Essay: Opting Out in a Pandemic by Anupama Kumar


A personal essay by Anupama Kumar on how Odell’s book  how changed her experience of work and writing in the pandemic as it speaks about opting out of the attention economy, and taking time away from distractions. 

One of the most powerful lines in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy is right in the introduction.

What if, Odell asks, augmented reality simply means putting your phone down?

What if, indeed. Odell’s book reminds us that while the world is structured on having our attention on something all the time – even if it isn’t all our attention, all of the time we’re paying attention, there is perhaps another way to be. We have been heading here for a while. Results Only Work Environments and employment in the gig economy require us to be on our toes and “available” for anything. Time is a valuable resource in today’s world, too valuable to not be spent productively, and certainly too valuable to waste on not allowing our attention out. Odell exhorts us to disconnect, to “opt out” and re-engage with the world on our terms. She cites an instance from her own life, where she began to walk through a park in San Francisco and identify individual birds by their calls. By focusing her attention on the moment, she gained a far deeper understanding of the world around her.

This does not mean a complete disengagement with the world, or retreating into complete solitude like a hermit. To Odell, complete disengagement, and a complete retreat away from the world as we know it is impossible. Instead, she advocates that we step away from a culture that requires that we pay attention all the time – to social media, to technology, to the relentless pursuit of productivity – and instead enjoy the one life we have right now. 

We have been heading here for a while. Results Only Work Environments and employment in the gig economy require us to be on our toes and “available” for anything.

To do so, Odell argues, we must take back the right to refuse. To not engage in the constant drips of annoyances that take away our attention, to step back from technology that promises to optimize, well, something, and to engage with the world on our own terms. Perhaps, we could consciously step away from the distractions of Twitter, or a work environment that requires us to spend every waking moment connected and willing to participate. Instead, we must take our attention and time elsewhere, and participate in a different framework – she notes, for instance, that real social change has always been the result of in-person meetings and interactions, rather than a disparate set of messages on social media. 

I read Odell’s book at an interesting time. Like her, I am a millennial, and just about old enough to remember when the internet was not ubiquitous. I belong to a generation that uses a phone to text or WhatsApp, not to call people. Time and again, I’ve wondered if those just a little older have been smarter, more focused on their reading and writing and more relaxed, without the constant onslaught of external stimulation. (It turns out, perhaps they weren’t.) I try not to be distracted, but no sooner do I sit down to read a book, that I remember that I could be baking a cake and Google a recipe, or do a quick scroll on Twitter to check the news, or just read a shorter article on my phone because it doesn’t require the level of engagement that an actual, smart book does.

Every now and then, I remember that the barrage of choice on Apple Music might be why I listen to music less often than when I had to dig through my father’s collection of dusty CDs, or that despite all the options I have on Netflix, I drift to mindless sitcoms that can play in the background as I do something mindless on my computer. And even as I feebly pretend I haven’t actually been getting less reading done because I occasionally slip down an internet rabbit hole and waste hours on mindless doom scrolling, I recognize how much happier I am when I am forced to disconnect and actually pay attention to my book.   

I belong to a generation that uses a phone to text or WhatsApp, not to call people. Time and again, I’ve wondered if those just a little older have been smarter, more focused on their reading and writing and more relaxed, without the constant onslaught of external stimulation.

But there’s more. Odell’s book was published in April 2019. When I read it, a year later, I have been in lockdown for more than a month, and will probably stay in lockdown for the foreseeable future. In this time, my “normal” has gone from going out to work and the gym before returning home for a quiet evening in, to going from my bed (sleeping-place) to a corner of the bedroom (working-place), with occasional visits to the kitchen (housework and eating place). Going out, sharing a meal and giving a hug are no longer normal, everyday ways of making contact, they’re reckless acts that could potentially pass on a deadly disease. Instead, I need to stay home, stay safe and get on a Zoom call if I want a chat. 

I cannot leave the house for my workday, so here I am, answering the doorbell and trying to make lunch between work calls. I no longer need to travel to attend a seminar or conference, and so I now need to sit through webinars and YouTube lectures planned at times that just about work for people from around the globe. Meanwhile, social distancing requires that I can no longer just pop out if I run out of bread or eggs – my groceries must be ordered online, within specified slots for delivery at times permitted by the government. Nor can I make an unplanned visit to elderly relatives or indeed, anyone at all. The most I get to see of the outside world is the little street visible from my balcony.

Over the past few months, my street has remained mostly unchanged. Summer has given way to the monsoon. The neem tree has flowered and fruited, and the crows have added neem fruits to their diet of leftover food from the houses on the street. A scruffy street dog has found himself a comfortable spot to sleep in, undisturbed by traffic. The few people on the street walk in masks, keeping to themselves. It all seems tranquil and ordinary. 

Healthcare systems across the developing world – understaffed and underfunded at the best of times – are in crisis, as the number of cases creeps up each passing day. Thousands have lost their jobs in sectors from construction to media, and government relief packages have struggled to keep up.

Of course, the world has been neither tranquil nor ordinary. Since lockdown began, thousands have become seriously ill from Covid-19. Healthcare systems across the developing world – understaffed and underfunded at the best of times – are in crisis, as the number of cases creeps up each passing day. Thousands have lost their jobs in sectors from construction to media, and government relief packages have struggled to keep up. Halfway across the world, the #BlackLivesMatter movement set off a movement to rethink race and policing. Statues of Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes, a slaver and colonialist respectively, have been torn down by cheering crowds. 

Yet my engagement with this has been confined to the news, and Twitter, and a growing number of webinars. I’m safely in my flat, looking out into a little street with its neem tree. The Covid-19 numbers creep up on my screen, sterile and distant (“They look like postcodes now”, a colleague had quipped), slowly losing their significance as real people afflicted with a deadly illness. Meanwhile, my social media feeds intersperse truly bleak news of deaths and job losses with pictures of sourdough bread, Dalgona coffee and the latest home workout trend. 

Now, how does one “opt out” in a pandemic?

How do you opt out of Zoom calls and webinars, when they are the only way to keep in touch with colleagues and friends without risking serious illness? Heck, how do you pay attention through a webinar, where you can’t make eye contact with the speaker, and distractions are just a Ctrl+T away on a new browser tab? How do you refuse to participate in the attention economy, if all external information comes through the very media that depends on your constant, partial attention? When even weddings and reunions and blind dates are now carried out on Zoom, is it even possible to engage meaningfully any more? 

Or maybe, Odell’s book is just what we need right now. What do productivity and progress mean, if we’re all forced to stay home anyway? In a post-Covid future will we treat care work, primary education and sanitation work with more respect? Maybe, after months of working from home and having to stay online all day, we might choose to engage on our terms, and exercise the choice to connect or to stay offline. Maybe the months of isolation will tell us a little bit more about human contact, and allow us to participate in our world with a little more attention. Maybe now that we know just how hard it is on us to make all our connections off a tiny LED screen, we might do more to make those connections in a slightly better way.

I finished How to Do Nothing on a Saturday evening, just before sunset. I noticed that the crows were nesting in the coconut tree, and that the neem seeds in bird droppings had begun to sprout. The street dogs were awake and begging for biscuits. A cat was asleep in the driveway of the apartment across the street. A few masked walkers went by. The street was dynamic and alive, even if nothing that happens here makes news. My phone beeped, possibly to remind me that I had a meeting the following Monday, but that could wait for now. At this moment, I too was part of everything on my little street, and that was all that mattered. 


About the Author

Anupama Kumar is a policy researcher based in Chennai. She studies economic and social rights and social protections in India. She went to the National Law School of India University and Oxford University before this. When she is not writing, she lifts weights, reads and bakes cakes. 

One comment

  • An excellent essay, and I agree with so much of it. There is a lot I’d like to comment on, but just a brief note:

    The advantage in being quite a lot older than the writer (I am 65) is that I remember perfectly well how society worked before the internet, before mobile phones, and before the Gig Economy. You can’t avoid all of this today, even if you want to, but some choices are easier to make than others. I don’t use online music services, I listen to CDs. This stops me automatically having something playing just because I’m online. Music can be too much of a distraction at times. I leave my phone at home when I go out, unless I have good reason to take it, which usually I don’t. If I miss a call, so what? I can catch up later. The whole point is I remember perfectly well when we couldn’t be online and ‘available’ 24 hours a day, so it is probably easier for me to make this decision. I understand it is not necessary.

    There’s a lot more I could add, but I’m sure you get the idea.

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