On holiday last week, I read How To Do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy by Jenny Odell. It’s an inspirational book, based on a blog post she published a few years ago; I should have read it when it first came out.
I’m going to quote a fair few sections of it, out of order, to make a few points. First, it’s really good to see so many authors of non-fiction books I’ve read recently to say that they’re explicitly anti-capitalist.
My argument is obviously anticapitalist, especially concerning technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community. It is also environmental and historical: I propose that rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one’s participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of “doing nothing” is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.
Odell has in her crosshairs the ‘attention economy’ which largely is synonymous with centralised social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. What I find interesting is the way she weaves her own story and sense of place around her philosophical and historical investigations of what it means to be human.
It’s important for me to link my critique of the attention economy to the promise of bioregional awareness because I believe that capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another. It’s also important because of the parallels between what the economy does to an ecological system and what the attention economy does to our attention. In both cases, there’s a tendency toward an aggressive monoculture, where those components that are seen as “not useful” and which cannot be appropriated (by loggers or by Facebook) are the first to go. Because it proceeds from a false understanding of life as atomized and optimizable, this view of usefulness fails to recognize the ecosystem as a living whole that in fact needs all of its parts to function.
Places, by definition, have context. You are in this place doing this thing. Social media feeds, on the other hand, suffer from what danah boyd calls ‘context collapse’: lots of things posted by different people one after another with no semblance of cohesion.
Like Odell, I spent many years on Twitter in particular, playing to the gallery and thinking in tweet-sized chunks. It does not lead to a flourishing life.
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. This is its own form of “research,” and when I do it, it feels not only pathetic but like a waste of energy
While I’d argue that things were different in the very early days, nowadays spending a lot of time on centralised social media services is an exercise in thinking with the herd. Outliers are ostracised.
William Deresiewicz warns… in “Solitude and Leadership,” a speech to an audience of college students in 2010 [that by] spending too much time on social media and chained to the news cycle, he says, “[y]ou are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.”
The apotheosis of this is shaping your ‘personal brand’ so that others have a fixed view of who you and what you offer. This is acquiescing to a capitalist frame of reference where value is extracted for the benefit of others.
Ultimately, I argue for a view of the self and of identity that is the opposite of the personal brand: an unstable, shapeshifting thing determined by interactions with others and with different kinds of places.
Odell suggests that we should disengage from such personal branding activities and instead engage in activities which she calls ‘resisting in place’.
To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognizing and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn’t always stop at the boundary of the individual.
So, instead of presenting oneself as a unified, unchanging ‘brand’ separate from others and the world, Odell suggests that we should recognise that we are unavoidably shaped by the interactions we have with others and the world.
What’s especially tragic about a mind that imagines itself as something separate, defensible, and capable of “efficiency” is not just that it results in a probably very boring (and bored) person; it’s that it’s based on a complete fallacy about the constitution of the self as something separate from others and from the world. Although I can understand it as the logical outcome of a very human craving for stability and categories, I also see this desire as, ironically, the intersection of many forces inside and outside this imagined “self”: fear of change, capitalist ideas of time and value, and an inability to accept mortality. It’s also about control, since if we recognize that what we experience as the self is completely bound to others, determined not by essential qualities but by relationships, then we must further relinquish the ideas of a controllable identity and of a neutral, apolitical existence (the mythology that attends gentrification). But whether we are the fluid product of our interactions with others is not our choice to make. The only choice is whether to recognize this reality or not.
One way of thinking about two different ways of interacting online is to differentiate between connectivity and sensitivity. One is about unambiguously spreading information, the other about encountering others.
Writing about the circulation of information, Berardi makes a distinction that’s especially helpful here, between what he calls connectivity and sensitivity. Connectivity is the rapid circulation of information among compatible units—an example would be an article racking up a bunch of shares very quickly and unthinkingly by like-minded people on Facebook. With connectivity, you either are or are not compatible. Red or blue: check the box. In this transmission of information, the units don’t change, nor does the information.
Sensitivity, in contrast, involves a difficult, awkward, ambiguous encounter between two differently shaped bodies that are themselves ambiguous—and this meeting, this sensing, requires and takes place in time. Not only that, due to the effort of sensing, the two entities might come away from the encounter a bit different than they went in.
So connectivity is a share or, conversely, a trigger; sensitivity is an in-person conversation, whether pleasant or difficult, or both. Obviously, online platforms favor connectivity, not simply by virtue of being online, but also arguably for profit, since the difference between connectivity and sensitivity is time, and time is money. Again, too expensive.
As humans, we tend to only notice big changes; small things that drip-feed escape our notice. We don’t tend to think they’re particularly important. This is true of small changes to seasonal temperatures that over time constitute climate change, but also applies to changes in our behaviour.
An example of this comes from James Williams who, writing about ad blockers on the University of Oxford’s ‘Practical Ethics’ blog, explains what’s at stake: nothing less than our freedom. Odell paraphrases him as saying that what we see as merely irritating actually prevent us from flourishing.
We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.” Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.
What we need to be doing, therefore, is to be seeking out spaces for context collection rather than context collapse. I like this way of framing things, as it’s both a philosophical and practical approach. I’ve already had discussions with the Bonfire team about ways in which posts can be displayed in ways that are neither algorithmic nor merely pile one contextless thing after another.
If, as I’ve argued, certain types of thought require certain types of spaces, then any attempt at “context collection” will have to deal not only with context collapse online, but with preserving public and open space, as well as the meeting public and open space, as well as the meeting places important to threatened cultures and communities.
This book has really made me question what I’ve been doing (and what I will be doing in the future) online. Not more of the same, that’s for sure.