Stuck in the “Right Now”: A Conversation with Jenny Odell

April 24, 2021   •   By Saam Niami

IT’S AUGUST 2020, and California is on fire — a fitting end for a summer that many believed could not possibly have gotten worse. The COVID-19 death rate in California was reaching record highs every day. Amid record heat, we were experiencing the worst fire season in history. Houselessness in the Bay Area was reaching catastrophic levels with little help from the government. The George Floyd protests that rocked Oakland for weeks straight met with a devastating yet predictable reaction from the Oakland City Council, denying a proposal to cut the police budget by a single vote.

Things started to slow down a lot. Despair settled in. I didn’t have one friend in Oakland who wasn’t suffering in some way, mostly artists who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic. I was living with my mom after graduating college in May and had the privilege to sit at home and be fed, while watching ash rain down from the sky. I was glued to social media, more than at any other point during the summer, doomscrolling through images of apocalypse. During a check-in conversation, a friend recommended a book that he thought would help me: How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, an artist based in Oakland. 

In her book, Odell, an art professor at Stanford, chronicles her research on how to gratify the need to stay informed without trapping oneself in the exploitative “attention economy” of social media. Written almost a year before the start of the pandemic, the book is a cross between a self-help guide and an activist manual, encouraging both care of self and care for community. Odell describes her own efforts to restrain dependency on the attention economy for news and information, while also avoiding disconnecting completely. 

Around the time I finished the book in late August, the fires had begun to fade. I would wake up every morning and, before looking at my phone, would go outside — suddenly breathing clean air felt like a scarce luxury. I set boundaries on my use of social media, resisting the urge to scroll and thus provide free information about myself to tech companies. I embraced doing nothing. But I couldn’t stop wondering what Odell herself was up to. How was she surviving the lockdown? Were her own studies helping her in the way they had helped me and others? What was she up to now that we were all doing nothing?

In early February, I called Odell and asked her these questions and more.

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SAAM NIAMI: How has your year of doing nothing been? Did you find yourself thinking back on the things you wrote about in your book, or were you just like, “Nah, this is completely different from anything I wrote about”?

JENNY ODELL: [Laughs.] I don’t know. It’s sort of 50/50 because some of this to me is unprecedented. It’s not the same as 2016 in a lot of ways. That’s part of the reason it’s funny to be working on a book right now — it’s been nice to be doing historical research because I think one of the things that makes unprecedented things feel scary is their unprecedentedness. And to find, you know, moments in history, the deep causes of things, and feel less adrift has to me been really heartening.

There are some things from the book that I am surprised are maybe even more useful now, to me anyway, that I guess I have revisited. One of those is grabbing hold of the ecological cues and the community around me. That’s because I live somewhere where it’s easy for me to do that. But there’s that, and then I also have been thinking back a lot to how much this way of engaging with the attention economy that feels toxic to me, that I talk about in the book, how much that’s driven by fear, shame, self-loathing, guilt, all of these very reactive emotions. Because I was feeling that, and it was driving me toward these habits and patterns. So that’s something that does feel familiar from around the time when I was writing the book. I’m like, “Oh, this again, it’s just much worse this time.”

How did it feel to watch the world do nothing for the last year? Did you see people start to fall into methods of dealing with the process, trying to see it as a positive or resisting the viewpoint that it’s a negative?

I did think it was interesting really, early on. I did see a lot of discussion, a little bit of a reckoning. Again, it really depends on your position and what your job is. “Why was I working so hard?” This forced a pause. Because I talk in the book about what happens when you pause. And you step aside a little bit and look back at any situation you were in and you can kind of see it a little better. And maybe for some people that happened because it was this forced pause and it’s like, “Oh, like I’m a workaholic.” Or, “I don’t know how to derive meaning from things in my life that aren’t work.” In a way, it’s almost similar to a midlife crisis. I’ve been living my life according to this value system and this value system just got totally invalidated. And so now what am I left with? I have to find meaning somewhere else.

I’m hyper-aware of this gulf between the people for whom too much time is the problem and the people who still have no time or have less time than before. There are people who are probably struggling to find ways to spend their time and are thrown back on themselves and wondering how they find meaning in life. But then there are also all the people who are working in the economy that’s supporting all of those other people. And they’re still working very quickly and, you know, working multiple jobs. I think that that divide already existed, and I was thinking about it in the book, but it’s come much more into the foreground for me. And it almost makes it hard for me to think about, one person’s doing nothing is another person’s doing everything.

I wanted to know how you reacted to how the Black Lives Matter movement played out this summer — just because so much of it was orchestrated and propagated over social media, and the literature and learning was passed around on social media as well.

Right, then social media is even more important in that case as a tool. It underscored its strategic uses. Sometimes you really do need to know what’s happened in the last five minutes. And just as a tool for spreading information, we don’t really have anything else like that. But at the same time, the strengths and weaknesses of it, I was reminded of both of them. There’s a lot of emotions, it’s an emotional thing. And at some point, I got worried about people remaining in a reactive state. Paying a lot of attention to something at the beginning and then dropping off later or never getting past that loop. The thing that I found to be positive about it was I saw a lot of people realizing, “Oh, I have a lot to learn.” I include myself in that, and learning takes a long time. It’s often un-Instagramable, it’s something you do alone or it’s something you do with a small group of people. And I mean, ideally, it’s a lifelong project. It’s not like looking at your step count on your phone or something like that.

Social media is really useful for getting the word out right now, getting lots of attention right now, responding to something in the present moment. But I think that there’s a risk it just stays there in that temporal “right now.” Or there’s the problem that someone using social media could get stuck there and not move on to these other processes of getting deeper context or getting to know contexts and complexity. It’s funny, right before you called, I just finished adrienne maree brown’s book We Will Not Cancel Us. There’s a lot in there that’s related to this idea of time, that social media, by virtue of the way it’s designed, things happen really quickly and people react quickly and it’s set up for that reaction. So, knowing that then, it’s like, “Okay, well that’s good for some things, and it’s not good for other things.” And the thing that it’s not good for is nuanced and more complicated context.

I was wondering if your ideas about doing nothing and the positive aspects of that have changed at all, both in your own life and in how you view it, theoretically, with this year of forced stasis.

I don’t think it’s changed. I mean, it looks different under these circumstances than what I was intending to describe. I think that, ultimately, the question that comes up, which I think makes people uncomfortable with the idea of doing nothing, is that it makes you have to ask why you do anythingAnd if you keep up a certain pace of engagement, you can avoid that question. I mean, you could avoid that question for most of your life, frankly. A lot of people do, maybe they’re happier for it, but I think that has not changed. That’s just a question that is always there, right? Why am I doing what I’m doing? I’m being productive, but productive of what? And for whom? One potentially beneficial thing about a big pause is that it would give at least some people time to not only have that reckoning, but then to have even more time to ask, “Okay, if these reasons why I was working so hard are for a phantom, where else in my life could I find meaning?”

I’m curious what you hope people retain from this time and what you hope changes about the way we engage with production.

I think for some people this time has been a demonstration of what humans need. I think, before this, it wasn’t as common knowledge how much we just need social connections. To be recognized by a group of peers, for example, beyond friends and family. Where do we find belonging, this sort of social traction? These aren’t just nice things to have, these are needed for emotional survival. I would hope that the importance of that would stick with people. The things that you need to sustain yourself are free. The thing that you’re seeking is a connection to other people. That’s why you go to social media, but then there’s all this other bullshit on top of that.

I hope that recognition of the need for social connection sticks with people. And I also hope they remember what isolation feels like. Knowing what that feels like might even change the way people feel about incarceration or other things that are done to people that isolate them from a community. So that’s optimistic.

I have one more question. How did you react to writing this book about doing nothing, and then suddenly everybody has to do nothing. Were you like, “Oh my God, am I psychic?”

[Laughs.] You know, what’s funny is that didn’t even occur to me for a really long time, that whole period was a haze. I suspect that I was in shock. It was spring break [at Stanford]. I remember going on walks, these insanely long walks, walking the entire day. I was just like, “Must walk, must walk the entire day.” It felt almost like a pre-cognitive reaction. I didn’t know what to think about anything that was happening, so I just walked instead. And so, I wasn’t thinking about my book or the weird coincidence of the title. I didn’t really start thinking about that until the late summer. Like, “Oh, how strange that I wrote this book that is trying to encourage what appears to be inactivity.”

My book is about an interruption in habitual ways of thinking and seeing, and now everyone’s life has been interrupted in some way. I’m grateful that it appears to have been helpful in this context. Because my first and foremost intention with the book was to write something helpful. And so, if it’s helpful at this time, then there isn’t anything better.

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Saam Niami is an Iranian-American writer and artist with bylines in officeVulture, and Interview Magazine. He is based in New York City and California.