Attention

Jenny Odell wants our attention. When she was an artist-in-residence at Recology SF (aka the San Francisco dump), she made trash into art. If she notices a bird, she’ll name it. Born and raised in Silicon Valley, Odell depends upon technology to create her art and, at the same time, loathes what it demands of her attention.

Her book — How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy — is neither manifesto nor manual. Odell calls it an invitation to take a walk. Who could resist such a gentle nudge?

Odell uses her life to illustrate her points. Like the Parkland shooting in 2018, a David Hockney exhibit in 2017 and the US election in 2016 that triggered Odell to write How to Do Nothing.

Remember the night of 7 November 2016 when we all went to bed expecting to wake up to America’s first female president? Instead, we got Donald Trump. News outlets around the world exploded. Ditto social media to the nth degree. To stop herself from doomscrolling, Odell hid in the Rose Garden of Oakland, California.

This wasn’t exactly a conscious decision; it was more of an innate movement, like a deer going to a salt lick or a goat going to the top of a hill. What I would do there is nothing. I’d just sit there. And although I felt a bit guilty about how incongruous it seemed—beautiful garden versus terrifying world—it really did feel like a necessary survival tactic.

Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House 2019)

A Gated Community

Thanks to whistleblowers like Frances Haugen, we have a pretty good idea how bad social media is for us. Not just Facebook but the entire attention economy that feeds on our willingness to post, to like and to share.

Odell knows. She’s on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. In How to Do Nothing, Odell quotes her own Twitter feed from a random day in the summer of 2018. It includes articles on ISIL, Myanmar, t-shirts, happy birthday wishes, the death of Senator McCain, and masturbating dolphins. So far, so Twitter. Then Odell notes:

Many things in there seem important, but the sum total is nonsense, and it produces not understanding but a dull and stupefying dread.

The media storm that followed Trump’s election was, in Odell’s eyes, co-created. We all jumped in, feet first. Odell compares it to “firecrackers setting off other firecrackers in a very small room.”

If dread is what social media causes, why do we continue to pull-to-refresh? Because it’s addictive, of course, even for someone as self-aware as Odell.

I think often about how much time and energy we use thinking up things to say that would go over well with a context-collapsed crowd—not to mention checking back on how that crowd is responding […] when I do it, it feels not only pathetic but like a waste of energy.

The crowd Odell refers to is a curated one. We social media users have long ago learned to silence or block voices we do not want to hear. Odell describes it as gated communities of attention.

Resist

I recognize myself all too well in the pathetic desire for likes as well as the homogenized texture of my Twitter feed. This realization makes me want to shutter all my social media accounts but this is not Odell’s point.

A real withdrawal of attention happens first and foremost in the mind. What is needed, then, is not a “once-and-for-all” type of quitting but ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.

In 2015, Odell gave a lecture on the visual artist David Hockney. Her audience consisted of docents of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The occasion was a showing of Hockney’s digital work, Seven Yorkshire Landscapes. Hockney believes that when we look, say, at a country road, “we see discrete, separate glimpses, which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world.”

I remember seeing Seven Yorkshire Landscapes at de Young. It must have been around the same time Odell was preparing her lecture. I walked through the gallery at my customary high speed, confident that I could take it all in with one glance, roughly equivalent to the time it would take to tweet.

The privilege of paying attention

Not everyone has time. Odell is acutely aware that her teaching job allows her to sit in the Rose Garden pretty much whenever she likes. Her daily wages do not depend on Facebook-driven business.

Odell has the power to switch off so that she can place her attention elsewhere. On the myriad birds in the Rose Garden or the ingenious ways in which the eye can see so that the brain eventually can understand. She sees this ability to bestow her attention where she wants as both her privilege and her obligation.

Of course, attention has its own margins. [For some] the project of day-to-day survival leaves no attention for anything else; that’s part of the vicious cycle, too. This is why it’s even more important for anyone who does have a margin—even the tiniest one—to put it to use in opening up margins further down the line. […] If you can afford to pay a different kind of attention, you should.

28 Oct 2021 | Karen Kao
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