Jenny Odell’s how to do nothing talk was one of my favorite longform pieces I came across on the internet over the past few years, and she has now published an expanded version as a book: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.
Although the title may suggest another recipe for ‘waldenponding,’ Odell does justice to the nuance of modern connectivity / complexity and recounts some of the failure modes of “heading for the hills”
One reaction to all of this is to head for the hills — permanently. In the second chapter, I look at a few different people and groups who took this approach. The countercultural communes of the 1960s in particular have much to teach us about the challenges inherent in trying to extricate oneself completely from the fabric of a capitalist reality, as well as what was sometimes an ill-fated attempt to escape politics altogether. This is the beginning of an ongoing distinction I’ll make between 1) escaping “the world” (or even just other people) entirely and 2) remaining in place while escaping the framework of the attention economy and an over-reliance on a filtered public opinion.
Probably my favorite passage of the book is about a Japanese farmer who writes a book about “do-nothing farming”
In his book, Fukuoka writes that “[b]ecause the world is moving with such furious energy in the opposite direction, it may appear that I have fallen behind the times.” Indeed, just as we associate innovation with the production of something new, we also associate an inventor with creating some new kind of design. But Fukuoka’s “design” was more or less to remove the design altogether. This leads to the uncanny quality of manifest dismantling. As he writes: “That which was viewed as primitive and backward is now unexpectedly seen to be far ahead of modern science. This may seem strange at first, but I do not find it strange at all.”
One night as I wandered, I collapsed in exhaustion on a hill overlooking the harbor, finally dozing against the trunk of a large tree. I lay there, neither asleep nor awake, until dawn. I can still remember that it was the morning of the 15th of May. In a daze I watched the harbor grow light, seeing the sunrise and yet somehow not seeing it. As the breeze blew up from below the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night heron appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of my confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood just one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: “In this world there is nothing at all…” I felt that I understood nothing.
Fukuoka sums up the epiphany as the ultimate expression of humility, echoing Zhuang Zhou when he writes: “‘Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.’”
It was only through this humility that Fukuoka was able to arrive at a new kind of ingenuity. Do-nothing farming recognized that there was a natural intelligence at work in the land, and therefore the most intelligent thing for the farmer to do was to interfere as little as possible. Of course, that didn’t mean not interfering at all. Fukuoka recalls the time he tried to let some orchard trees grow without pruning: the trees’ branches became intertwined and the orchard was attacked by insects. “This is abandonment, not ‘natural farming,’” he writes. Somewhere between over-engineering and abandonment, Fukuoka found the sweet spot by patiently listening and observing. His expertise lay in being a quiet and patient collaborator with the ecosystem he tended to.
There are lots of fun rabbit holes and pointers to things like Fukuoka’s book. Another that caught my fancy was The Trainee:
During the month-long intervention, an initially normal-seeming marketing trainee starts to apply peculiar working methods. Gradually she shifts from the position of someone others believe to be normal, to the object of avoidance and speculation. The videos and slideshow reveal a spectrum of ways of handling the odd member in a group. Sincere interest and bewildered amusement are juxtaposed with demands directed at the superior regarding the strangely behaving worker.
We see the trainee sitting at her workstation in the consultants’ open-plan office space, or in the tax department library all day doing nothing. One of the videos shows her spending an entire day in an elevator. These acts or rather the absence of visible action slowly make the atmosphere around the trainee unbearable, forcing the colleagues to search for solutions and to come up with explanations for the situation.
Masking laziness in apparent activity and browsing Facebook during working hours belong to the acceptable behavioural patterns of a work community. However, sitting in front of an empty desk with your hands of your lap, just thinking, threatens the peace of the community and breaks the colleagues’ concentration. When there is no ready method of action, people initially resort to avoidance, which fails to set their mind at ease if the situation drags on.
My other favorite passage, an important reminder (and why I like public spaces and public transportation):
Last week, after a meeting, I took the F streetcar from Civic Center to the Ferry Building in San Francisco. It’s a notoriously slow, crowded, and halting route, especially in the middle of the day. This pace, added to my window seat, gave me a chance to look at the many faces of the people on Market Street with the same alienation as the slow scroll of Hockney’s Yorkshire Landscapes. Once I accepted the fact that each face I looked at (and I tried to look at each of them) was associated with an entire life — of birth, of childhood, of dreams and disappointments, of a universe of anxieties, hopes, grudges, and regrets totally distinct from mine — this slow scene became almost impossibly absorbing. As Hockney said: “There’s a lot to look at.” Even though I’ve lived in a city most of my adult life, in that moment I was floored by the density of life experience folded into a single city street.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell.