“I think it’s significant that I haven’t left the Bay Area,” says writer and artist Jenny Odell, who grew up in Cupertino and now lives in Oakland. Odell, who also teaches at Stanford University, is the author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (out now from Melville House).
Many writers have sounded the alarm over our increasingly fractured attention, but Odell’s book is not about blocking the internet or retreating from Facebook. Odell does focus on the importance of reclaiming attention and focus, but she also tells people what to do when they’re not staring at Facebook: go out into the natural world instead. Learn the names of the plants, the history of the region, the songs of the birds. When you can distinguish sounds and petals and regions, you will never be able to see the same way again.
The Verge spoke to Odell about the importance of place, the role of technology in grounding us, and different types of stillness.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Your book was interesting to me not just because you posit “place” as to the answer to the attention economy, but because of the particular place you talk about. I also grew up in the Bay Area, near Cupertino, but I left just about as soon as I could. What made you stay?
I place a lot of value on community and knowing people for a long time. When you’re in a group of people that is making art or writing, it’s really nice to have that community where you and your work are well-known and supported.
That’s interesting because, in the book, you talk about why it’s important to know the place you’re from and be grounded, in a sense, instead of floating in this contextless world of the internet. How did those ideas — place versus internet — start to intersect for you?
Some of it is a natural consequence of learning about the place that I have been for my entire life and realizing how little I actually knew and being really fascinated and kind of taken by that. This is going to sound really nerdy, but I took some urban studies classes in college and read some stuff about suburbia and the type of urbanism that it turns out there is in Cupertino. And then I went home, and I was like, ”Oh my god, I have a vocabulary for this now!” When I was growing up, the phenomenon of McMansions coming in and taking over was just kind of a given, something my family and I would talk about but didn’t really think about. I came back many years later and was able to say, “This is the result of such-and-such zoning,” and I started to see it as not given and part of a larger context.
That’s sort of a general thing. Specifically, after 2016, I had that experience of sitting in the rose garden and thinking about why that was valuable. Part of the answer was, “Oh, I’m here. I’m in a place. I can pay attention to it.” It has a grounding quality.
You seem to argue that the physical is more “real” than the online. In past years, I feel like there was an emphasis on how “real” online connections are, like “online friendships are real, too!” How do we reconcile these strands of thought?
Well, I don’t actually disagree with that argument. One of the things I talk about at the end of the book is how social media has the potential to be hugely useful — you’re connecting people who are in the same place, it’s very fast, you can share knowledge very easily — but in my mind, that could be especially useful when mixed together with things like in-person meetings or more intentional communications. Even a group chat to me is closer to an in-person meeting. So there are ways where the digital and the physical are working together.
I like to collect examples of places and situations where there’s not even an overlap but a reverberation between physical experience and digital representation. In one of my classes, we talk about places where you see the digital and the physical interacting in places where it’s very inextricable. My example is this mountain — Mission Peak in Fremont — and at one point, it became very popular to take a photo on top of this pole that was on top of the mountain. And now everybody needs to have that photo, so all of these people started clambering on this mountain and going off designated trails. And in my mind, the mountain is being eroded by Instagram.
You write about how you began using the app iNaturalist to help you start identifying flora and fauna and get more grounded in place. At one point, a student asks you whether that’s “taking you away” from the experience, and you say it isn’t. How do we evaluate when technology brings us closer to the world versus further away?
As an artist and someone who’s writing about attention, I’m partial to uses of technology that give you more information about what you’re looking at. So one of my examples is just a pair of binoculars. A pair of binoculars is a form of technology, and you can say there’s something “unnatural” about the view through a pair of binoculars because it’s augmenting human vision. But if I go out without my binoculars, I can’t see as much, and I can’t be as curious as I would be otherwise. It gives me a new experience of a place and more to look at, literally. I tend to really value things like that. iNaturalist is an easy example, others are those constellation-identifying apps.
One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is when you critique people who say that attention is a structural problem, and it’s the responsibility of tech companies to divert it in an ethical way. That’s a view we frequently hear, but you say that it takes away our agency and ability to decide what we want to look at since it’s still the companies funneling our attention. What else is missing from this argument that companies can help us reclaim our attention?
I think one really important aspect that comes up in any form of the attention economy, whether it’s disempowering or empowering, is assuming that attention is like currency. Most currency is standardized. We don’t barter anymore, so it relies on the idea of standardized this and uniformity and consistency. And in my experience, attention isn’t like that. You have forms of shallow attention, you have really deep attention, you pay different kinds of attention to different things in different situations.
Differentiation and proliferation of attention are things you can learn, which is one of the reasons I talk so much about art in that chapter. That dimension of attention and human perception is missing from that formulation for me.
I think many people will like your book because it’s not draconian, and it doesn’t try to make us delete our accounts forever and run away to the woods. Can you tell me more about why you advocate a more moderate approach?
The very first reason is that it’s impossible. Maybe there are some mountain hermits that will prove me wrong, but for most of us, something like that is not even feasible. It’s really interesting and important to register that impulse, which is almost commonplace now, but on the level of actual feasibility, it’s not something that you’re probably going to do. But on top of that, if you’re buying the book, you’re ultimately concerned about doing something, and a lot of the anxiety that gets exploited by the attention economy comes from a very real feeling of living in a difficult time and wanting to do something about it or feel useful. I think that’s something that would eventually catch up with most people. Maybe I’m just extrapolating from myself, but I assume that someone who is concerned enough about what is happening with their attention to buy the book is ultimately wanting to say or do something meaningful at the end of the day.
A book called How to Do Nothing is obviously going to talk about the virtues of being still. But as you mentioned, there are different types of stillness. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the choreographer George Balanchine distinguished between two kinds of stillness: that of a cat sitting there and that of a cat sitting there ready to pounce. What kind of stillness are you advocating for?
I really love that. I think it’s probably both, or maybe alternating between the two. Something I have thought about more since writing the book is this idea of moving between different states of attention in your mind. It feels like a movement or a kind of shift and, ideally, you could do that with volition and intention rather than being jerked around and always staying in that shallow state of attention.
So I would say it’s important to know when to rest and also important to know when to be in this second state of stillness where you’re shrewdly observing the situation from the outside. Those are definitely not the same thing and they’re both really necessary. Without some sort of actual rest, maybe the other one isn’t possible. You wouldn’t be as sharp.
The last question I have is about maintenance. You argue that we care too much about the new and disruptive instead of maintaining what is there. What would a focus on maintenance instead of “disruption” look like?
I’ve been really inspired by local groups here in Oakland that do things like steward a local creek or literal habitat restoration stuff. Groups of people who come together and feel responsible for something that is living in the place where they live, and just observing the amount of work that goes into that. Of course, there are examples that are not obviously environmental that someone could find an entry point with. I just have this fixation with the idea of attending to what is already there, so the first step is looking around and seeing what is already there and what needs support before jumping off into “I need to make XYZ.”