Interestingness Is Always There: Talking with Jenny Odell
Jenny Odell’s first book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, is a reflective call-to-arms and seminal anti-optimization creed for our increasingly digitized times.
For readers unfamiliar, what Odell, a multidisciplinary artist and professor at Stanford, has done with her book is craft a kind of quiet manifesto that shows us how we can wrest our bodies and minds from the liminal non-time of the commodified social network, and back into the lateral, grounded, imperfect present as an act of rebellion. Using historical references such as Seneca, Epicurus, 1960s commune culture, Dagas, Diogenes and others, Odell beautifully and powerfully makes her case against pathological productivity.
She calls her book a “four-course meal in the age of Soylent.” In How to Do Nothing, Odell writes, “I see people caught up not just in notifications but in a mythology of productivity and progress, unable not only to rest but simply to see where they are. During the summer I wrote this, I saw catastrophic wildfire without end. This place, just as much as the place where you are now, is calling out to be heard. I think we should listen.”
Odell and I discussed the ideas of usefulness and efficiency, what the Jenny Odell algorithm would post on Twitter, and the importance of retraining ourselves to pay attention.
The Rumpus: The thesis of How to Do Nothing, in part, is this idea that in a data-driven society that values us based on our ability to constantly optimize ourselves, doing nothing, or doing things in a non-optimal way, could be a powerful form of resistance. Can you talk a bit about what you mean by “doing nothing?”
Jenny Odell: For me, a lot of it is tied to a feeling that time is money, because with that, you have the idea that you spend time in order to get something, and typically you get something you can show.
You go on vacation, right? You take good photos of things, experiences, that you understand to be the products of that place. And if you’re working, then you obviously want to have results for that work.
It’s almost like we’re all constantly preparing ourselves to answer to someone who is asking us what we’ve been doing with our time. So, doing “nothing,” it takes some courage in a situation like that to just say: “Actually, I have nothing to show for this time.”
In doing nothing, obviously you’re not really doing nothing, but it differs in that it doesn’t “produce” anything. And even if it does, that wasn’t the point.
Rumpus: Do you see this dictum that we have to produce something tangible—whether that’s an Instagram post, or a report at work—as a product of the attention economy?
Odell: I think it’s encouraged by it. I consider the attention economy, just straightforwardly, the architecture of social media and other technologies to keep you engaged all the time. But that feeds off of, and also into, the sense that you need to have something to show for all your time.
And I’m sure that some version of this has existed for a long time, but it’s quite different when you have something like Instagram, where you’re not only looking at very formulaic expressions of other people’s lives and producing your own, but then you’re constantly being encouraged to check back and see how other people are evaluating that.
Rumpus: How do you think your professional background as an artist and teacher prepared you to interrogate the ideas you present in How to Do Nothing?
Odell: I think it’s significant not just that I teach art, but that I teach art to non-art majors, specifically majors that are not usually in the humanities. I have a lot of computer science and product design majors, and that put me in a position to argue for the value of art to an audience that might not necessarily be skeptical, but has a very specific way of evaluating the worth of doing things.
They’re also coming from disciplines where sometimes there is an optimal way to do something, and of course that’s not true in art. So I’ve had to not only argue for the value of art, but also coax someone into a way of doing or thinking that is less straightforwardly goal-oriented.
Rumpus: That’s a big part of the book, and really antithetical to the time we’re living in. You’re writing an argument against the optimization of both time and people.
Odell: Which I think can be a really scary idea for anyone. It forces you to ask some bigger questions than you would have to if you remained within the same framework of productivity.
Rumpus: What do you see as some of the more insidious implications of our devolving ability to disengage from digital feedback and re-inhabit the world around us?
Odell: I think there are several, but the most basic one, so basic it’s almost hard to articulate, is not being able to pay attention to what’s right in front of you.
Oftentimes, I’ll be on a hike specifically to go bird-watching. I have binoculars, and I’m being very attentive, but I always miss birds that are right in front of me, the bird that’s a few feet away from me. I just don’t expect to see it there, or I’m looking at the trees and then because I don’t see it, I walk very brashly forward and scare it away.
I feel like that’s a metaphor for how I think about a lot of other things, like social media. It’s this engine that runs on anxiety and envy and insecurity, and it posits that the answer to that is “over here.” It’s always over here. I see social media as this sort of dam that acts on that impulse and, at the end of the day, doesn’t fulfill that need. It just creates more of it.
On a more collective level, the things that I talk about more towards the end of the book I think are really important, like this declining ability or patience to seek out context in information that’s circulating through something like a social network. I see this as problematic not just for the idea of misinformation, but also for organizing or creating social movements. Both of those require conversation and strategizing.
Rumpus: One of my favorite parts of your book was your writing about the relationship between attention and curiosity, and how one expands and informs the other.
Odell: I might just be one of those people who thinks that everything is inherently very weird, and that all you have to do is look at it or think about it for a couple of minutes, and its strangeness kind of becomes available to you.
For example, when I was doing my artist residency at the San Francisco dump, I found that I could pick up almost anything from the public disposal area and within fifteen minutes of trying to figure out where it was made, or researching the story behind it, something very surprising would always come up. I realized that interestingness wasn’t a function of the object, it was a function of my patience and attention. Interestingness is always there.
I’ve never, with anything, but especially anything ecological, felt like I’ve gotten to the bottom of anything. And that is such a different feeling from being on social media or looking something up on Google. There isn’t this sitting with something and understanding that your knowledge of that thing is going to evolve over time, possibly for your entire life. I think paying attention is the key to accessing that surprising-ness.
Rumpus: You also introduce in the book something called an “act of refusal” as a cornerstone in fighting against the attention economy. Can you explain what an act of refusal is and why it’s so important?
Odell: Sure. I talk in the book specifically about a kind of refusal that happens in the mind, which I contrast with the idea of retreating. The chapter where I write about this kind of refusal comes right after the chapter on the communes from the 1960s, so I’m contrasting this idea with the idea that if you are not okay with a situation, your impulse might be to leave. But in this case, moving to the middle of nowhere, or even just deleting all of your social media and not reading the news anymore, these are increasingly unfeasible options. And in some cases, irresponsible.
So I relocate that to a kind of stepping away in one’s mind, rather than literally leaving. I’m trying to describe this process of remaining where you are, and remaining engaged and responsible, but not participating in the way that you would be expected to, or that you’re being asked to, particularly by something like the attention economy.
It’s enacting a small removal, again in the mind. This lets you look back at the situation slightly from the outside, in which it’s often easier to see what the mechanisms at work are, and how you are expected to act. For example, reading a clickbait headline and not falling for it, and not only not falling for it, but also seeing how it was constructed and what it was supposed to do.
Rumpus: You mention in the book that one mistake that the attention economy makes is that it misjudges the quality of our attention. All it really cares about is whether or not our eyes fall on the ad or the notification or the headline, not how long our eyes stay there, or what we do with the information we see. How do you think we might be able to start exploiting that ignorance?
Odell: That’s a good question. There’s something really interesting in the natural disconnect between how you express yourself and portray your experiences online, and how they actually feel to you. That’s always going to be a gap, right? My life as pictured on Instagram is an extremely narrow, flattened sliver. It’s almost not really anything.
This reminds me of that Black Mirror episode where they bring that guy back from the dead based on his social media profile. I could write an algorithm that every day posts a photo of some bird thing, or some plant, because honestly if you look at my Twitter, that’s what it is. The algorithm could just continue to do that for me. And then I could just go live this very different life that no one knows about. [Laughs]
But I think that there’s a less extreme version of that where you can kind of keep playing along, but in your mind you have taken the importance and the weight out of your social media feed, and you’re investing it somewhere else.
Rumpus: To what extent do you think our insistence on and prioritizing of the construction of a technological landscape is coming at the expense of the natural landscapes around us?
Odell: I think there’s a lot in common with how we value the usefulness of ourselves and the usefulness of other things, particularly the landscape.
All you have to do is think about if someone, probably in Silicon Valley, figured out a way for you to not have to sleep. A lot of people would probably be into that, right? They would say, “Oh, that’s a huge advantage because now I can produce more work.” And it would totally overlook all the functions that sleep has, which we don’t even fully understand. Sleep is sort of like this last vestige of the human experience that can’t be made “to work.”
So, if you see sleep as a nuisance but if you also have the humility to understand that your concept of usefulness is quite narrow, you can accept the fact that sleep is very necessary. You don’t even actually need to be able to articulate why and how because in doing that you’d already be narrowing it down.
And it’s so easy to compare something like that to, say, the glaciers, or entire areas of the planet that are seen as barren or “a blank slate,” something where there’s nothing there so you could just put anything there that you wanted. It’s all based on this model of “Can I build on it? Can I extract from it? What is the usefulness of this place?”
It’s such a—almost comically so, except that it’s terrifying—narrow view of the value of what something can produce. It’s a very mechanical understanding of both the landscape and the self, where you think that you can just take the good parts out of something, not understanding that all of those things are necessary in a certain configuration to even function at all.
If you have the patience to pay attention to something, what you will notice is more context, and more detail about how intertwined things are. There are things that are living in these places and they are alive and important in ways that become very obvious once you step outside of that narrow way of understanding usefulness.
Rumpus: Also the people whose job it is to construct these digital landscapes often only see the world in terms of human benefit. I think that’s why as the tech-scape gets bigger and broader, we see the natural becoming smaller, both in reality, and in our minds.
Odell: Right, and all of this is tied together with the idea of efficiency—being efficient or inefficient. From a tech-informed efficiency point of view, almost all of ecology is inefficient, which doesn’t bode well for any nonhuman life form.
Rumpus: How to Do Nothing is peppered with examples of art, music, and nature as avenues through which we can learn to retrain our ability to pay attention. What is about a piece of music or art that can help us re-learn this?
Odell: So much of an artistic practice comes out of noticing things, so a lot of our art could be described as the artist noticing something different and trying to not tell you about that, but let you have that experience for yourself. That’s what motivates me in making my work. I want someone to have that same feeling of discovery, of their perception broadening.
Artists are thinking about attention a lot. The experiences I’ve had that are memorable, which I talk about in the book, were very much indebted to an artist noticing something, like David Hockney trying to communicate his way of moving very slowly past a shrub. There are a lot of experiences that can do this for you, but art is tailored to do it, trying to do that for you.
Rumpus: Very true, and I think that art often has a way of posing questions that don’t have google-able answers, necessarily. You’re forced to sit and wonder the answer and be okay with the not knowing.
Odell: That’s a really good point and something that I try to bring up a lot in class, because it’s another way that art is different from some of what my students are studying. I think they often feel obligated to make a piece of art that has some kind of conclusion or that makes a statement. So I talk to them a lot about how a good piece of art creates a kind of focused space around a question that the viewer can dwell in for a while, and that sticks with them for a while afterwards. Because there is no easy answer.
Rumpus: In the book you write, “If it’s attention (deciding what to pay attention to) that makes our reality, regaining control of it can also mean the discovery of new worlds and new ways of moving through them.” What does that world look like to you?
Odell: For me, because so much of it is ecological, the world feels more full of actors. I say actors because there’s a version of the world in which everything, including other people, except for the ones that you care about, are very inert. They’re like background players. In this view of the world, nonhuman life isn’t quite alive and certainly doesn’t have agency.
Not that I ever saw the world that way, but on the spectrum between that and the totally enlivened world, I have definitely moved further in the direction that’s feeling like I inhabit a world with others—and when I say others, I mean other humans, but also anything that’s alive. I’ve been able to develop some kind of familiarity and relationship with those entities. It feels a lot less alone.
To go way back to your question about the stakes of the attention economy, I think living in the attention economy fully, the way that you’re supposed to, is really lonely, really isolating. It’s constantly throwing you back on yourself, this version of yourself that’s a product that needs to be optimized, and everything else only exists insofar as it could help you to do that.
With this other way of being in the world, I don’t know what it means to be alone anymore. I spend a lot of time going on hikes “alone,” but I don’t see it as being alone. I actually, increasingly, feel like I’m going there to have a meeting. I’m going there to see who’s home.
Photograph of Jenny Odell by Ryan Meyer.