I’ve just finished an excellent book and really wanted to write about it but wasn’t sure how or where—yes, review it, I suppose, but more just share my thoughts about it with friends and acquaintances, because it’s something that has been on my mind for a long time. Years even. And then I thought: Aha! What about my website and its badly neglected blog? So here we are.
How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell is an analysis, of sorts, of our internet culture, which is all-pervasive and practically inescapable.
There were many reasons this book appealed to me before I’d even read it. Well, to be honest, just one reason. I struggle with the attention economy. I want to be involved—I love the fast paced environment, the connection with so many people, the often brilliant humour of the internet. And I love chatting with people and enjoying what they post, and of course, I enjoy that they respond to the things I post. It’s a good feeling to be validated. It makes me feel important and worthwhile and part of something bigger.
I know it’s not a great environment. It can be toxic and cruel and dismissive. I know that sometimes I’m scrolling through posts because I am bored or tired, not because I’m really looking for connection. I know I catch myself wondering why certain posts of mine don’t get very many ‘likes’ or comments, even though the rational side of me realises that that’s not an indictment on me, or even on what I posted. I know that the more time I spend online, the more likely I am to feel lonely and disengaged with the people around me: my family, my friends, even my pets or my garden. When I realise this is happening, I make a concerted effort to reconnect with those around me, because I know from experience that this is what I need. When I’m spending too much time online and it is sapping my joy and feeding my anxiety, the antidote is deeper, more personal (and in person) relationships, whether that’s with people or with nature. All of a sudden my world is less chaotic and loud. I can breathe again. Thank goodness.
Odell also acknowledges that it’s a connection with the natural world which helps her feel balanced. She became an avid bird watcher and started to appreciate the birds’ relationships with each other and with nature. She was also able to then see past the urban environment so many of us live in, to the contours of the land, to the way the seasons change and how geographical difference affect the plants and animals (and us too!) in those climates.
Compare this, then, to the frenetic pace of the internet. Odell describes the way our attention spans have shortened, and the way we become overwhelmed with information in our social media feeds by giving examples of her Twitter feed one morning. She lists the tweets which range from links to political articles, to birthday greetings, to photos of wildfires, to someone selling tshirts.
She writes that we need spatial and temporal context for the information we receive and that ‘the bits of information we’re assailed with on Facebook and Twitter feeds are missing both of these kinds of contexts. Scrolling through the feed, I can’t help but wonder: What am I supposed to think of all this? How am I supposed to think of all this?’ (p 159).
I wonder that too. I remember one day experiencing that emotional whiplash one seems to only get on social media after giggling aloud at a funny video in one post, only to well up with tears reading the next about a young father who’d recently lost his son to cancer.
How am I supposed to think of all this?
The answer, some might argue, is to leave the platforms altogether, and there have definitely been times when I’ve done just that: thrown my hands up and logged out, tired of the constant everything. But the truth is, I miss it.
Odell doesn’t believe that it’s necessary or even advisable to disengage from social media completely, rather she argues for a reassessment of our relationship with it. In the last six months, it could be argued that social media has done something to save us, allowing individuals and groups to share important messages, as well as art and music and images which have helped us to feel less alone. But as Odell points out, it’s imperative we understand that the lasting relationships must surely be ones we foster through more intimate contact. That doesn’t always have to be face to face, but it does need to be more meaningful than simply scrolling and ‘liking’—or on the other hand, allowing ourselves to be embroiled in the outrage which is the speciality of social media.
Odell also suggests it’s important to understand that social media has a role to play in connecting people, but that that role is limited. While the book was published in 2017 and so before the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Odell still gives examples of how people have used social media to increase awareness of issues. But that for the movement to gain real momentum—real world momentum—it had to make the leap from the virtual space to a personal one. A hashtag might get picked up and boosted, but it’s people meeting people which have resulted in the cognitive shift to put institutional racism, inequality and injustice into the mainstream focus.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to the same conclusions as Odell in terms of finding solace and quiet in the natural world that I really enjoyed this book. The subtitle ‘resisting the attention economy’ is something she comes back to as well, arguing that our attention is something that social media companies are vying for, precisely because they understand how valuable it is. It’s something we need to begin valuing too. How much are we giving away, in return for empty platitudes… not to mention that our attention (and our information) is being monetised and sold for profit. While I don’t believe that something must be worth money to be valuable, perhaps if we were to think about how much money they’re making from our desire to connect with other human beings, we might think twice about how much of our attention we’re willingly giving away to them.
Several events this year have reinforced the precarity of life. None of us has unlimited time, and in the scheme of things, life is short. It’s up to us to consider how we’re spending our attention, to invest time and energy in fewer relationships, rather than chasing elusive and fleeting popularity, as tempting as that may be. Given the way that our online presence is monitored, I find the idea of resisting attractively subversive! Wresting control of my time and my attention to immerse myself in people I love and the world around me? Count me in.