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