Jenny Odell: “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” | Talks at Google

Jenny Odell: “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” | Talks at Google

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want to do is just give kind of a condensed
version of the talk that turned into this book. And then, after that,
just talk a little bit about how it turned into a book,
which is kind of an odd story because my background
is as a visual artist and not necessarily as a writer. And give a sense
of what I’m trying to do with this book, which
is not a book about putting your phone down– we have enough of those– but more about questioning our
current notions of productivity altogether. And also just how to feel
OK enough for long enough to figure out what it
is that can be done and who you need to talk to in
order to be able to do that. So this whole thing
started in late 2016, not long after the election
and also the Ghost Ship fire, which happened in Oakland,
which is where I live. I’m sure many of you
heard about that. But it was a warehouse fire
in which 36 people died. And a lot of them were artists. Some of them were friends
of friends of mine. And so there was this
moment of paralysis. I obviously have a lot of
friends who make things. And I think there was this
feeling of like nothing that I couldn’t
make or have made is of any importance
in this context. And so I wasn’t really sure
what to do or say or make. And at that time, I was asked
to submit a talk description for a talk that I would be
giving at Eyeo, E-Y-E-O, Conference. And I found that had been going
to this rose garden about five minutes from my apartment
and sitting on this bench, doing nothing, not reading,
just sitting and shell shocked and trying to process. So I submitted
the talk title How to Do Nothing without
having a talk by that name. And then I spent the next couple
of months trying to figure out what this necessity was
of me going to this place and how the space was different
from the other spaces I was finding myself in. And so there was
a really key quote that I came across
around this time by Deleuze about the fact that– this idea of the right to
say nothing and the right to not express oneself is
something that I hadn’t really thought about before. The fact that sometimes the
decision of whether or not to express myself at
all wasn’t exactly mine or didn’t feel like
it was mine to make. And that that’s obviously a
really big part of eventually having something
worthwhile to say– is having the right
to say nothing for some amount of time. So I was thinking about
this and how I actually have had a longstanding
relationship to doing nothing but in the context of
art and making nothing. So the type of art
that I tend to make is almost the
opposite of something from nothing, or
putting something straightforwardly new in
the world that I made. I tend to work much
more with context and creating new contexts
for existing things. So I had been an artist in
residence at the San Francisco dump, otherwise
known as Recology SF. And my project had been
to pull 200 objects out of the dump that were at
least somewhat identifiable and spend what became an
increasing amount of time monomaniacally researching where
they were made, why they were made, what they’re made out of. Do they have commercials on
YouTube that you can watch? What can account
for this object? And as you can see,
it’s kind of a mix of– I just tried to get a good
picture of human stuff. And someone who came
to this exhibition– and as you can see,
there are these cards. They’re just QR codes that
you could scan and get all this information while
looking at the object. There was someone who came
to the opening and asked, did you actually make anything? Or do you just put
things on shelves? And I was like, oh, I just
put things on shelves. That describes everything
I’ve ever done. It actually describes the book. I collect pieces of
things, and I reorder them. That’s all I do. And I research them. And I hope to make someone
see them in a new light. So you can be accused with that
kind of art of making nothing. One of my favorite
pieces of art that could suffer from
the same accusation– this is a map by
Eleanor Coppola, who was the wife of
Francis Ford Coppola. And it is a map for a specific
day in which participants were asked to visit these
different locations. And they all have store windows. And it’s just called Windows. And on this specific day,
you’re supposed to go and just look in the window. And that was the art. And it’s a public art piece. But if you think about how
public art pieces normally feel, they’re like a giant
steel sculpture in the middle of a corporate plaza. That feels very contextualized. And it’s very like,
I made some art. Here it is. And this is more
like, oh, no, I’m just going to frame your
experience so that you see something in a new light. And then one other
related example– this is a piece by my
friend Scott Polach called Applause Encouraged. And people would sign up to be
ushered into this space right before the sunset. They watched the sunset. They applauded. And then they were
served refreshments. So this is the kind of art that
I like and that I try to make. So you can see making nothing. So yeah, I was sitting
in the Rose Garden. And I started
thinking about what the architecture
of nothing would be if there was such a thing. And I was struck by
this particular garden. It has a kind of
labyrinthine quality to it. It’s not very big. But the way it’s
designed makes it possible to spend
a really long time there walking around and
sitting in different places. It also has a really interesting
mix of cultivated elements, but also wild elements,
like oak trees. And overall, it just
struck me not only as a space of wandering,
but of care and maintenance because you’ll often see
volunteers doing gardening there– this kind of ethic of
care and maintenance. And in terms of
that design, I was thinking about
labyrinths in general and how they allow you to
not quite stand still and not move through a space
but actually do something in between. I think there’s a
lot of similarity with the idea of
just going for a walk instead of walking to
a place, especially trying to get there on time. Going for a walk, you’ve
achieved your goal if you’re walking. You’re already walking. And then for an auditory
example of this– nonspacial or nonvisual– I was really inspired by the
composer Pauline Oliveros, who is a classically
trained composer but moved into
this thing that she called “deep listening” and
also various improvisational performances. But deep listening
for her was a practice of listening as much as
possible to everything that you could possibly
listen to around you, including your own thoughts. So it’s not just outward. It’s outward and inward. And for her, the
point of doing that was that our culture privileges
judgment and analysis over listening and receiving. And because of that, we need
to specifically practice that second mindset. And I realized that
I had unintentionally learned deep listening through
the practice of birdwatching, or, as I call it, “bird
noticing,” because if you are a bird watcher, you
know that half– or if not, more– of the time
you hear something first. And then you look for it. The other thing I just want
to mention about birdwatching is that I use binoculars
as an example of technology when I talk to my
students at Stanford because I think it’s really easy
to draw a hard line around what we think is technology. But binoculars are a
form of augmented vision that allow me to
see things that I can’t see with the unaided eye. So deep listening was something
that I realized I already had a connection with
but hadn’t really thought very specifically about. And I was also thinking about
the granularity of attention. I had this embarrassing
moment where I realized that my mom speaks
three languages, not two. So up until I was
basically an adult, I thought that my mom was only
speaking English and Tagalog. And the only reason I thought
that was that anything that wasn’t English sounded
like Tagalog to me that she was speaking. And then at some point, I
realized she was actually speaking three languages. And I asked her to say the
same thing in each one. And as you can see, they’re
completely different. And they’re not dialects. They are distinct languages. This is a map of languages
in the Philippines. A lot of people just think,
oh, people in the Philippines speak Tagalog. So I think there’s
something really instructive in this
feeling of embarrassment where you thought that
two things were one thing. And then you realize
it’s actually 10 things. It’s actually 20 things. And it’s simply a
function of your patience and how much time you
spend staring at something or listening to something. Inevitably you’re going to
realize that you don’t actually know it. But that takes time. And that’s obviously time that’s
being closed down right now. So on that note of
time being closed down, I was sitting in
the Rose Garden also thinking about how
public space seems kind of like the
corollary to free time and how free time
and public space are threatened by
the same phenomena. I was very inspired by
the 19th-century movement for the eight-hour work day. This is the graphic that
went with that movement. And I just want to point out
that in eight hours for what we will, they’re reading
a union newspaper, which I think is very key. And another thing I want to
point out is that what we will is not defined. It’s not eight hours
for self-improvement. It’s eight hours
for what we will. It could be education. It could be leisure. It could be whatever. The whole point is
it’s dark space. It’s not defined. That is up to the individual. And so just as a park fails
to make money or produce demonstrable results,
free time is increasingly subjected to the same
mentality until we get this. This is my graphic. 24 potentially monetizable hours
in which each individual is imagined to be an entrepreneur. And you can find innovative ways
of foregoing sleep and taking care of oneself. I just want to read– this
is from the original talk. And it’s also chapter
1 of the book. In a situation where every
waking moment has become the time in which
we make our living and when we submit
even our leisure for numerical evaluation
via likes on Facebook and Instagram,
constantly checking on its performance
like one checks a stock, monitoring
the ongoing development of our personal brand, time
becomes an economic resource that we can no longer
justify spending on nothing. It provides no
return on investment. It is simply too expensive. This is a cruel confluence
of time and space. Just as we lose
noncommercial spaces, we also see all of our
own time and our actions as potentially commercial. Just as public space gives way
to faux public retail spaces or weird corporate
privatized parks, so we are sold the idea
of compromise leisure– a freemium leisure that is a
very far cry from what we will. There was a period of time where
I was an artist in residence at the Internet Archive
in San Francisco. And I was going through
old “Byte” magazines. And “Byte” magazine was like
a hobbyist computing magazine in the ’80s and ’90s. And I found this
amazing ad of the power lunch, which is all about
the convenience of working from home. I also think it’s funny
that the graph is going up, like obviously
more productivity, and that he has not touched
his lunch and is drinking milk. I mean, no judgment. So we have this ad. And then now we
have this ad, which it seems like a natural
outgrowth of the other one. I’m sure many people are
familiar with this ad campaign. But it was all over
the Oakland BART stations, in which your
taking time to eat and sleep are ridiculed– not only not valued,
but ridiculed. And for me, this reached
a new register after 2016. So on top of work, the
same means by which we give over our hours and
days are the same ones with which we assault
ourselves with information and misinformation at a
rate that is, frankly, inhumane to anyone
who thinks about it for any amount of time. There’s a really
weird turning point in the talk where I start
talking about birds. You have to trust me on that. In this moment of
the Edvard Munch “The Scream” of that last tweet,
I also simultaneously started noticing not just birds in
general, but particular birds in my neighborhood. So some of them are
these night herons, which hang out
around the of KFC, although the KFC just closed. So I’m not sure what’s
going on right now. But if you’ve never
seen a night heron– I know you have them here. They’re in Central Park. I keep tabs on the night herons. But they’re really weird birds. They’re very grumpy looking. And they are herons, but they
never stick their necks out. And they’re just very stoic. And they just don’t move. They just sit in one spot. And I noticed that they
were just there all day and all night. I also have probably
hundreds and hundreds of photos that look
just like this. And if you follow
me on Twitter, you know that a lot of my
account looks like this. So I started modifying my
route home from the bus specifically to pass
by the KFC just to see. I know they’re there. But there’s something
about seeing them there that’s very reassuring. And it gave me access to another
scale of time, not to mention a nonhuman perspective. This is May 2011,
Google Street View. They’re still there. There’s a second
one in the back. I don’t know if you can see it. Night herons have
actually been in what is now Oakland since
before Oakland was a city. It was marshland. So for me, they’re kind of
ghosts of this marshy past. And they’re persisting
into the present in a way that I find very comforting. And then the other sort
of bird was a pair, which is now a group, of crows
that I befriended on my street because I had just
read a book about– it’s called “The
Genius of Birds.” And it’s about how birds are
way more intelligent than we gave them credit for. But crows in particular
recognize human faces. They can teach
their children who the good and bad humans are. They’ve been documented
making tools. They’re very intelligent,
and they have personalities. And so I spent a
really long time trying to get the
attention of these crows with peanuts on my balcony. And I’m proud to say,
I still know them. And I see them all the time. And they sometimes
stop me on the street because they recognize me
and know that I have peanuts. So I’m just going to read
a quick another excerpt from the talk slash
chapter 1 about looking at these crows looking at me. These alien animal perspectives
on me and our shared world have provided me not
only with an escape hatch from contemporary
anxiety but also a reminder of my own
anamality and the animateness of the world that I live in. Their flights enable my own
literal flights of fancy, recalling a question that one
of my favorite authors, David Abram asks in “Becoming Animal.” Quote, “do we really believe
that the human imagination can sustain itself
without being startled by other shapes of sentience?” Strange as it sounds,
this explained my need to go to the Rose Garden
after the election. What was missing from that
surreal and terrifying torrent of information and
virtuality was any regard, any place for the human animal. Situated as she is in time
and a physical environment with other human and
nonhuman entities, it turns out that groundedness
requires actual ground, which may seem obvious. But for me, it was a
really big turning point. So the rest of that
talk was about the tools that doing nothing can
give us, although I’m very careful not
to instrumentalize the idea of doing nothing
as some kind of life hack. One was just the
idea of self-care. And I mean self-care not in
the goop sense, but the sense before it was commodified,
just actual care of the self in
almost an activist sense in order to
ultimately accomplish something later, a
self-care that prepares the self for action, in a
sense that Audre Lorde talks about self-care. And then another thing that
I think it can help with is it can provide an antidote
to the rhetoric of growth. So in nature, things
that grow unchecked are considered
parasitic or cancerous. And yet we live in a culture
that routinely privileges novelty and growth over the
cyclical and the regenerative. And our very idea
of productivity is premised on the idea of
producing something entirely new, whereas we don’t see
things like maintenance and care as productive
in the same way, although we also understand
that those things underwrite the possibility of
everything else. So again, to come back
to the Rose Garden, I spend a lot of time there. And so I also see a lot
of maintenance happening. And it’s not uncommon to
see visitors to the park go up to these volunteers
and thank them because we all need the Rose Garden. But they’re not
producing anything new. They’re keeping it the same. And here, I was
really also inspired by an artist named Mierle
Laderman Ukeles, who has been an artist in residence
with the New York Sanitation Department for a
really long time. Her work centers on maintenance. You can see here she’s
washing the steps of the exhibiting institution. She spent 11 months shaking
hands with and thanking 8,500 sanitation
workers in New York and telling each one
of them, thank you for keeping New York City alive. And so she wrote an
exhibition proposal in the late ’60s after
becoming a mother. And the exhibition
proposal was basically that she would exhibit her
work that she does as a mother. So I think she has a
sentence in here that says, my work is the work. And she distinguishes
these two instincts, which she calls the “death
instinct” and the “life instinct.” And you can see the
definitions here. One is to go your own
path, create something new, do your own thing,
dynamic change. The life instinct is the
cyclical, regenerative, maintenance, care
side of things. Obviously, you need
some amount of both. But one of these is
a lot more valorized than the other one is. It also sounds a lot
like disrupt to me. And so coming back
to the Rose Garden, I had her in mind
as I was looking at this one part of
the garden that’s called Mother of the Year. So every year since
the 1950s, the city votes on the mother
of the year, who is someone who’s contributed
to the overall well-being of Oakland residents. And here you can see little
plaques for each decade. And it actually goes up to 2050. So there’s blank slots. And the ceremony
happens on Mother’s Day. And so I talked about mothers
in the context of work that sustains and maintains. But I don’t obviously
think that one needs to be a mother
in order to experience that maternal impulse. If anyone here has seen the
Fred Rogers documentary, you know what I’m talking about. But I also was thinking about
a book– oops, let’s see. I don’t have that slide. There’s a book by
Rebecca Solnit called “Paradise Built
in Hell,” which is about the aftermath of different
man-made and natural disasters in which, contrary to
every man for himself, people actually came
together in really surprising and innovative
ways, sometimes with a sense of humor,
even, and created really amazing and flexible
structures of support, oftentimes meeting their
neighbors for the first time and surprising themselves with
what they were capable of. And I think that is the sort of
impulse that I’m talking about. So I ended by
suggesting that we take a protective stance toward
ourselves and each other. That we protect our
spaces and our time for noninstrumental,
noncommercial activity and thought for maintenance,
for care, and for conviviality. And that we fiercely
protect our human animality against all technologies and
rhetorics that actively ignore and disdain the body,
the bodies of others, and the body of the land
that we physically inhabit. And at the very
end of that talk, I played a recording
of “Thunder” by Gordon Hempton, who
is an acoustic ecologist. So that was pretty
much the talk. I put it up as a Medium post
mostly just as documentation. I wasn’t expecting that
many people to read it outside of the conference. And I was really
surprised by how much it appeared to
resonate with people from all different backgrounds. And so not that long after
that, Adam Greenfield, who wrote “Radical
Technologies” emailed me. And so this is all his
fault. He put the idea in my head of turning
it into a book, which I’m not sure that would have
occurred to me otherwise, and helped get me some
example book proposals and really just got the
ball rolling for me. And so I’m super
grateful to him for that. And so the next part of
my life looked like this. This is me trying to
figure out, what’s the extension of this argument? And I ultimately
decided to not expand the sections of the talk, just
keep the talk is chapter 1, and then pursue the
idea further from there. When I pitched my book, I
described it as John Muir for the fiber age. And I wrote in the introduction
that it’s important for me to link my critique of
the attention economy to the promise of bioregional
awareness, which is something I talk about later in the
book, because I believe that capitalism, colonialist
thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance
toward the environment all coproduce one another. It’s also important
because of the parallels between what the economy
does to an ecological system and what the attention
economy does to our attention. So I’m going to really briefly– like very briefly– just mention
what the other chapters are about so you have some idea. After you get to the
end of chapter 1, you may want to
head for the hills. So chapter 2 is
blocking the exits. It’s called the
Impossibility of Retreat. And it’s about a bunch
of different things– the school of
Epicurus, which was the early example of
a retreat to outside of the city, a kind
of utopian community. Also 1960s communes. And just the problem
of attempting to retreat altogether
from politics and society because I’m trying
to disentangle that impulse from the desire
to disengage from the attention economy. And that’s also
the chapter where I talk about Thomas Merton,
who was a 20th-century Catholic monk slash hermit and is
an example of someone who existed on the fringes but
stayed deeply politically engaged in his time. So he wrote a lot about
specific political issues and was taking the
Catholic church to task for abandoning its
social justice roles. And he wrote in a book
called “Contemplation in a World of Action,”
“if I had no choice about the age in
which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice
about the attitude I take and about the way and the
extent of my participation in its living and
ongoing events. To choose the world is
an acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world
in history and in time– in my time, which
is the present.” And so that’s what
I use to articulate this idea of
resistance in place, which is where you don’t leave. You don’t head for the hills. You find a way of
resisting, becoming a weird shape that can’t
be so easily appropriated where you are. And then the next
chapter is called Anatomy of a
Refusal, which I open by talking about this
amazing performance piece by Pilvi Tuakala, who’s
a Finnish artist who got a job as a marketing
intern at Deloitte and then proceeded
to do nothing. She would sit at her
desk, staring into space. And she’d also ride the
elevators up and down. And when asked
what she was doing, she said she was
doing thought work. And in the elevator,
I think she said, sometimes it’s
good to see things from a different perspective. Actually, the epigraph
to that chapter is an email that
somebody in the company sent about how there’s
that weird intern who’s staring into space. And it’s marked “urgent,”
which I find very telling. And the curatorial text
also says, actually doing nothing at work
is a commonplace. But you would expect
someone to be looking at Facebook or something. It’s the image of someone
doing nothing that is very– makes people uncomfortable. Similarly, I basically
like comparing her to Diogenes, who
some of you may know but was an ancient
Greek cynic philosopher. And this is a painting of a
very famous Diogenes moment. He lived in a barrel and
had almost no possessions and would just do the opposite
of what any convention was. He would just do the opposite. And this is Alexander
the Great coming to visit this
well-known philosopher. And he’s saying, I’m
so happy to meet you. Is there anything
I can do for you? And Diogenes says, yes,
stand out of my light. You’re in my sun. Get out of the way. And then another example
would be Tom Greene on his public access TV show
lying on the ground for quite a while. And these are all examples of
an individual refusal, somebody who is highlighting the
contours of an accepted customs simply by not doing
it and reminding us of the possibility of
not doing something. But of course, there’s
a limit to how much individual refusal can achieve. So it’s really important
for me to also talk in that chapter about the
general strike in 1934 in San Francisco, which started
with a longshoreman strike. And so I am trying to build this
bridge from individual refusal and the amount of focus and
attention and discipline that it takes to collective
refusal, which almost requires a second order type of
concentration and alignment and attention within a group. It’s also just a
really amazing event in terms of images of refusal
during the longshoreman strike. Basically, there was a skirmish
between strike supporters and the police. And two people were killed. And during the
originally small memorial down Market Street
for those two people, more and more people
joined into this procession until it was like
hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands of people
silently marching down Market Street. And the image of
this refusal is what set off the general
strike, in which 150,000 people around the
Bay Area walked off the job. So it’s just an amazing example
of that collective refusal. Also, it’s important for
me to talk about this because I think there’s
a lot of parallels between this
moment, in which you have individual longshoremen
who have horrible work schedules and have no job security and
are powerless to resist inhumane working conditions, with
something like the gig economy now, where you have people
in a very similar situation. Chapter 4 is about
exercises and attention. This is like the art chapter. Again, I teach art. I am an artist. And so this is
all just about how different types of experiences–
and my examples are from art. But all kinds of
things can teach you how to proliferate
your attention, deepen your attention. I think the attention economy
takes attention for granted. And it treats it like currency. And it assumes that it’s all
the same, and it’s all shallow. And that doesn’t
have to be true. I think you can practice
different kinds of attention. And that’s also where I start
talking about bioregionalism. Because for me, when I started
deepening my attention, the thing that
became apparent to me was that I don’t live nowhere. And I don’t live
in a simulation. I live in a place. That place has a material
reality that precedes humans. And so I talk about a creek
that I grew up next to without ever really noticing
it also goes through the Apple Campus, which is really weird,
and going back and tracing that and letting it lead me
to this whole awareness of the actual shape of
the place that I live in. So this is me and my
friend who also grew up on that creek sneaking
into Calabasas Creek. And then the
second-to-last chapter is called Ecology of Strangers. And that’s my attempt
to think outside, what is the opposite version of
the self from a personal brand? And what do you
encounter when you step outside of not literally
your filter bubble, but just the filter bubble kind
of way of thinking in which things are
only of interest to you because they should be
or they have something to offer you in terms
of self-improvement? So it’s really just about being
surprised and willingness to be surprised and to acknowledge
an ecological model of the self where you are not
only determined by your relationships to others. But you’re a
shapeshifting intersection of different influences
at any given time. This is actually from a
different talk that I gave. But I think it kind
of gets to this point where there’s a really big
difference between this more ecological self versus– as a thought experiment,
if you imagine following all of your algorithmic
recommendations forever, you might end up in a
very stabilized pattern of likes and dislikes
that incidentally would be very easy to advertise to. And then the last chapter
is Restoring the Grounds for Thought and
trying to draw, again, this parallel between
ecology and what happens online by talking
about the importance of context and also context collapse. So I think ecology
is a really great way to relearn the
importance of context. In any ecology, any part
of it is really hard to define as an individual
entity because it’s so– symbiotic relationships
are an example– but the fact that
things in an ecology can’t really be extricated
from time or space and still mean the same thing. And obviously that
kind of, to me, reminds me of things
like statements taken out of context on Twitter. And then very quickly,
there’s a huge pile-on of collective outrage. And no one wants to take
the time to actually look into the context of that. And then “context
collapse” is a term that was coined by Danah
Boyd, who is a media scholar. But she cites this book a lot. And so in this book, there
is a thought experiment at the beginning where
the author says– this is before the internet. Imagine if you went on
vacation, and you came back. And you obviously would
have a different version of your story for your friends,
your family, and your employer. And then imagine if someone
threw a surprise party, and all of those
people are in the room. What’s the version of
the story you tell them? It’s either going to be
really boring and banal and uninteresting to
everyone, or you’re going to offend someone. And that’s just
the perfect example of context collapse on
something like Twitter, where you don’t necessarily
know who your audience is. You could become a pariah
or a celebrity overnight. None of these people know
you as an individual. They only know the one
expression that you’ve made. And so basically
this whole chapter is just about the importance
of context and thinking about reintroducing– if there’s context collapse,
what is the opposite of that? Can you restore context? And my suggestion is that
whatever that ends up being, it’s going to look
a lot like group chats, in-person
meetings, different levels of collected contexts. But it’s not going to be
this shouting into the void. And it’s also not going to
be things that are reverse engineered by what will get
the most likes and the most engagement. So just to wrap up,
I want to clear up a couple of possible
misconceptions about my book. One is that it could be seen
as an anti-technology book. It’s not. I have a long-standing interest,
especially in the classes that I teach, in proposing
or looking at technology as a tool that can be
used one way or another. And so an example of
that is iNaturalist, which is my favorite
app and that I feel like I plug
in every interview that I do about this book. It’s like Shazam for plants. Basically, you can take
a picture of a plant. And it’ll use machine
learning to suggest some possible identifications. And then it’s
confirmed or denied by a person usually
within a couple of days. And so you might see me on
a hike with my phone out and think that’s
really depressing. But I’m actually using it to– this is a really,
really big deal for me in terms of bioregionalism and
learning about native species around me. I don’t think I would have been
able to do it without this. And on top of that, there is
a community in iNaturalist. I just went to an
iNaturalist happy hour. And I got to meet in person
someone who had been confirming a lot of my identifications. And then at the same
time, I don’t think– it’s not an
anti-technology book. But it’s also not
a technology book. I think it’s primarily
an environmentalist book. I have to talk about things like
social media and the attention economy in order to address
ultimately our alienation from the more-than-human world. That’s really what I
care about in the book. And it is ultimately a story
of me figuring out where I am. And it’s also a love letter
to that place and all of the things that live there. There’s a really
important part of the book where I go to Elkhorn Slough,
which has amazing bird life. And the fact that the
word “slough” in English means “an unproductive area” I
just find a really nice irony. And then lastly, it’s
not a self-help book. Maybe that’s obvious by now. It’s not a book about
how to be creative. It’s not a book about how
to do nothing in order to later be more productive. It’s none of these things. And so I’ll just
end on that note by talking about a story
that’s in the introduction of the book, which is a
Taoist story by Chuang Tzu. It’s called “The Useless Tree.” Or it’s translated as
“The Useless Tree.” And so in this
story, a carpenter comes across this really
huge, gnarled tree and disdainfully
observes that it’s only gotten to be that size
because it’s a weird shape and it’s useless as timber. And then he goes to
sleep, has a dream. And the tree comes
to him in the dream and basically makes
fun of him and says, who are you to call me useless? You’re a mortal human. You will die. And uselessness has
been very useful for me because I’m still alive. And it’s ultimately a
joke about the narrowness of our ideas of usefulness
that we might even think we know what is useful
or what is productive. I’m really interested
in asking, when you say “productive,” productive
of what, for whom, and why? And so there’s a detail at the
very beginning of that story that I only noticed on
a second reading, which is that the tree is so
big that it’s sheltering a ton of oxen and horses. And it’s actually very
useful in supporting life. But a carpenter would
not be able to see that. And there’s a real version
of this tree in Oakland, which called Old Survivor. It’s the last remaining
old-growth Redwood. And it was a weird shape,
so it didn’t get cut down. It’s also kind of on
a weird rocky outcrop, so it’s hard to get to it. And it’s this reminder
of– here you go. Literally, uselessness was
very useful for this tree. So I’ll end by just quoting
my end of that useless tree story in the book. I want to imagine a whole forest
of useless trees, branches densely interwoven, providing an
impenetrable habitat for birds, snakes, lizards, squirrels,
insects, fungi, and lichen. And eventually through this
generous, shaded, and useless environment might
come a weary traveler from the land of
usefulness, a carpenter who has laid down his tools. Maybe after a bit
of dazed wandering, he might take a cue
from the animals and have a seat
beneath an oak tree. Maybe for the first time
ever, he’d take a nap. Thanks. [APPLAUSE] AUDIENCE: I have a question
about your putting things on shelves. Are you redefining
what art is in terms of– usually people
think of art as you have to create something. But here you are, in a
sense, not doing that. So are you redefining
art at all? JENNY ODELL: I don’t think I– I think that redefinition
happened a long time ago. And I’m just participating in
it, like the Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. What year was that? Early 20th century. There was a movement of artists
using ready-made objects and presenting them
in a new context. So a really famous
one is a urinal that Marcel Duchamp put in
basically a gallery setting. So that’s something
that I think has been happening for a long time. And I think it’s very
interesting that we still have– or the
general public still has a lot of resistance to that
idea of manipulating context as a form of making. And I can see that it
gets a little confusing. Then it’s hard to define
what is art making and what is curating. And what’s the difference
between those two? But yeah, I think
there’s probably– when I look at it now,
there’s a spectrum between that two different
ways of thinking about making. And one is the very
straightforward making something. And the other one is
making new contexts. And I just happen to skew really
far towards that second one. AUDIENCE: I feel like here
in New York, maybe even more than the Bay Area,
we have this problem where people feel like they need
to be doing something useful all the time. JENNY ODELL: I
think curiosity can go a really long way towards
addressing a lot of problems. I’m a person who’s very curious. I like researching weird things
and going down wormholes. And so actually directing
that curiosity toward yourself in those moments, sitting with
that feeling and being like, why– first of all, what is
it I imagine that I’m supposed to be doing right now? Why? And just keep asking those
questions long enough to just become aware of it. I think it makes it
easier to disengage. But then I think
it’s not enough. The way my book is written
is sort of like, disengage and re-engage. And for me, something that’s
been really helpful lately is I think people
want to feel helpful. And I think that’s good. That’s a good thing. And directing that
need somewhere where it can go and have
traction is the problem. And so I think a lot
about the difference between having a feeling of
existential dread about climate change and having that drive
me toward social media out of this feeling of fear
and dissatisfaction and then just giving myself
more of the same feeling and also generating
lots of revenue for a social media
company versus taking that feeling to a meeting
of a community activist group, something where
you’re in a room with people and you’re doing something. Even if the scale of the
problem still seems really big, at least the scale
at which you’re investing your feelings and
your anxiety and your despair is something that
can actually hold it. Yeah. So that’s been helpful
for me, anyway. AUDIENCE: So when you mentioned
you were from Oakland– I’m not from Oakland. I’m from here. But I lived in Oakland
for a little bit. And when you put up the quote of
saying nothing or limiting what you say amplifies the
things you do say, I thought of Marshawn Lynch, an
NFL player who currently plays on the Raiders, and his
whole period of time where he would go to press
conferences and say nothing. So if you ask him
questions, he’d just say, I’m just here to not get fined. And that was his line. And he would give
anyone who asked him– he’d repeat it like seven or
eight times during a press conference. People would get
so upset at him. And a lot of it– sometimes it’s coded. They see this black
man just deny people access to everything he’s
feeling after playing a football game or whatever. But I started to think about
the criminalization of not doing anything, especially
when you talked about like that quote
from Audry Lorde and how a lot of times doing nothing
for black men, especially– I live in Harlem. So that’s just something
I’ve seen all the time. I see kids getting
harassed by cops for sitting on park benches. Doing nothing can
actually be dangerous. And not being aware and
having your attention analyzing a situation and
making sure you’re consciously taking in information
all the time can actually not be
dangerous to yourself, but invite harm upon you. And so I guess my
question is, how can we all work together and build
a world where doing nothing for everyone is OK in that you
don’t have to stand in front of your building and be
seen either as a problem or as a threat or
as whatever trouble if you just decide
to not do anything? JENNY ODELL: Yeah. That’s such a great question. And it’s making me think about
how much it has to do with– I think when someone
does nothing, it makes them less
legible to, let’s say, law enforcement or just any
kind of surveillance system. One of the things that
I compare in the book is an actual public
space, like a park, to CityWalk, which is like
a faux urban-looking space. But it’s actually part
of Universal Studios. So it’s kind of like
an outdoor mall. And in order to act the right
way there, you’d be shopping. So if you’re not
shopping, you’re already posing a
threat to the system. And I think it has
something in common with that, where it’s like– and even this act
of not answering. You become so
somehow more opaque. And if there is a system that
is invested in legibility and being able to
control and see what’s going on
all the time, that will be seen as threatening. It’s one reason, I think– and one thing we can
do together, I think, is just defend and expand
certain types of public space. Because you think about
going to, for instance, the Rose Garden. And you stand, and
you do nothing there. No one feels threatened by that. I don’t know. People go there
understanding that that is a space for contemplation
and not doing anything. But at the same time,
that’s not quite enough because you should be able to
stand in front of your house and not have to
be doing anything. So I don’t know. I think one piece of it is
the protection and expansion of public space. But it’s certainly not
the whole solution. AUDIENCE: You had made a
statement that really piqued my interest about the need for
physical ground, grounding, that kind of double meaning. And I can think of
it in the context of the disappearing commons,
the parks availability in certain urban communities. I think it seems like
there’s less options for that physical space. In recontextualizing
our experiences, it seems that you have
a real call for it to be that natural element,
that physical element, if I didn’t misread that. So can you maybe touch
on that a bit more, I guess the alternative being a
synthetic recontextualization, where there isn’t
the physical aspect? Is there such a thing? Does it really require
that natural element? And where does that put us? JENNY ODELL: Yeah. I do, yeah. At the end of the
book, I mention that– Oakland’s a great example. I mean, any city,
you’ll see this. There are more parks in part of
the city than the other parts. There are more
parks near the hills where a lot of really
wealthy people live. Their access to natural
spaces is a privilege. And you can read it on a map. But at the same time, I think
some of context collection is just being in contact with
others in a more focused way. But I really personally believe
that the natural element is really an important part of it. I think you can’t talk
about the attention economy without talking
about public spaces. And then you can’t talk
about public spaces without talking about class
and urban planning and things like that. And so it all kind of
becomes this big knot. I think you can call it a knot. But at the same time,
because all of these things are coproduced and related to
each other, it also means– this is a hopeful
thing that I take from it– is that you
can kind of find part of that to push on
and know that it will affect other parts of it. So if you like doing
something like organizing for the protection of a park
or the creation of a park, it does actually
have a relationship to something like the
attention economy, which might seem strictly technological. AUDIENCE: Understanding
your caveat that this isn’t a
self-help book and having a goal for doing nothing
defeats the whole purpose, I find a lot of overlaps
between some of the things you’re saying about focusing
on how to do nothing and appreciating the space with
mindfulness and being present and things like that,
also understanding that parts of mindfulness
seem like it’s being monetized and optimized
and things like that. So I guess I was wondering
what overlaps you see in one part of my question. And then the second
part is kind of related to the answer you
just gave around, it sometimes feels like a
privilege to be able to say, I’m focusing on
mindfulness, or trying to present– to even have
that time to think about it versus maybe people
in low-income areas or underrepresented
people who don’t have that time because they’re
working multiple jobs and things like that. So how would you respond
to that kind of a claim? JENNY ODELL: Yeah. So to the first part
of your question, I don’t expressly
invoke mindfulness as a discipline
in the book almost because I feel like it’s so
obvious that I don’t need to. And anyone who has a
meditation practice or anything like that I think
will very easily recognize similarities with even
something like birdwatching. And so I’m not actively trying
to leave it out or anything. It’s almost just like it’s
in the background already in the kinds of things
that I’m talking about. And then in terms of having the
time and not being a privilege, I talk about that in the
chapter with the general strike because that strike
happened after a law passed that made a certain type of
union and collective bargaining possible. So before that, you
had lots of people who were unhappy with the
instability of their jobs. And they were just totally
beholden to the circumstances of hiring. Maybe one day you have a
shift that’s three hours. The next day you have a
shift that’s 30 hours. But because they
couldn’t unionize, if you didn’t do that,
someone else would. And then that law was
a very important part of being able to
unionize, which then allowed them to band
together and actually push against the system and
institute more humane hiring practices and schedules. And sadly, that appears to have
been an island of stability. [INAUDIBLE] is like an
ongoing story of just crushing every last margin that we have. So yeah, I think it’s important
for me in that chapter to acknowledge
that, again, there’s only so much that an
individual can resist and that some people
have more of a capacity to resist than others. And so I refer to
it as a margin. And it also depends
on where you are. How repressive is the
regime that you live in? Wherever that is, can
you literally financially afford to refuse something? And I don’t have a solution
to the whole problem. But I just basically say that
if you have the margin, which I feel that I do, then
you should also feel a responsibility to use it. Kind of what I was saying
earlier, that’s this big knot. Use that margin
to first disengage and get out of that whole thing
in order to think about, OK, how can I actually start
to work on this thing? And hopefully, if
enough people who did have the margin
worked on it together, you would start to see
more margin opening up for other people. AUDIENCE: I really
liked your part in the book about bird
noticing as a step into bioregionalism
and connection. And I went out to Tompkins
Square Park like a week ago and was walking
around alone and had to get used to navigating
being in a very public space and just being that guy
following bird sounds. But anyway, I know
you’re from Oakland. But do you have any
parts of New York that you really like for bird
noticing or other general steps to get into bird noticing? JENNY ODELL: I really don’t
know New York very well. But I will say that my
friend Taeyoon Choi, who is the cofounder
of the School of Poetic Computation who is also
quoted in the book– he loves Prospect Park. And he once made me a
podcast for just me. I highly recommend making
a podcast for someone else. And it’s just birds
in Prospect Park. Occasionally he would
talk about something. But it’s really just bird
sounds in the background. Based on that podcast, I would
say that Prospect Park sounds like it has a lot of birds. [LAUGHTER] But I also will say,
I’m a lazy bird noticer. And I’m really– long
list of privileges. But I’m privileged also
to live in a place that is near a bay and hills. So we have so many different
kinds of birds there. And so there’s a
type of birder who will go to a very specific
place at a specific time, like some migration
event or something, to see a specific type of bird. And I’m the opposite. I am almost like an
involuntary bird watcher, where I get distracted by something
on the way to do something else. And then I’ve been like staring
into a tree for 20 minutes. I think that there is
almost a distinction that we draw between, let’s
say, Yosemite and like the municipal park where one
is somehow like much more hallowed than the other one. And I think you could do
the same thing with birds. There are rare birds,
and then there’s crows. And for me, those mix
together a lot more. And so I think
looking at pigeons is bird watching, personally. But sadly, I don’t have any
specific locations for you other than Prospect Park. AUDIENCE: So a lot of,
I guess, the phenomena that you group under the term
the “attention economy”– there’s also a lot
of recent literature that will use the term
“surveillance capitalism” or “surveillance economy.” And so I was curious
about the choice to use one term
or another and how you see the relationship
between those two concepts, one being more of a political
project versus an exterior motive. JENNY ODELL: So the book
“Surveillance Capitalism” had not come out yet
when I wrote my book. I bought it but have not read
“Surveillance Capitalism” yet. It’s a tome. Yeah. So I didn’t really choose
one over the other. But I think that I
probably would still have chosen “Attention Economy”
because what I’m talking about is the small amount of
control that you do have over wielding your attention. I think the chapter that I
mentioned that has all the art pieces in it is really about– for example, I talk
about a John Cage piece that I saw at a symphony that
uses all kinds– if you’ve ever seen a John Cage piece, it’s the
most nontraditional orchestra setup. There’s someone shuffling cards. The orchestra conductor is
making a milkshake in a blender because it’s part of the score. The liner notes
say, this piece will be anywhere from 15
minutes to 30 minutes depending on what happens. It’s very nontraditional. And that after I saw that
piece, I went outside. And I heard a bunch of
things for the first time. And I still don’t hear
things the same way as before I saw that piece. And to me, that has
to do with attention in a way that’s specific to
attention, if that makes sense. And to me, rediscovering
some agency and being able to take
hold of one’s attention and move it around
and proliferate different kinds of it is– it’s almost like
I feel like that’s the last leeway that we
have within this hugely oppressive system. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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