Something is happening to attention. We know this, as we check our phones between thoughts, darting between Instagram and text message exchanges and back again. And now, our books know it too. The subject of attention is everywhere in publishing, spanning genres from self-help to satire to fiction. Take the newest addition to the literature of attention: “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” by Jenny Odell.
Odell, 32, a visual artist who also teaches art at Stanford, wants to make one thing very clear.
“This isn’t a self-help book,” she said recently, over the phone from California.
Instead, through essays on topics as varied as bird watching or Bartleby the Scrivener, Odell argues for a different expenditure of our limited attention, away from the corporations that have commodified our lives online, extracting dollars from our every click and scroll. “Doing nothing is hard,” Odell writes. But she believes it can be a radical act.
The idea for the book came to her shortly after the 2016 presidential election, when she was invited to speak at a conference on any subject she wanted. At the time, like many of her friends, she was frozen, unsure of how to proceed. In Oakland, where she lives, it felt like everyone she knew was asking themselves, “What is the point of what I am doing? Am I adding anything to the world?” At the same time, it felt difficult to distance oneself from the online clamor long enough to formulate an answer. Odell came up with the title for her talk — “How to Do Nothing” — before she even knew what she was going to say.
The sentiment behind “How to Do Nothing” is one of defiance, pushing back against the notion of being perpetually plugged in, whether we are working or simply managing our online “brands.” Odell grew up in Cupertino, just blocks away from what is now the Apple campus (her mother was an employee at Hewlett-Packard), and as she was working on her book, she would sit for hours in the Morcom Rose Garden in Oakland, noticing her surroundings, with no particular agenda. But noticing.
Inevitably, an author’s larger concerns are embedded in any meditation on attention. For Odell, these include the corrosive concept of “productivity,” the idea that time is money and what matters is making more of it. “There is such a craving for quick fixes in general, self-help books, things you will download,” she said. “I’m looking for a broader shift in how we even conceive of what is worthwhile.”
[ Read Jenny Odell on going down an internet rabbit hole ]
She acknowledges the difficulty of withdrawing from social media platforms when our lives, both social and professional, are ever-more dependent on them. Instead, she offers this: “A real withdrawal of attention happens first and foremost in the mind.”
As this aspirational if vague prescription makes clear, there’s a disconnect between offering concrete tips for staying off your phone and trying to capture the existential urgency of our plight. How can we even talk about such mundane solutions as downloading apps to rein in our screen time when we are actually engaged in an epic fight to stay present in our brief, precious lives?
Leave it to the novelist Sam Lipsyte to revel in the absurdity. In his new book, “Hark,” Lipsyte, 51, takes on the attention industry with a satire centered on a reluctant messiah named Hark. Hark never meant to be a guru: It was the people around him who anointed him. His message, which he denies even having, is simple — to help people focus, in the office and in the home. The community of lost souls that clusters around him firmly believes his technique of “mental archery” will transform the world. They assume his various archery poses, claiming they produce instant focus. No spoilers, of course, but as for what becomes of Hark, can a man who stands for pure focus fare well in the land of the perpetually distracted?
The novelist Joshua Cohen has also made an entry into the category of attention literature — but an ambiguous one. His door-stopper of a non-fiction collection is called “Attention: Dispatches From the Land of Distraction,” but most of the pieces inside are almost defiantly unrelated to the title. Cohen covers Barnum and Bailey’s, Bernie Sanders, Thomas Pynchon and Atlantic City, before getting around to the essay “Attention!” late in the book. There, he explains: “I’ve written this essay, I’ve written thus far, because I was interested in the subject. Which was: whether I was able to write about something I wasn’t interested in, something I loathed.”
Eating sponge cake recently in a brightly lit coffee shop near New York’s Chinatown, Cohen, 38, explained. “I just don’t think attention exists,” he said. “The attention economy was this idea for hackneyed writers like myself to propose an artificial resource, and then create the sense of an artificial scarcity, to make people feel bad about themselves.”
Cohen, radiating cerebral intensity behind his wire rimmed glasses, resists the conclusion that our attention has changed in the face of new technologies. We are distracted, yes, but to talk about attention is to edge onto trickier ground. “It seems like it’s used as a cudgel of shame to say, ‘You’re not sufficiently paying attention, you’re not attending, you’re not present,’” he said.
It is true, there is no shortage of self-help literature for the chronically overwhelmed. Take just two recent examples, both best-sellers: Chris Bailey’s “Hyper Focus” and Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.” Both are filled with suggestions for reclaiming our ability to use our attention deliberately — to resist, for example, the pitfalls of an Instagram trance.
[Read about how one writer tested Chris Bailey’s ideas in her own life ]
Bailey, a Canadian writer and “productivity expert,” counsels us to leave our phones in the other room when we are trying to get work done, to assess the actual reasons we reach for our phones. “We are what we pay attention to,” he writes, spurring us to do better, lest we find that what we’ve become is some ungodly cocktail of targeted ads, morally-outraged tweets and FOMO-inducing vacation pictures belonging to a person we’ve never even met.
For his part, Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown, has fashioned himself as the Marie Kondo of digital clutter with his book. He posits that the true digital minimalist doesn’t prioritize technological convenience. Rather, each digital tool must deliver “massive and unambiguous benefits” to make the cut. In other words, it’s not justification enough to use Facebook simply because everyone else is using it. “Minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things,” he writes. “What worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.”
Newport’s prescription: a month of radical detox, otherwise known as the “digital declutter.” For 30 days, one must eliminate “optional” technologies. (Optional is defined as anything you don’t need in order to function in your daily life.) Yes, this will likely nix Instagram and Netflix. Back away from your devices. Newport recommends focusing instead on meaningful activities that have nothing to do with staring at screens: talking to your friends (in person), reading, cooking. At the end of the month, you decide what you really need to add back in.
Books like these offer valuable strategies for a certain kind of reader looking to deal with the invasion of technology into every minute of waking life. But they may not satisfy those who are more inclined to think deeply about the experience of attention itself. Of course, no one book could hope to capture the full scope of attention — its texture, its stakes. After all, when we talk about attention, what are we really talking about it? Are we not asking: What matters?
Jenny Odell does harbor one favorite response when people ask her for tips for how to spend less time looking at their phones. “I’m resisting the urge to just respond, ‘Think about how you will die one day,’” she writes.
This is solid advice, but it doesn’t come from the pages of her book. Reader, she tweeted it.
Casey Schwartz is the author, most recently, of “In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis.” Follow her on Twitter: @CaseySchwartz