How to Do Nothing—Resisting the Attention Economy

By Jenny Odell. Even though I just finished it, I suspect Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” will be the most influential book I read in 2020 because it’s the most thought provoking book I’ve read since America the Anxious and Palaces of the People, books that also emphasize the importance of community, public places, and the common good. It is so unique, insightful, and challenging, I processed two-thirds of it at most; meaning, I need to reread it, which is a bit problematic since it’s due back at the library. I should probably make Eldest’s day, a true bibliophiliac, and just purchase it. Especially since it will take me a long time to even partially apply her numerous insights.

The front jacket lead, which I’ve amended, is a decent overview:

“A galvanizing critique of the forces vying for our attention—and our personal information—that redefines what we think of productivity, reconnects us with the environment, and reveals all that we’ve been (what we are) too distracted to see about ourselves and our world.”

If you are wary of individualism and seek more community, read Odell.

If you long for a more meaningful, less commercial existence, read Odell.

If you suspect your life might be enriched by less social media activity, read Odell.

If you want to think and care more deeply about your local ecology, climate change,  economic privilege, and alternative ways of thinking about progress, read Odell.

If you want to see Odell explain her book while reflecting on the challenges posed by its unexpected success, watch this November 2019 talk.

“How to Do Nothing” is especially important for anyone thinking, “No way am I spending 23 minutes I don’t have to watch the video.”

The Parable of the Clueless Professor

Tacoma, Washington, Thursday morn, Administration Room 213. A few minutes before the first year writing seminar begins.

McKall, who started the semester with a ton of extra credit because she has a great name and personality; and she’s from Boise, Idaho, my birthplace; asks whether I like my new phone.

That’s right, last week an iPhone 6+ bounced from China; to Louisville, Kentucky; to my front door. And sure enough, the box had my name on it. That means I have to find some other way to distinguish myself from the masses.

Students smiled when I told them my daughter made fun of me for texting with one finger. “You can use both thumbs,” she said. I tell my students I like it. Too big? Be serious. I can palm a basketball and my frame of reference is my iPad. I love how compact my new pocket computer is. They also got a kick out of my temporary case, a wool sock.

Alex is to the left of me. “And you have a Garmin watch too.”

Alex started the semester with even more extra credit than McKall because she’s from California, she’s on the cross country team, and she’s a first generation college student who came to office hours last week. Her parents are from Mexico and have sacrificed mightily to provide her a better life. She hit her head on something while lifting weights right before classes began. She refuses to use her serious concussion “as an excuse” and may be too tough for her own good since she’s pushing harder than her doctors probably realize.

“Yeah, but it’s the cheapest Garmin they make, they go from $150-$450,” said the clueless professor. Alex’s audible exhale conveyed disgust. Understandably. To her that might be textbooks for a year. Statistics tell us most first generation college students drop out at some point because they can’t afford to continue. Out of touch professors can’t help.

Inadvertently losing touch with low income people is one inevitable consequence of wealth that’s rarely talked about. When I was Alex’s age, one of my college roommates and I became friends. That is until he learned my parents were paying my tuition. He was busting his hump to pay his way and he resented my privilege. Our friendship was never the same.

Should I have declined my parents’ generosity for the sake of my roommate’s friendship? Should I not wear my Garmin watch to class? Of course not, but I should be sensitive to other people’s circumstances. Thursday, a few minutes before class began, I wasn’t.