August 22, 2019

How to Resist Productivity

“LIKE DIET BOOKS, published and read in a steady stream despite—or thanks to—their near-total ineffectuality, manuals like Digital Minimalism (2019) and How to Break Up with Your Phone (2018) seem destined to appear year after year. Readers seek reprieve. They find individualized solutions ill-suited to breaking the habits that big technology companies have built into systems. It’s a recipe for recidivism.

But what’s the alternative? Artist and writer Jenny Odell suggests: nothing. Her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, looks at first glance like another contribution to the literature of digital detox. But Odell deliberately positions herself against this tradition. “All too often, things like digital detox retreats are marketed as a kind of ‘life hack’ for increasing productivity,” she writes. The result is a loop, in which a step away from your devices doubles as a step toward using them more efficiently, often for the ultimate benefit of bosses and shareholders. For Odell, “doing nothing” means breaking this cycle by resisting both the social media-driven “attention economy” and the “unforgiving landscape of productivity.”

The double meaning of her title’s “resisting” suggests how the “nothing” that precedes it might play out. Just as a person might resist the urge to open Twitter and then join others in the street to resist an injustice, Odell yokes together the two senses of the term. She presents the possibility of “a total and permanent reevaluation of one’s priorities”—made not in isolation, but in conversation with others alongside whom one can live out one’s new values. Odell defines these values largely by example. Her collectively oriented self-help—attuned to a moment in which many of her likely readers are groping toward more communal forms of living from behind capitalist barricades—does not offer advice so much as a series of inspirational parables and ideas, drawn from her wide reading and her own life. Grouped into thematic chapters, these stories model the potential of activities conventionally considered to be unproductive.”

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