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.