One afternoon in June, I was out with a stranger at my local park. The algorithms recommended we meet. He told me he had been reading How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, a buzzy bestseller by Jenny Odell.
“I just read that!” I said, but before the conversation could begin it was cut. “Well, that’s not surprising,” he said. “I mean, we both live in Brooklyn, we probably follow the same people, same reference points, you know.” And then he changed the subject.
The lameness of his response still haunts me. What I saw as two complex people forming different ideas around the same piece of writing, he saw as a cynical inevitability. To him we were overlapping audience segments meeting over craft beers, passive receptacles of culture. We both read the book. Check. Not a discussion, just a reinforcement of identity.
I felt . . . flattened. A familiar sensation. I feel it all the time online. On Twitter, where snark is rewarded. On Instagram, where well-timed memes have exponential reach.
Fittingly, How to Do Nothing is a book about just this: taking our attention back from the giants that commodify it and appreciating that “reality is blobby. It refuses to be systematized.” The book, published this month in paperback, holds heightened meaning in 2021.
The algorithms and I are in a tug of war. I am addicted to a network of companies that are financially incentivised to simplify me. I despise them but they give me things I love. They hook me, reinforce my detected patterns, take what I already like and give me more of the same. I like Monstera plants, therefore Brooklinen sheets, therefore Peloton workouts, therefore Ivy Park activewear.
What I really hate is the itch. The itch to pick up my phone when I’m reading, or walking. The itch to swipe into Instagram, then WhatsApp, the itch to google something seemingly crucial, like “George W Bush painting shower” or “how to eat pickled labneh”.
The itch enrages me, because it happens without my consent. I feel like an addict, a pawn in someone else’s game.
We know the pros. The vaccine is still in distant view for millennials like me, so my phone is a crucial portal to emotional and social connection. I host a culture podcast, and it plugs me into a community of thoughtful listeners and a cornucopia of content.
But what is it doing to my self-conception? The algorithms leave little room for nuance and spirit, let alone inconsistency, context or duality. They make me less likely to encounter new and different music, art and culture. And if I’m not aware of the forces at play, I worry the sad, stripped-down version of myself that the internet buys and sells could accidentally become who I am.
This particularly disturbed me after the January 6 mob attack on Capitol Hill, because it all felt part of the same programme. The forces that reduce two people to a Goodreads recommendation have bifurcated us politically, and that day we saw the virtual, intangible dangers of this attention economy turn very real: thousands of violent rioters, radicalised online, seemingly brainwashed, fighting with guns for a lie. Of course, there was a crucial difference in that this group was systematically misinformed, and then supported — not denounced — by lawmakers and the US president.
So what can we do? Hopefully, tech companies will face a regulation reckoning. The speed at which they banned Trump and QAnon accounts following the attack laid bare their complicity, and the drop in online misinformation since reminds us that things never needed to get this bad. Odell’s struggle preoccupies me more: how can we personally resist?
According to Odell, we need “not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity”. That could mean shifts in perspective: when the internet demands a hot take, consider the issue from five years on. It could mean choosing an unproductive path. Deep listening. Noticing when you’re being gaslit, advertised to, manipulated. Fact-checking a post before sharing. Asking where the impulse comes from to share it at all.
To Odell, holding the power to say “I would prefer not to” is civil disobedience in the attention economy.
I’ve tried things myself; only some have worked. I’ve built questions into my routines to help me remember that my attention is valuable currency, and where I put it is a choice. There’s a note on my lockscreen (“Why now? What for? What else?”) that half the time I ignore. I enabled screentime locks on my phone and promptly removed them. I spend time in places that aren’t trying to sell me things, such as public parks. I try to let myself be earnest and three-dimensional on Instagram — you know, like a human, made of flesh and blood.
And when none of it works and I’m down the rabbit hole, it’s fine. This is a long game. I buy the stupid plant and give myself the gift of a break.
Do you struggle to resist the attention economy? What do you do? Leave your thoughts in the comments below; Lilah will respond throughout the day.