Revolutionary (Un)Productivity: a review of Jenny Odell's 'How to Do Nothing'

by Nicole Froio / March 2, 2020

Theory and Strategy | Books  }
What would it take to reject capitalist temporality? In Jenny Odell's popular book, Nicole Froio finds a new way to think about productivity, connection, and relationship. 1854 words / 8 min read

It goes like this: we buy technologies that are supposed to improve our lives, but are actually designed to be addictive. Unfortunately, these technologies are so efficient that we now need them to survive in a fast-paced technology-saturated society, and they create problems that never existed before. And then we are sold products to help us manage those new problems.

On the surface, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell looks like one of these products. In reality, Odell’s book is a critique of the dystopian current state of affairs, where even our attention has been capitalised upon through our use of social media. Odell’s book is an anti-capitalist challenge to social media, advertising, and the hyper-accelerated news cycle that dominates our lives.

Though Odell is not anti-technology, she argues that the current state of technologies, specifically the monetisation of our attention through social media, is disrupting our ability to create physical communities and negatively affecting how we express ourselves. Counter to positive discourses about social media and the free speech it supposedly affords us, Odell posits that the addictive social media scene curbs our right to not express ourselves, depriving us of longer thought-processes, maintenance work, and community building. “[T]he villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or the idea of social media;” she writes. “It is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction” (emphasis hers).

What sets Odell’s book apart, for me, is that it is not absolutist in any way. Nor does it support the capitalist reasoning for putting your phone down: productivity in itself. A quick Google search of “attention economy” can show us how the issue is being tackled: most books and articles are instructive on how to log off social media so we can produce more work to make more money. Productivity is necessarily tied to making money in this hell stage of capitalism; even our hobbies are being turned into hustles. Odell explicitly rejects this in her arguments, in the examples she draws from to back them up, and in her overall structuring of the book. She is explicit about the lack of traditional productive self-help tips, and she draws on historical examples of labour activism that led to more days off rather than more productivity to frame her arguments for doing less as resistance. Odell writes, for example, about US workers in 1886 who campaigned for an eight-hour workday with the motto “eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, eight hours for what we will”; this refusal to explicitly define what is meant by “what we will”, Odell points out, is a humane act of resistance against commercial productivity. This undefined space is a challenge to a capitalist system that is, as Odell argues, “colonis[ing] the self by capitalist ideas of productivity and efficiency”. In an increasingly unregulated economic system where the hustle bleeds into our personal lives (and vice-versa, via social media presences and branding), the boundaries around “what we will” have dissolved. Time and space become conflated with each other, and everything we do, all the time, becomes a potential for profit.

This is why Odell locates the main issues of capitalised attention around the idea of ‘context collapse’ online, where our social media accounts are seen as representing “a figure who is expected to be as monolithic and timeless as a brand”. This results in a dehumanising negation of the messy contradictions, ambiguities, and processes that make us human. Profit is made out of absolutes, but our contradictory, complex humanity is the opposite of absolute, and is thus a hindrance to the making of money. This results in anxiety-inducing dystopic dynamics. We are not allowed to publicly change our minds, we are not allowed to go beyond the identity we present online; the lack of context “flattens past, present, and future into a constant amnesiac present.” And this present is not located in any physical place, so we lose touch with physical location and the communities that constitute that location.

As someone who wants to be a writer and has cultivated a small social media following, I can feel capitalisation working through me and towards me; I’ve been feeling like I need to have an opinion on things I don’t know that much about, otherwise I am not a good person (or maybe, more accurately, my followers won’t perceive me as a good person). But of what use is an under-researched, reactive thread on Twitter, other than as a performance of goodness? To me, social media used to be a place where I went to learn and have conversations, but it increasingly has become a place where having an opinion or a conversation feels mandatory. And because of the speed at which conversations take place, we frequently don’t have the time to process our feelings, or to choose kindness. It’s quicker, easier, to make a binary value judgement, rather than take a beat and try to read posts with humanity and care.

Odell’s attention to thought-processes and the undervaluation of maintenance and care work made me rethink what I see as productive. “We inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative,” she writes. “Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.” This calls to mind the racialised and gendered devaluation of maintenance and care work that is the fabric of our neoliberal hyper-marketised society. As Tithi Bhattacharya has argued (alongside countless other social reproduction theorists, feminists, womanists,and labour theorists), the work of people who keep things as they are is invisible and therefore undervalued, underpaid or not paid at all. Housework, cleaning, public upkeep, maintenance of public parks and gardens, preservation work, and so many other forms of labour: because they can’t be framed as ‘innovative’, they are frequently seen as ‘unproductive’. In order to marketise these forms of labour, capital creates anxiety or precarity: panic about germs or disease can sell more cleaning products; a migrant worker might be forced to accept a poorly-paid, cash-in-hand cleaning job so as to avoid the attentions of the border forces who would view her as ‘unskilled’.

This focus on productivity extends into my own life. As a writer, it’s difficult not to prefer the finished product over the process: to love my published articles more than my drafts because they signify public productivity, which in turn signifies success. Maintenance work (which, for myself and my life, I interpret as housework, mental health maintenance, and thought-work that might happen in moments of leisure, amongst other invisible work) increasingly felt like a waste of my time because it did not result in a byline I could share on social media. But this is work that the women in my family have been doing for generations: cooking, cleaning, passing down traditions. This is work that has no obvious, visible, Instagrammable results, and so I have consistently undervalued it, dismissed it. This is perhaps Odell’s most persuasive argument: that capitalism has infiltrated our minds and altered our judgements in ways we must consciously resist. This infiltration, and the contradictions it produces, doesn’t make us bad. It makes us works-in-progress, victims of a system designed to make us devote our lives to the making of profit for our Silicon Valley overlords.

Odell offers some solutions for resisting the attention economy. They aren’t perfect—and how could they be, given the oppressive structures that exist both internally and externally—but they are realistic. Complete disconnection from the digital world is discouraged. Being connected isn’t the problem, Odell argues; it’s the extent to which (and the ways in which) we are connected that is disrupting and monetising our lives. The book draws on Indigenous practices of embeddedness in and attentiveness to place (often culturally translated as bioregionalism). A focus on the local, Odell argues, can pull us away from the overwhelming, decontextualized nothing-space of contemporary digital capitalism. Offering our attention to, for example, the specific fauna and flora of our location can bring us back to where we are, and hopefully this can help communities flourish once again.

Last year I went to a retirement party, where a woman academic was being celebrated for her contributions to her university department. What struck me about her impact is that it was localised, and therefore it was deep: she inspired many other women to pursue academic careers and to believe in themselves, all because she stayed in one small community long enough to touch their lives and build networks of relationship and mutual support. She inspired me, personally, to live rather than climb the ladders of prestige I had always associated with success. By embodying the saying “make no harm, take no shit,” this woman changed lives—quietly and profoundly. Social media, I realised, had warped my idea of success. It’s not about money or hypervisibility, but about the people we nurture; and with whom we build community—online or offline. In a world rife with “30 under 30” lists that are designed to make us feel like our impact must be massive and monetary to be valued, can we abolish the idea of success, and instead measure our lives in love, friendship, and community?

Ironically, I don’t think this book encouraged me to do nothing. It actually inspired me to see maintenance and care work as political resistance. It encouraged me to displace the value I used to put into my own online presence, and search for value in grounded spatial dynamics. It takes time to build societal change; to take it one conversation at a time is not to diminish its radical potential. This renewed perspective motivated me to do things like exercise, meal prep, consistent cleaning of my flat, or resting after a long day with a clean conscience. Visible productivity is not the only thing that matters; my mental health and happiness matter too. Most importantly, I can now see the struggle for equality and justice for the marginalised as a historical and continuous fight, rather than with anxiety and despair. I am trying to harness my anxiety and to balance it with hope. I still view the state of the world an urgent matter which needs to change, but I have a new awareness of what I actually can do, how much power I have, and what it’s realistic to expect of myself. I cannot, for example, change minds with a single viral tweet (let’s be real, if someone is retweeting without commentary, they usually agree) but I can start meaningful conversations in my community, or create safe spaces for my friends to talk about oppression in my home. I am trying to be less reactive and more thoughtful, letting “thought-work,” as Odell calls it, happen with no rush. In these times where public despair and anxiety are literally monetisable, this is a crucial form of anti-capitalist praxis.

Jenny Odell’s ‘How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy’ is published by Penguin Random House.