Pick of the Week: Nothing Doing

Kicking off a new series here, this is my first book review. Those coming from my “Self-Care” post on the Turbid Plaque will already understand one reason why I’ve started doing this.

Another reason, though, is that my perspective on the hellscape of the modern internet has changed and deepened in recent months. That’s a direct result of reading Jenny Odell’s thought-provoking book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” Odell, an artist and art professor in San Francisco, dissects the notion of attention and explains why it’s so important.

In a nutshell, what you pay attention to determines who you are, and what a whole population pays attention to defines a society. That’s not something to treat lightly.

With the stakes defined, Odell then delves into the attention economy, the vast infrastructure that technology companies have built over the last 20 years to capture our attention, then weaponize it against us in the form of targeted advertising. If you think you’re doomscrolling through Twitter or Facebook of your own free will, you’re mistaken. These platforms have been designed from the ground up to stimulate that exact behavior, and immense sums of money are changing hands to keep you doing it. Keeping your mind buried in a social media feed also keeps it from questioning genuine social issues. It makes you a docile consumer.

This is a dark tale, but it could have a brighter ending if we want it to. By understanding how our attention is being abused and what it’s really costing us, our society, and the planet, we can retake control of it.

It’s a compelling argument, and easy to agree with when reading the book. What’s harder – and where Odell’s writing becomes weaker – is coming up with practical implementations of her ideas. Watching the birds in a public rose garden in San Francisco sounded lovely, for example, as a western Massachusetts sleet storm pattered on my living room window; what works for Odell won’t necessarily work for me.

However, the book isn’t intended to be prescriptive. Everyone will need their own escape plan to get outside the attention economy. The author is just explaining why you should, and why it’s worth the effort.

Bonus pick: Library Extension for Firefox. With this installed, looking at the order page for a book on Amazon or other online bookstores will bring up a panel of options to check the selected book out of your local library instead.