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Allan Lasser


The cover of the book How to Do Nothing

How to Do Nothing

Resisting the Attention Economy

Jenny Odell

Melville House
Aug 11, 2020

Notes & Highlights

  • the “nothing” that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity

    A helpful clarification from the start

    pg. xi
  • I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression-including the right not to express oneself and its deliberately addictive features. But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.

    The medium is the message. Applying media theory to understand what kinds of expression are possible—and which aren’t—in the context of commercial social media

    pg. xii
  • In this book, I hold up bioregionalism as a model for how we might begin to think again about place. Bioregionalism, whose tenets were articulated by the environmentalist Peter Berg in the 1970S, and which is widely visible in indigenous land practices, has to do with an awareness not only of the many life-forms of each place, but how they are interrelated, including with humans. Bioregionalist thought encompasses practices like habitat restoration and permaculture farming, but has a cultural element as well, since it asks us to identify as citizens of the bioregion as much as (if not more than) the state. Our “citizenship” in a bioregion means not only familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together.

    Ok this is really for me right now

    It’s important for me to link my critique of the attention economy to the promise of bioregional awareness because believe that capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another. It’s also important because of the parallels between what the economy does to an ecological system and what the attention economy does to our attention. In both cases, there’s a tendency toward an aggressive monoculture, where those components that are seen as “not useful” and which cannot be appropriated (by loggers or by Facebook) are the first to go.

    pg. xviii
  • “Nothing” is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech.

    I feel this in the growing appreciation for boredom—a feeling that phones obliterate. Craig Mod has written about this, but I feel it most when camping. Camping is a space that’s inhospitable to battery-powered technology, which opens up the opportunity for boredom, which then creates the space for meaning to be discovered.

    pg. 4
  • As articulations of retreat, both Thiel’s essay and Walden Two seem almost to have been reverse-engineered by Hannah Arendt’s classic 1958 work The Human Condition, in which she diagnoses the age-old temptation to substitute design for the political process. Throughout history, she observes, men have been driven by the desire to escape “the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents.” Unfortunately, she concludes, “the hallmark of all such escapes is rule, that is, the notion that men can lawfully and politically live together only when some are entitled to command and the others forced to obey.” Arendt traces this temptation specifically to Plato and the phenomenon of the philosopher-king, who, like Frazier, builds his city according to an image:

    In The Republic, the philosopher-king applies the ideas as the craftsman applies his rules and standards; he “makes” his City as the sculptor makes a statue; and in the final Platonic work these same ideas have even become laws which need only be executed.

    Funny enough, this brings to mind Cities: Skylines as a means of escape from the realities of urban planning. Instead of the design work of negotiating competing interests, the city is built according to an image in the player’s mind and “‘makes’ his city as the sculptor makes a statue.” It’s even the case that the policies and laws enacted by the player are never challenged or broken; once an ordinance is put in place to, say, reduce air pollution, the population dutifully reduces their air pollution.

    One more thought here: while the modding community for Cities: Skylines is robust, had anybody created mods that flesh out the political reality of place making? While there’s mods to improve the traffic simulation or make it easier to sculpt the city as an aesthetic object, I’d be surprised if any programmers put time into making the systems of control messier and harder to enact.

    pg. 49
  • Arendt writes that these escapes “always amount to seeking shelter from action’s calamities in an activity where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his doings from beginning to end.”

    pg. 50
  • Given the current reality of my digital environment, distance for me usually means things like going on a walk a or even a trip, staying off the Internet, or trying not to read the news for a while. But the problem is this: can’t stay out there forever, neither physically nor mentally. As much as I might want to live in the woods where my phone doesn’t work, or shun newspapers with Michael Weiss at his cabin in the Catskills, or devote my life to contemplating potatoes in Epicurus’s garden, total renunciation would be a mistake. The story of the communes teaches me that there is no escaping the political fabric of the world (unless you’re Peter Thiel, in which case there’s always outer space). The world needs my participation more than ever. Again, it is not a question of whether, but how.

    pg. 61
  • To stand apart is to look at the world (now) from the point of view of the world as it could be (the future), with all of the hope and sorrowful contemplation that this entails.

    pg. 62
  • This jump from the individual to the collective entails another version of what I’ve so far been describing as voluntate, studio, disciplina. In Diogenes, Bartleby, and Thoreau, we see how discipline involves strict alignment with one’s own “laws” over and against prevailing laws or habits. But successful collective refusals enact a second-order level of discipline and training, in which individuals align with each other to form flexible structures of agreement that can hold open the space of refusal. This collective alignment emerges as a product of intense individual self-discipline-like a crowd of Thoreaus refusing in tandem. In SO doing, the “third space”-not of retreat, but of refusal, boycott, and sabotage-can become a spectacle of noncompliance that registers on the larger scale of the public.

    This refusal-in-place seems to be in conversation with Malm as well. Sabotage is a refusal of the consequences of another’s actions.

    pg. 77
  • It’s not just that living in a constant state of distraction is unpleasant, Or that a life without willful thought and action is an impoverished one. If it’s true that collective agency both mirrors and relies on the individual capacity to “pay attention,” then in a time that demands action, distraction appears to be (at the level of the collective) a life-and-death matter. A social body that can’t concentrate or communicate with itself is like a person who can’t think and act.

    The book was published in 2019 and this is one argument where it already shows its age. Not that it’s wrong about any of this, but new evidence needs considering. I’d be very interested to see this argument compared to the BLM protests in 2020. Both for the capacity for ideas and anger to mobilize, as well as the distractions that removed some of its ability to build a sustained movement.

    pg. 81
  • If we think about what it means to “concentrate” or “pay attention” at an individual level, it implies alignment: different parts of the mind and even the body acting in concert and oriented toward the same thing. To pay attention to one thing is to resist paying attention to other things; it means constantly denying and thwarting provocations outside the sphere of one’s attention. We contrast this with distraction, in which the mind is disassembled, pointing in many different directions at once and preventing meaningful action. It seems the same is true on a collective level. Just as it takes alignment for someone to concentrate and act with intention, it requires alignment for a “movement” to move. Importantly, this is not a top-down formation, but rather a mutual agreement among individuals who pay intense attention to the same things and to each other.

    I’m thinking about: how being individually distracted prevents feeling pain; how being collectively distracted prevents solidarity. There’s a lot here dancing between the micro and the macro.

    pg. 81
  • For my part, I, too, will remain unimpressed until the social mecedia technology we use is noncommercial. But while commercial ne social networks reign supreme, let’s remember that a real refusal, be like Bartleby’s answer, refuses the terms of the question itself.

    Quitting Facebook isn’t the answer; so what does refusing the premise look like? My imagination immediately fails me. I’ll give it time, but keep this question in mind.

    Actually, here’s one thought: spending time building community outside of Facebook, like with a neighborhood association. It’s not a simple rejection of digital media, but a substitution that requires the participation of others.

    pg. 91
  • Occupying the “third space” within the attention economy is important not just because, as I’ve argued, individual attention forms the basis for collective attention and thus for meaningful refusal of all kinds. It is also important because in a time of shrinking margins, when not only students but everyone else has put the pedal to the metal,” and cannot afford other kinds of refusal, attention may be the last resource we have left to withdraw.

    pg. 93
  • As I disengaged the map of my attention from the destructive news cycle and rhetoric of productivity, I began to build another one based on that of the more-than-human community, simply through patterns of noticing. At first this meant choosing certain things to look at; I also pored over guides and used the California Academy of Science’s app, iNaturalist, to identify species of plants I had walked right by my entire life. As a result, more and more actors appeared in my reality: after birds, there were trees, then different kinds of trees, then the bugs that lived in them. I began to notice I animal communities, plant communities, animal-plant communities; mountain lines, watersheds. It was a familiar feeling ranges, fault of disorientation, realized in a different arena. Once again, I was I met with the uncanny knowledge that these had all been here invisible to me before, yet they had been in previous renderings of my reality.

    This is where bioregionalism really enters into the text.

    pg. 122
  • When I travel, I no longer feel like I’ve arrived until I have “met” the local bioregion by walking around, observing what grows there, and learning something about the indigenous history of that place (which, in all too many places, is the last record of people engaging in any meaningful way with the bioregion).

    Redwoods, oaks, and blackberry shrubs will never be “a bunch of green.” A towhee will never simply be “a bird” to me again, even if I wanted it to be. And it follows that this place can no longer be any place.

    pg. 123
  • The implication is that the actual paradigmatic ethical object, if there is one, is the ecosystem itself. This echoes the conservationist Aldo Leopold’s observation that “you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism.”

    pg. 148
  • Resisting definition like headwaters resist pinpointing, we emerge from moment to moment, just as our relationships do, our communities do, our politics do. Reality is blobby. It refuses to be systematized. Things like the American obsession with individualism, customized filter bubbles, and personal branding—anything that insists on atomized, competing individuals striving in parallel, never touching—does the same violence to human society as a dam does to a watershed. We should refuse such dams first and foremost within ourselves.

    pg. 151
  • Today, when we are threatened not only with biological desertification but cultural desertification, we have so much to learn from the basics of ecology. A community in the thrall of the attention economy feels like an industrial farm, where our jobs are to grow straight and tall, side by side, producing faithfully without ever touching. Here, there is no time to reach out and form horizontal networks if attention and support—nor to notice that all the non-“productive” life-forms have fled. Meanwhile, countless examples from history and ecological science teach us that diverse community with a complex web of interdependencies is not only richer but more resistant to takeover.

    pg. 153
  • Given that all of the issues that face us demand an understanding of complexity, interrelationship, and nuance, the ability to seek and understand context is nothing less than a collective survival skill.

    But how can we do that when our platforms for “connection” and expression detract from the attention to place and time that we need, simultaneously eroding the contexts that would allow new strategies to sharpen and flourish?

    pg. 166
  • It’s a cruel irony that the platforms on which we encounter and speak about these issues are simultaneously profiting from a collapse of context that keeps us from being able to think straight.

    For me, doing nothing means disengaging from one framework (the attention economy) not only to give myself time to think, but to do something else in another framework.

    pg. 179
  • With this in mind, when the logic of capitalist productivity threatens both endangered life and endangered ideas, I see little difference between habitat restoration in the traditional sense and restoring habitats for human thought.