HOW TO DO NOTHING: RESISTING THE ATTENTION ECONOMY – JENNIFER ODELL

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A week ago I found myself in a two day free-to-attend ‘festival’ hosted by the Malaysian Ministry of Finance and organized in collaboration with the Central Bank of the country – Bank Negara Malaysia. Titled LIFT, an acronym whose expansion stood for Literacy in Financial Technology and Living in Future Times, the event purported to showcase the burgeoning developments in the digital world of finance and technology. In between the short time before one speaker concluded her talk and the next one was preparing to take the podium, the emcee, with a view to eliciting participation from an otherwise reticent but polite crowd, asked as to how many people upon waking up every morning reached out for their smartphones instead of turning towards their spouse. More than 75% of the hands instinctively shot up prompting a burst of spontaneous laughter.

While I am yet to share my bed with a spouse, this question by the Emcee triggered a bout of introspection. I would be lying through my teeth if I was to deny the fact that the first thing grabbing my attention every morning is a rectangular instrument that furnishes me with an unending ticker tape of likes, notifications, comments and mentions. Every other tangible object and intangible element does not stand a chance in so far as vying for attention is concerned. It is almost as if I have divided myself into fractals with each fractal being enslaved by its favourite social media outlet. This in spite of me having read, and reviewed the social recluse Jaron Lanier’s influential book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”

So how does one disentangle oneself from the addictive, if not downright pernicious grip of social media? Does one go ‘dissipati peribunt’ by deactivating every social media account and retreating to the hills, or does one adopt an outside-in approach by remaining detached in spite of putting on a veneer of attachment? Jennifer Odell, an American artist, writer and educator based in Oakland, California tackles this very question in her extremely thought provoking, timely and tantalizing work, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” Fully concurring with Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert’s assertion that “every age needs a Diogenes”, Ms. Odell emphasizes the necessity of possessing the singularly peculiar mind set of this eccentric Greek Philosopher, who once ordered Alexander The Great to move aside since the Emperor was blocking the philosopher’s sun! Odell also takes refuge in one of the most hardboiled, provocative and enduring refuseniks of all time, Mr. Bartleby, Herman Melville’s fictional character who drives his employer to the wall by just sticking to his stock phrase “I would prefer not to” and exactly adhering to it.

An avid bird watcher, a la, Jonathan Franzen, Ms. Odell confesses her obsession towards watching birds in action This obsession in turn enables her to perceive in a more purposeful and aesthetic manner, nature that surrounds her. Bio-regionalism – a concept dealing with an awareness not only of the many life-forms of each place, but how they are interrelated, including with humans – first articulated by the environmentalist Peter Berg in the 1970s and the works of John Muir goad Ms. Odell on further nurturing her ornithological fascination. Borrowing from Donna Haraway and Martin Buber, Ms. Odell, exhorts us to concentrate upon where we are now, to acquaint ourselves with the world as it currently stands, and not go about imposing our will and subjectivity on it.

Drawing from a plethora of empirical research, Ms. Odell strives to imprint upon us the need to look beyond the periphery of our restrained boundaries of attention. The genesis underlying the coining of the term “inattentional blindness” by Berkeley researchers Arien Mack and Irvin Rock in the 1990s while studying the drastic difference in our ability to perceive something if it lies outside our field of visual attention, finds a detailed mention in Ms. Odell’s book.

Ms. Odell does not expect us to emulate Thomas Merton in escaping to the hills thereby engaging in a life of contemptus mundi, or to retreat to the woods, Thoreau-fashion thereby enjoying our own personalized Walden. “I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention” she writes, “what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together.” Instead, the secret is to occupy what Ms. Odell terms is the “third space” in the attention economy. This represents inculcating the requisite will power not only to withdraw attention, but to transpose it elsewhere, so that it stands enlarged, proliferated and improved in so far as its acuity is concerned. This according to Ms. Odell means introspecting across variegated timescales when “the mediascape would have us think in 24-hour (or shorter) cycles, to pause for consideration when clickbait would have us click, to risk unpopularity by searching for context when our Facebook feed is an outpouring of unchecked outrage and scapegoating, to closely study the ways that media and advertising play upon our emotions, to understand the algorithmic versions of ourselves that such forces have learned to manipulate, and to know when we are being guilted, threatened, and gas lighted into reactions that come not from will and reflection but from fear and anxiety.”

Thus doing nothing is the diametric opposite of assuming the stillness of a mendicant (at least in so far as physical movement is concerned) or severing the relationship with social media cold turkey and vanishing into oblivion like a fading mist. In the opinion of Ms. Odell, the act of doing nothing is an art that has a three-point perfection:

  • It is art of a dropping out;
  • Developing a lateral movement outward to things and people that are around us; and
  • Moving downward into place.

My only reservation with the ideas propagated and proposed by Ms. Odell is the aspect of implementation. In a world that brooks no exception and where bucking the trend is more a fortunate – and perhaps in a few exceptional cases courageous – exception than the norm, it is more than just a gamble to dissociate oneself from the everyday hustle and bustle, thereby paying paeans or obeisance to the lives of either Diogenes or Epicurus. Also it would be far-fetched if not downright idiotic to expect society to accord either the same patience or magnanimity towards the goings on of a resurrected Diogenes. Hence, unless there exists a secure financial backing or an assured avenue for leading a life filled with fundamental essentials, let alone luxurious accompaniments, it would be next to impossible to assimilate either Berg’s bioregionalism or Muir’s naturalist wanderings, as the core of one’s existence.

But having said that “How to do nothing” provides a handy channel to plan a much needed escape from the clutches of an unrelenting and remorseless form of capitalism.

3 thoughts on “HOW TO DO NOTHING: RESISTING THE ATTENTION ECONOMY – JENNIFER ODELL

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