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How to Do Nothing

Resisting the Attention Economy

By Jenny Odell
12-minute read
Audio available
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

How to Do Nothing (2019) is a study of what’s gone wrong in contemporary society and what we can do to fix it – and ourselves. Ironically, the most effective tactic against our 24/7 culture of productivity might just be doing nothing. When we stop, step back, and refocus our attention, Jenny Odell argues, we can begin to see the contours of a better, more meaningful existence.

  • Social media addicts
  • Creatives and artists
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Jenny Odell is an artist and writer based in Oakland, California. She teaches at Stanford University and has been an artist-in-residence at Facebook, the Internet Archive, the San Francisco Planning Department, and the San Francisco garbage dump. Her art has been exhibited in galleries around the world.

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How to Do Nothing

Resisting the Attention Economy

By Jenny Odell
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
Synopsis

How to Do Nothing (2019) is a study of what’s gone wrong in contemporary society and what we can do to fix it – and ourselves. Ironically, the most effective tactic against our 24/7 culture of productivity might just be doing nothing. When we stop, step back, and refocus our attention, Jenny Odell argues, we can begin to see the contours of a better, more meaningful existence.

Key idea 1 of 7

When work and leisure become indistinguishable, doing “nothing” looks like a waste of time.

In the 1880s, American laborers began pushing for an eight-hour workday. They didn’t just want more time to heal their sore muscles, though. As a popular trade union song of the era put it, the purpose of the struggle was to secure “eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of what we will.” This was a demand for a life outside work – the right to do nothing in particular for at least one third of the day.

In the twentieth century, reformers made the eight-hour workday a reality. Their laws remain in effect, but the distinction they drew between work and leisure looks increasingly shaky today.

The key message here is: When work and leisure become indistinguishable, doing “nothing” looks like a waste of time.

It was long assumed that economic risk was the business of capitalists and investors. Workers were expected to clock in, get the job done, and go home. Do that, they were told, and their positions and wages would be safe. This arrangement lasted as long as labor movements could enforce it through strikes and political pressure. That ended in the 1980s after a series of historic losses defanged once powerful trade unions and workers’ parties.

In his 2011 book, After the Future, the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi links these defeats to the emergence of a new idea – that we are all capitalists. This means that we can’t expect economic security. Just as companies navigate perilous markets in search of opportunities, we must compete against each other for one-time jobs or gigs.

The way to thrive in this ultra-competitive gig economy is simple – never switch off. This isn’t just what critics like Berardi say, however. Take a notorious 2017 advertising campaign for Fiverr, a platform that helps users find freelancers to complete mini-jobs. As their ads put it, “doers” in today’s world “eat coffee for lunch,” run on sleep deprivation, and happily interrupt sex to take calls from clients.

Fiverr’s suggestion that these were good things was widely ridiculed, but the company hit upon one of the essential features of the gig economy – the disappearance of the boundaries between work, rest, and leisure. This shouldn’t surprise us. If the day consists of 24 potentially monetizable hours, time becomes an economic resource that’s just too valuable to be spent doing “nothing” or what you will.

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