Artist Jenny Odell explains why place is the antidote to the attention economy

"I think it's significant that he did not leave the Bay Area," says writer and artist Jenny Odell, who grew up in Cupertino and now lives in Oakland. Odell, who also teaches at Stanford University, is the author of How to Do Nothing: Resist Attention Economy (now from Melville House).

Many writers sounded the alarm for our increasingly fractured attention, but Odell's book is not about blocking the Internet or withdrawing from Facebook. Odell focuses on the importance of demanding attention and focus, but also tells people what to do when they are not looking at Facebook: going out into the natural world. Learn the names of the plants, the history of the region, the songs of the birds. When you can distinguish sounds and petals and regions, you can never see them in the same way again.

The Verge spoke with Odell about the importance of the place, the role of technology in grounding and the different types. of stillness.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Your book interested me not only because of its position regarding the response to the attention economy, but because of the particular place of the speaker. . I also grew up in the Bay Area, near Cupertino, but I left as soon as I could. What made you stay?


artist jenny odell explains why place is the antidote to the attention economy

Photo: Ryan Meyer

I value the community and the knowledge of people for a long time. When you are in a group of people who are doing art or writing, it is really good to have that community where you and your work are known and supported.

That's interesting because, in the book, you talk about why it's important to know where you come from and be grounded, in a sense, instead of floating in this world without the Internet context. How did these ideas begin to intersect (place in front of the Internet)?

Part of this is a natural consequence of learning about the place I've been all my life and realizing how little I really knew and being really fascinated and something like that. This is going to sound very nerdy, but I took some urban studies classes at the university and read some things about the suburbs and the type of urbanism that turns out to be in Cupertino. And then I went home and said "Oh, my God, I have a vocabulary for this now!" When I was growing up, the McMansions phenomenon that came in and took over was something like that, something my family would talk about but did not really think about. I returned many years later and could say: "This is the result of such and such a zoning", and I began to see it as not given and part of a broader context.

That is a kind of general thing. Specifically, after 2016, I had the experience of sitting in the rose garden and thinking why that was valuable. Part of the answer was: "Oh, I'm here, I'm in a place, I can pay attention to it." It has a fundamental quality.

You seem to argue that the physicist is more "real" than the online. In recent years, I feel there was an emphasis on how "real" online connections are, like "online friendships are real too!" How do we reconcile these lines of thought?

Well, actually I do not disagree with that argument. One of the things I talk about at the end of the book is how social networks have the potential to be extremely useful: you connect people who are in the same place, it's very fast, you can share knowledge very easily, but in In my opinion, that could be especially useful when mixed with things like face-to-face meetings or more intentional communications. Even a group chat for me is closer to a meeting in person. So there are ways in which the digital and the physical are working together.

I like to collect examples of places and situations where there is not even an overlap, but a reverberation between physical experience and digital representation. In one of my classes, we talk about places where you see the digital and the physical interacting in places where it is very inseparable. My example is this mountain, Mission Peak in Fremont, and at one point, it became very popular to take a picture on top of this pole that was on top of the mountain. And now everyone needs to have that picture, so all these people started climbing on this mountain and leaving the designated trails. And in my opinion, the mountain is being eroded by Instagram.

You write about how you started using the application iNaturalist to help you begin to identify the flora and fauna and to be more in touch with the earth. At one point, a student asks if that is "moving" away from the experience and you say no.


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As an artist and someone who writes about attention, I am partial with the uses of technology that give you more information about what you are seeing. So one of my examples is just a pair of binoculars. A pair of binoculars is a form of technology, and you can say that there is something "unnatural" in sight through a pair of binoculars because it increases human vision. But if I go out without my binoculars, I can not see so much, and I can not be as curious as I would be otherwise. It gives me a new experience of a place and more to look at, literally. I tend to really value things like that. iNaturalist is an easy example, others are those applications that identify constellations.

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me is when you criticize people who say that attention is a structural problem, and it is the responsibility of technology companies to divert it in an ethical way. That is a point of view that we often hear, but you say that it takes away our agency and the ability to decide what we want to see, since the companies are still directing our attention. What else is missing from this argument that companies can help us claim our attention?

I think that a really important aspect that emerges in any form of the attention economy, be it disempowerment or empowerment, is assuming that attention is like money. Most currencies are standardized. We no longer trade, so it is based on the idea of ​​standardizing this and uniformity and consistency. And in my experience, attention is not like that. You have forms of superficial attention, you have a very deep attention, you lend different types of attention to different things in different situations.

The differentiation and proliferation of attention are things you can learn, which is one of the reasons why I talk so much about art in that chapter. That dimension of human attention and perception is lacking in that formulation for me.

I think that many people will like your book because it is not draconian, and it does not try to eliminate our accounts forever and we flee to the forest. Can you tell me more about why you advocate a more moderate approach?

The first reason is that it is impossible. Maybe there are some mountain hermits that show that I am wrong, but for most of us, something like that is not possible. It's really interesting and important to record that momentum, which is almost commonplace now, but at the real feasibility level, it's not something you're probably going to do. But on top of that, if you are buying the book, you are finally worried about doing something, and much of the anxiety that is exploited by the attention economy comes from a very real feeling of living. In a difficult time and wanting to do something about it or feel useful. I think that is something that would eventually reach most people. Maybe I'm just extrapolating from myself, but I assume that someone who is concerned enough about what is going on with their attention to buy the book, ultimately, wants to say or do something meaningful at the end of the day.

A book called How not to do anything will obviously talk about the virtues of being still. But as you mentioned, there are different types of stillness. While reading, I could not stop thinking about how the choreographer George Balanchine distinguished between two types of stillness : that of a cat sitting there and that of a cat sitting there ready to jump. What kind of stillness are you defending?

I really love that. I think it's probably both, or maybe alternating between the two. Something I have thought about most since I wrote the book is this idea of ​​moving between different states of attention in your mind. It feels like a movement or a kind of change and, ideally, it could be done with will and intention instead of being shaken and always remain in that state of superficial attention.

So I would say that it is important to know when to rest and also to know when to be in this second state of stillness in which you are cunningly observing the situation from the outside. They are definitely not the same and both are really necessary. Without some kind of real rest, maybe the other is not possible. You would not be so sharp.

The last question I have is about maintenance. You argue that we worry too much about the new and the disruptive instead of keeping what is there. What would a focus on maintenance look like instead of "interruption"?

I'm really inspired by the local groups here in Oakland doing things like running a local stream or literally restoring things. Groups of people who join and feel responsible for something that is living in the place where they live, and only observe the amount of work that implies. Of course, there are examples that are not obviously environmental with which someone can find a point of entry. I just have this fixation with the idea of ​​paying attention to what is already there, so the first step is to look around and see what is already there and what needs support before jumping to "I need to do XYZ. " "

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