The subtle art of ‘Doing Nothing’ with Jenny Odell

We’ve all felt the fatigue that stems from technology’s constant demands for our attention. But what can we do about it?

For author, artist, and educator Jenny Odell, the answer is “nothing.”

Earlier this month, Odell joined political reporter and Comm Lead alumnus Austin Jenkins for a fascinating discussion about how to reclaim our attention in an age of distraction. The event was hosted by Comm Lead, in partnership with Town Hall Seattle, and with media support from Crosscut. The conversation built on Odell’s highly-acclaimed book, “How To Do Nothing,” which Comm Lead selected as our ‘common book’ for the 2019-20 school year.

Odell talked about how growing up in Silicon Valley and now living in Oakland — as close to nature as it is to the biggest technology companies in the world — influenced her thought process on the “in between-ness” of our lived reality.

She recalled how after the presidential election and catastrophic Ghost Ship fire in 2016, “doing nothing” at the Rose Garden in San Francisco became a survival tactic for her.

She describes an “attention economy” where companies’ main goal is to attract, and monetize, our attention. Our job, then, is to maintain a critical distance from anything new, and not get swept up in the wave.

In an interview with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley last month, Odell defined doing nothing as pretty much “anything that’s not obviously goal-directed. One example is the difference between walking somewhere (taking the most efficient route) and going for a walk. If you’re going for a walk, then simply by walking, you’ve already achieved your ‘goal.'” Odell encourages people to not look at their life as a product to be optimized, and reframe the existing notion of purpose and productivity.

Jenkins asked Odell how she thought we could mitigate the anxiety and despair brought on by the attention economy. She pointed out how the lack of unstructured time, starting in childhood, leads to anxiety. Our lives are structured to make the most of our time; we grow up in a “time is money” culture. The solution isn’t as simple as putting our phones away. We cannot oversimplify the boundary between the physical and digital world. What we can do is stop and become intentionally aware of the structure that seemed invisible before; welcome moments in the everyday where we see something different, and find new ways to connect with the places and people around us.

From more from Odell and Jenkins, you can watch the full video of the event above.

And look out for more collaborations between Town Hall Seattle and Comm Lead coming soon!


Article by Anu Hastings
Video courtesy of Town Hall Seattle

Anu HastingsThe subtle art of ‘Doing Nothing’ with Jenny Odell
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