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Life Why doing nothing will help our attention span

Portrait of Jenny Odell.

Franziska Barczyk

In her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, writer and artist Jenny Odell writes that our obsession – no, make that our addiction – to social media in all its myriad forms has robbed us of our ability to do nothing. The Oakland, Calif. native says we’ve become so entrapped – tallying likes, building personal brands, reading every push notification that crosses our screens – that we’ve lost our connection to community and to ourselves. Her solution? We need to plug back into our surroundings. Take the time each day to just be still (and not in a yoga or meditation studio). The Globe spoke to Odell about soothing the techno-beast raging in all of us.

What exactly do you mean by the attention economy?

The buying and selling of attention is the design of things like apps and platforms that are trying to keep you as long as possible, as many times as possible. It’s a time when everyone from Amazon workers to college students see their margin of refusal shrinking and the stakes for playing along growing. As long as that is possible they’re going to design things that are highly addictive.

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You quote Robert Louis Stevenson who defined “busyness” as a “sort of dead-alive.” Does that sum up how you feel about our addiction to the attention economy?

There’s a reason it’s at the beginning of the book. I’m kind of haunted by the feeling that life is passing me by and [I’m missing it] if I’m engaging with something that is actively cutting me off from my own life.

What you’re really advocating is a plan of action to quasi drop out, right?

I’m not anti-technology. I like to stay in touch with my friends and see what they’re up to like everyone else. I’m opposed to the way corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal and the poetic.

Who’s the villain here?

It’s not necessarily the internet, or even the idea of social media. It’s the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy and distraction. We can’t sustain a train of thought. We’re constantly flitting from here to there. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In an endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.

You write that you feel “overwhelming anxiety” in the face of the attention economy, why?

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I feel like information is being thrown at me all the time and from all directions, and that I’m constantly reacting versus having time to think about what I’m reading and seeing, and coming up with some actual thoughts about that. Processing anything takes time and space, and I feel that time is threatened. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires and profiting from them. So long as social-media companies sell ads and data, and are responsible to investors to demonstrate growth, I suspect that persuasive design will continue to be part of the problem.

Don’t we shoulder blame, too?

We have to look more broadly at a culture that valorizes productivity and hyper-individualism. I find many “chicken or the egg” moments that make it difficult to pinpoint one single villain. The design of apps to be deliberately addictive is one problem, but our susceptibility to such addiction and our subscription to the cult of personal brands is, too.

Yikes, this is scary. What can we do?

A really big one is just be curious about your environment. Learn new ways to pay attention and be curious about the things and people that are actually around you. Take time to listen and learn. For me it’s birdwatching and it’s very helpful. Birds are everywhere. They surround you so there are constant opportunities to observe them and put yourself back in a natural space. When you’re online it can feel that you’re not anywhere, that you live in this flat, abstract plane. It’s important to remember that we all live in spaces, with shapes, characters – and those things are obviously under threat.

What does doing nothing mean to you?

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Nothing is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity. It’s really just rest and relaxation, as well as getting some perspective. Sleep is an example that everyone is familiar with, where it’s something that is “unproductive,” but we all understand that it’s necessary and integral to our waking lives. For me, it’s going to places like parks or gardens or libraries. Public spaces that aren’t commercial, that have a restorative and reflective function. In my day to day, I take any moments that I can to quiet my mind enough to perceive what is actually around me, and I’m often humbled by how much there is that I haven’t noticed.

So what are you telling people?

I’m not saying get unplugged. I think technology can be very helpful. What I’m advocating is to pay attention to what the technology is or isn’t doing for you in terms of your relationship to the rest of the world and your environment. So my standard question I ask myself is, “Is this opening me up more to the world or closing me off more to it?”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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