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Book review: How to Do Nothing

2024-07-06, post № 288

book-review, #technologieverdruss

Cold War’s over, semiconductors have permeated the fabric of society, forests are afire. At times one may feel hard-pressed not to jettison it all in light of our impending doom.
Grasping for meaning in this maelstrom of angst, Jenny Odell documented her way out of the sharp-frozen state of mind 2016’s potus crowning entailed. Of undoubtable value as a contemporary anthropological artifact, its philosophical value or its idea’s practical viability is disenthraling.

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How to Do Nothing [O19 [1]] is strongest in its first two-and-a-half chapters, their content comprising Jenny Odell’s talk of the same title which she herself regards as the true form [O24 [2]] of her expression what it means to do nothing.
Yet the very, “nothing”, isn’t to be understood as extremely as one may be lead to believe initially: layed out in many pages, it boils down to not accumulating evermore novel media-powered dependences. At face value an innocuous-seeming objective, Odell makes abundantly clear the myriad of obstacles she, and by extension the common man, faces in our media-saturated world. Never able to poke through the haze and attain true separation from a vague unease pronounced “media”, over two thousand years of human philosophy and art are essayed to discuss, with a prominent focus on nature and non-artifact art.

Where How to Do Nothing truly shines is in its quality as a diary, one human’s personal story: wittily written, it names art pieces Odell has created, witnessed or espied, it lets one cursorily plunge into growing up in the technologized Bay area and depicts how a love for nature and hiking blossoms through bird watching.

Yearning without attaining freedom, the tribulations of past human attempts at removing oneself from the larger society are of particular interest. Odell does well not to romanticize the communes of last century’s second half, recognizing the possibility of an innate self-destruction caused by an impossibility of stable small-scale societies, yet cannot hold that thought for long or gain any insight from it beyond how historically, few if any actively sabotaged a commune. In the same breath, however, she blindly regurgitates the all-too-commonplace stance that social media moguls are to be the villains of our time.
A similar observation has to be made with the way in which she treats her quotations: after a succint paragraph from an influential writer has introduced its often powerful impetus, only her recounting of their thoughts seems able to show depth and merit. Before too long, she wanders off in a shallow mindscape of hopes and sorrows before repeating the procedure once more.

Chapters three (the second half), four and five, however, are a real slog. One constantly finds oneself invested in a rhetoric which seems to promise some revelation or some insightful moment, yet recurs without making the slightest of progress at the never-honoured foundational question of why a free-thinking individual lets all this malady into their life.
Apparently a novel phenomena, a discussion of digitalization’s abuse appears to be founded on a principal rejection of free will: free will isn’t, the underlying hypothesis presents itself to be, sufficient to produce decisions desirable for the individual.
Findings of fact concerning societal-wide media addiction may just be of such saddening and pitiful flavour that it leaves no room for philosophical treatment.
Palpably absourd, Odell may have wisely chosen not to attempt a comment. Unresolved, confusion takes over. Neither technical expertise in the digital realm, nor serious philosophical treatise nor pragmatic action can be found in this work.

Markedly chapter six reeks of ignorance, where she confounds free software and open-source software [O19, p. 171], fantasizes about non-centralized federated networks despite how they always seem to gain a centre and quotes an atrocious appropriation of GitHub monopoloy [O19, p. 173].
A constant barrage of namedropping the ever-vague, declared-as-omnipotent “algorithm” further calls into question the sincerity at play: after declaring acceptance for the existence of technology in the first few pages, Odell doesn’t seem interested in the engineering or technical properties of digital systems anymore. Reminiscent of how Wau Holland (CCC) engaged with the digital realm but to connect souls trapped in their self-imagery as a nerd [MS20 [3]], the computer appears more an obstacle to contemplate the human condition than a matter to pay inherent interest to.
In the final chapter, “Manifest Dismantling”, one truly feels she isn’t at all interested in digital technology: all of social media she only uses as a vehicle, a sparingly cited example, to further her nature-loving, empathetic and humble beliefs.

Nothingness, even in its mild interpretation, however, isn’t embodied by the author: even when Odell goes out to enjoy nature, she takes her phone with her to let an AI assistant claim the vegetation’s names and fumbles [O19, p. 144] herself to a justification by claiming to get more connected to the landscape by knowing the atomizing nomenclature in such mediated fashion. In the same breath, wild claims about the indispensability of the thought-whollistic connectiveness of every individual to the entire cosmos are put forward.
In its own admission an essay, How to Do Nothing collects the thoughts and impressions of a woman in destitute facing the present state of the world; be it climate change, American privilege or (social) media monopolies.

Odell’s work may fall victim to the cruelest of fates, it itself being a mere feel-good retreat [O19, p. 33]. A short escape, a regime, a retreat⸺but destined again to land in the vicious capitalist system which bore attention-deafening news conglomerates and is critized with such vigour. After all, her book is touted a bestseller.
In a cynic’s tongue, doing nothing may just be better described as observing something and saying nothing.

In essence, How to Do Nothing is an eloquent diary of a woman troubled by the common quibbles of this century and her half-hearted attempts to resolve them.
Especially a European audience is better off touching grass; without a guide.

Footnotes

  1. [O19] Jenny Odell: “How to Do Nothing ; Resisting the Attention Economy”. Melville House, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-61219-855-2
  2. [O24] Jenny Odell: “How to Do Nothing” (talk). Tübingen, 2024-05-29. Online (event notice; no recording exists): https://uni-tuebingen.de/universitaet/campusleben/veranstaltungen/veranstaltungskalender/termindetails/article/how-to-do-nothing-resisting-the-attention-economy/ [2024-05-09]
  3. [MS20] Klaus Maeck, Tanja Schwerdorf: “Alles ist Eins. Außer der 0.” (movie). 2020. Online (movie homepage): https://allesisteins.film/ [2024-07-06]
Jonathan Frech's blog; built 2024/07/06 12:42:51 CEST