The Value in Doing Nothing: An Interview with Jenny Odell
Jenny Odell wants you to do nothing—or, rather, she wants you to hit eject from the seemingly endless productivity cycle that turns every waking moment into a potential billable hour. This is something Odell has had to learn how to do herself: She is a prolific polymath who’s been an artist in residence at Facebook, had her work exhibited at Google, and has taught internet art and design at Stanford for seven years. But when reading her book How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (out this week!), you’d be forgiven if you thought that Odell is primarily a birdwatcher, an infinitely curious mind, and an optimist with her eye on the end of the world.
With clear prose and pure intention, How To Do Nothing traces a lineage of human dreaming, from the ancient school of Epicurus to early labor movements to utopian communes to Odell’s own practices for restoring, sharpening, and intensifying her attention. It’s tempting to read How To Do Nothing as a how-to guide for avoiding burnout, or social media, or any one facet of our monetized and platform-ized digital existence. But over the phone, Odell shared with The Riveter that really, she just wants you, and us, and the whole of humankind to consider the splendors that exist around and inside every single person—and to consider, too, the value of “nothing,” both within and outside of work.
So much of the discourse you cover in the book exists in iterations of self-help, or "increasing productivity," or how you’ve maintained your freedom and gained your resources. You live in Oakland; you've been in tech spaces your entire life; you teach at Stanford. Within this environment, and then with the work you're doing, how do you keep those delineations between your different kinds of “work” straight?
It's very easy to compare to sleep, which is a period of time that humans need to survive. Nobody is exempt from that. There have been all of these attempts to appropriate sleep, but you just can't get away with it. But that's just the resting part. Then there are things like dreams. I have crazy dreams every single night. I hesitate to call them useful in the traditional sense, but I do think it plays some part with my general going-on, my imagination. [I tell students,] give yourself three times as much time as you think you need. And know that two thirds of that isn't going to feel like making art; it's gonna feel like walking around and talking to your friends, or sitting and thinking about it. Or looking at some books in the library.
Another thing I've realized, a kind of a safeguard for me against the culture that I'm in the midst of, and the way that it treats time, is that... [In the book,] I talk about going to [Oakland’s Morcom Rose Garden] and how it feels innate. That's still true. I sometimes would just reach this weird breaking point, and whatever it is that I'm supposed to be doing, I'll just stop. It's not really a totally conscious decision, and I will either just leave the apartment and go for a walk without deciding how long it's gonna be, or where I'm going, and it always ends up being five hours. It's like having a dog that needs to be walked; I have to do that. Or being hungry, or needing to sleep. It's this sort of automatic thing that switches on.
The obvious question with "do nothing" as a practice is how to scale it. How To Do Nothing has so much to do with labor and community, and who gets to advocate for these “nothing” places and spaces. Thinking about the weight of how much needs to be changed, and about your own contributions against that, perhaps.
How do you process all that and still remain hopeful for not just your own personal time, but this future projection that you're hoping will happen? How do you keep yourself moving toward this goal, which might have nothing to do with things you "need to do"?
A lot of just writing the book in the first place was wanting to say something useful about how to just be okay, right now. Which seems almost a preliminary question to answer before you can answer other questions. I'm extrapolating from my own personal experience; not everybody had that problem, but a lot of people I know, and especially people who make things or organize, people who have the potential to connect people, or make something happen, or put something in the world, are sort of stymied right now. Especially right after the election.
If you're concerned about doing something meaningful, especially for your community, you have to be okay enough to do that in the first place. Just strategically, allowing yourself to step back and wait for perspective to come is going to help you think about what makes the most sense to do with your time. I just read about this thing the other day, the "wrong mountain problem." Which is like, you're so busy climbing up this mountain, you don't realize you're on the wrong mountain. The pause, where you look around and you're like, "Oh, I should be over there."
The grind wants to keep you in the grind. [Within it], you might not have these kinds of broader realizations, like, I can have the impact that I wanna have, and also just survive, if I go over here.
For a lot of people, there are professional repercussions if they aren’t “on” Twitter or other platforms. You’re online, too. Beyond your own interior curriculum of attention diversion, what are other things that have worked for you personally in that sense?
Leaving space around stuff is a really helpful way to get perspective on it. Yeah, I am on these platforms, but a couple of days ago, I went to Leona Canyon. I found this really steep trail that nobody wants to go up, and I found a cool bench and just sat on it for a long time. I tried to take photos just for myself of how beautiful it was, and it was like, why am I even trying? This is a very small piece of this experience that I had, and it mostly can't be communicated, and it certainly can't be communicated on those platforms.
The whole time, I'd been thinking, some thoughts are just for you. Or they're just between you and the tree, or you and the bird. That's where that thought lives, and it can't go anywhere. It's internal, but between you and your environment. From the perspective of results or social media, it's this kind of dark space. But those are obviously the most meaningful moments of my life. Keeping that in view has been... It's put social media in its place for me. I enjoy knowing these interesting and funny people who make amazing things, I wanna know about that stuff. I get enjoyment from that. [Platforms have] been helpful for me, in getting things out into the world. But there are things that they’re just not meant for, inadequate for. And those things just happen to be a large portion of my experience.
Right, it's not as though you're saying technology is bad. It's all about how people are choosing to apply it. And so many tech founders, as soon as they're able to step away from it, they're like, "I found enlightenment away from technology."
My book is about a lot of different things, so people take different things from it. But there's an impulse to make it be about social media. And it's not, and part of the reason it's not is just... The going on a digital detox retreat or going on a fast or something and then thinking about, the whole time, how you're going to put that on Twitter... Like, really? Is your life that one-dimensional? Do you have no interiority? Meanwhile, your life is passing you by.
I acknowledge that not everyone likes to be outside, and some people don't care about that kind of stuff. But you can find equivalents of it in other places, like local history. Basically, the world is very interesting. It's almost too interesting. If you're fully aware of that, you almost can't be bothered to get super tied up in social media, because it doesn't compare in complexity, in experience.
People have this idea that, especially in the Bay Area, they take the places we live near for granted. That things that are really "exotic," like plants and animals, are things that you see on Planet Earth, or you need to go to southeast Asia to see these things. That's not true! Everything is crazy. Like, I'm sitting next to this rose bush. You think about it for a minute, and you're like, where are roses even native to? How did this even get here? I look at plants, and it's so weird to me that the whole plant is contained in the beginning in a seed, and then you add water and time and sunlight and you get this, but in a way where the whole thing was there all along.
You can just trip out on that. I suggest that thoughts form in these kinds of ecological way, but it's hard to pinpoint exact A-to-B causality. You have these experiences that are just yours, and you just wait for a few years. And sometimes they do surface in your work in unexpected ways later. It's like do-nothing farming for the mind. You want this space where things grow in a certain way, that just acknowledges the mysterious way that things happen to grow, without obsessing over what it, you, are producing.
There's so much that we can't, and shouldn’t, control.
When I was in Leona Canyon, I saw this scene that was so aesthetically beautiful. But part of the reason I found it beautiful was knowing that it will be gone and also you will be gone, at some point. That's what gives that appreciation a kind of special, human tinge. It’s an embodied appreciation from the point of view of also being transient.
All my art is about perspective, zooming in and zooming out, and things that become apparent from one perspective that you can't see from another perspective. Lifespan is one of those perspectives. I've been thinking [about this documentary lately] about people who make bridges out of tree roots. They live in this really dense, jungle-y area, and people will train trees to basically grow across a creek or a river from both sides, and then they meet up in the middle. It takes so long that you'll never see a bridge that you worked on completed in your lifetime. But you're also using all of the bridges that were already made in the past, so you're benefiting from those.
That mindset seems so lacking right now. If you have a cult of individualism, then you also have a cult of individual lifespan. If you have this idea of having something to show for your time, products of your time, then the idea of working on something whose results won't be seen in your lifetime become less appealing. But it's so clearly evident that a lot of the problems that we have to work on right now are problems that outlast a lifespan. Wanting to work on something and wanting to see immediate results is not going to be an adequate impetus for working on that stuff. It has to come from something else.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lilian Min is a writer and researcher living in the Bay Area.