Ditching distractions brings purpose


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Just before Jenny Odell closes the curtain on How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, she imagines a contemporary followup work to John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/06/2019 (1339 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Just before Jenny Odell closes the curtain on How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, she imagines a contemporary followup work to John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress.

You might know the piece: a towering blond woman (Columbia, or Manifest Destiny) clad in white robes strings up telegraph wires across the country’s western frontier, as all manner of industrial “progress” — the railroad, ships, bridges, agricultural development — follows. In front of Columbia, to the west, bison scatter, storm clouds menace, and Indigenous Americans cower.

In the late 19th century, as a print that came with the magazine Crofutt’s Western World, the “Star of Empire” adorning Columbia’s forehead was meant to symbolize the “light” with which westward expansion might illuminate the “shadows” of the west.

In 2019, it’s clear that light rolling toward the Pacific was a harbinger of racism, genocide and destruction in the name of “progress.” “They looked,” a paraphrasing of Revelation might read, “and behold a pale personification of America: and her name was Columbia, and hell followed with her.”

The California-based Odell envisions her followup as “manifest dismantling,” a correction to Manifest Destiny, following dutifully behind in dark robes, undoing all the destruction Columbia has wrought. It’s clear long before that How to Do Nothing is actually a guide on how to do quite a lot, which reads, at times pointedly, like a friendly anti-capitalist manifesto.

The image of Odell’s manifest dismantling succinctly sums up the spirit of the book. How to Do Nothing aims to take conscious stock of where we are and what we’ve done, evaluate the ways in which dark, external forces (mainly the machinations of capitalism, such as persuasive design, corporation-benefiting social media and industrial development) have commandeered our attention, and provide routes toward real light — a life truly lived on planet Earth.

At times, it’s nothing short of rousing. Odell uses a plethora of colourful examples from history — 1960s communes, the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike and Greek philosopher Diogenes’ troublemaking, for example — as well as science and art to support her arguments. Sometimes, briefly, it can skew slightly academic, discussing concepts that might take extra effort to understand, but the call to focus one’s attention is apt given the subject matter. Odell’s birdwatching (or, to use her own words, “bird noticing”) practice pops up frequently and provides insight into the ideas she’s communicating, which include the importance of bioregionalism, the way the mind processes information and the pleasure that comes from immersing oneself fully in one’s environment.

The most powerful takeaway from How to Do Nothing is the idea that serves as its reason for being: how we direct our attention creates our reality. It’s frustratingly simple. But in a world designed to exploit, redirect, assault and steal that attention to achieve nothing but increasing the profits of bad actors, taking that idea to heart, remembering it each day and sallying forth accordingly becomes a matter of life and death.

The most direct acknowledgment of the book’s title comes in its break-down of what it means to make “a commitment to live in permanent refusal, where one already is, and to meet others in the space of that refusal.” Here, Odell simply means that we needn’t participate in anything as we are asked, or at all.

How to Do Nothing provides the tools to, yes, do nothing. But its gift lies in the possibilities — stronger communities, a healthier planet and a deeper experience of this one life we’ve got — that arise when those tools are used for good.

Matt Williams is a writer, photographer and flatlander far from home, out on Canada’s East Coast.

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