Book review: How to Do Nothing

The magic of audiobooks is that the format itself works as a triple filter for what is retained. First, it is obviously not used for books you expect to cite or to have to turn pages back, etc. Audio is not a good format for complicated and convoluted texts. Second, as one would typically do something else while listening to an audiobook, the attention is divided and the retention is limited. Third, listening to an audiobook is quicker than reading. Your eyes do not get tired and, as mentioned above, the range of activities that can be done in parallel is much wider. As a result, you spend less time traveling through a text, less time absorbing it before you move to the next one.

Now, this is not to diminish audiobooks in any way. I love them. I love that I can be doing other things meanwhile. I love that I can just burn through hours of text with very little effort. My eyes are very thankful. And I think it is actually therapeutic to a person like me who tries to retain too much by underlining or even taking phone photos of the best quotes.

(Which is an idiotic practice unless meant for an immediate sharing or some very specific bibliographic reference for Academic writers. Those photos are unsearchable and you will never look at them again. Trust me, it took me several year to understand that.)

Last year 41% of my ‘read’ list was compromised by audiobooks, of 2020 so far it’s 55% and I don’t really see it as a problem.

But I needed this disclaimer before diving in this review. Because I am very sure that my notes on a hard copy would have been so much more extensive. With an audio version there was only one time in those 8 hours and 10 minutes that I stopped to take notes + only a couple of bibliography references I looked up for future reading. Good, synthetic, doable. That’s why I love audiobooks.

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So we are talking about Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, apparently the all smash bestseller of 2019 that I just stumbled upon a couple of weeks ago while catching up on my unread link list and reading this: The Company That Branded Your Millennial Life Is Pivoting To Burnout. It was referenced as one of the smart manifestos of the burnout millenials, so of course I was intrigued. So, here you have a mix of Odell’s suggestions and my reactions:

(a) The title is misleading. This book won’t tell you how to do nothing. I would like to read *that* book, though.

(b) There is nothing new here, and I’m not even sure if we are allowed to expect new anymore. As you already knew, (1) we are being fucked by the capitalism in many ways, our attention being the latest asset taken away from us and monetized, fueling the social media giants… So (2) treat you attention accordingly, as a resource proper, and really think about where to invest it (this is not even a metaphor in an economy where clicks are actual money) and, here comes the Odell’s suggestion on how to counteract the ever-moving and context-free feeds: (3) get to know your physical surroundings, ecosystems, species, history, and (4) create or get attached to an already existing cluster of people creating an actual, related community.

(c) How can we possibly lure our human nature away from the dopamine pings? Understanding that the (social) media are rigged might break some of the magic but not those sweet, hard-wired rewards.

(d) Disconnecting from the social media is hard and it is a privilege for the geniuses who have assistants and representatives or for those glorious beings who do not aspire to get somewhere using digital credentials. But many of us want to be discovered and seen, as stupid as it is. We rely on those platforms for the lack of better tools for so much of that supposedly authentic reflection, self exploration and community building. And those shit places prime engagement…

(h) Yes, the internet is mostly incredibly bland and boring, because it is targeted at everybody. Also, I have just a basic snarky comment about the shit quality of the social media content: Are there really people out there just posting raw rants? Is that shit still allowed? Well, I wouldn’t know I unfollowed you all years ago. I thought it was cancelled when we all realized that those burps were searchable and followed us forever… That’s why we make our online presence acceptable and palatable, it is the real CV.

(e) Organizing and creating IRL spaces is expensive and time consuming. One has to be struck by an urge and then want – and be able to – to actually follow through.

That is not ‘doing nothing’, that is *a lot* of work. Even worse, it assumes a conscious decision-making, not just a spontaneous springing in place of causes and relationships. This only works in an Alice Walker universe where ‘activism is the rent [we] pay for living on the planet’. I am so very tired of that logic, probably because I happen to believe it to be literally true while surrounded by people who are, following Walker’s logic, squatters. How is that so different from the constantly productive self-actualization that the attention economy is peddling?

It all still comes across as hard work one *has* to do but just for a different god, not the Moloch of late capitalism but in the name of all the past struggles and all current problems. That is a heavy burden that – if taken seriously – leads to the same anxiety of never accomplishing enough.

This book will not suggest what to do with that productivity anxiety except for displacing it towards a worthier cause. Up to around 1/3 of the book ‘the need to do nothing (formally productive)’ is acknowledged and celebrated, although apparently needing a powerful trauma as a good enough reason, be it collective or individual, one-time or structural. Then this suggestion of leisurely exploration of self and our surroundings beyond the rat race morphs into a long ‘you really have to’ list accompanied by a review of other people’s tools, mostly out of the world of artsy interventions.

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The idea I hurried to jot down and then spent a good while looking for (rewinding is horrible, yes!) is in Chapter 6: Restoring the Grounds for Thought. Odell cites the work of Veronica Barassi in Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest: Between Control and Emancipation (2015) titled ‘Social Media, Immediacy and the Time for Democracy: Critical Reflections on Social Media as ‘Temporalising Practices’’. I wasn’t able to find a pirated version of the chapter, so I rely on Odell’s recounting of it. This is not my PhD thesis, that is as much effort and money as I’m ready to put into this, yes. Also, it is a comment on Academic publishing and the access to it by lay people who have most likely already paid for that research with their taxes.

Barassi identifies three challenges that the social media landscape creates for activists:

1. The instantaneous communication threatens the visibility and comprehension as one has to operate in conditions of an information overload that moves at an impossible pace. An activist / a cause has to constantly produce content and even so risk not being heard amidst all else.

And here comes the quote from an activist with Ecologistas en Acción that made me pause and sums up all my frustrations with Internet these days: “Online censorship is applied through the excess of banal content that distracts people from serious or collective issues”.

2. That immediacy precludes the time required for elaboration of ideas. It all just has to be catchy and fast, there is no time to reflect and articulate, no time to contextualize.

3. And that immediacy creates weak ties, networks based on emotion but not in a common political project nor a shared understanding of the social conflict. Strong ties and well-defined projects stem from face-to-face interactions, deliberations and confrontation.

We are fucked indeed, yes.

The bibliographic references I took note of were: Goodman, Paul. 1960. Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society and Houriet, Robert, 1971. Getting Back Together. I’ll let you know if I actually get around to reading them and find them review-worthy.

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Obviously, I have processed this text through my own life and current worries. It could be that you will have a set of very different takeaway messages. I found in entertaining and a diagnostic on where are we at but not a radical manifesto or a new constructive idea what to do with this mess. But I apparently expect to much from books with ‘how to’ titles.

Have you read ‘How to do nothing’? How did you find it? What would your advice be on how to do nothing? If you have a good one, there might be a book deal waiting for you.

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