Reflecting on “How to Do Nothing”

I recently finished reading “How to Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell. It’s a great, thought-provoking read.

Despite the title the book isn’t a treatise on disconnecting or a guide to mindfulness. It’s an exploration of attention: what is it? how do we direct it? can it be trained? And how is it hijacked by social media?

While the book makes a powerful case of the importance of stepping away from technology to reconnect with our local environments and communities, Odell’s recommendation isn’t that we should just disconnect from social media or technology. Her argument is that we need to redesign the ways that we connect with one another. Reframing rather than disengaging.

She illustrates the power of redirecting our attention with examples from birdwatching, art and music.

Having spent much of last summer, identifying the bees in my garden, I’m very aware of how a change in focus can suddenly bring a small corner of the world to life.

In her discussion of social media, Odell touches on context collapse. But she also highlights how social feeds themselves lack context. There is no organising principle of geography, theme or community to that tumble of posts. This leaves us endlessly scrolling, searching for meaning our attention (and emotions) flitting from one thing to the next.

This crystallised for me my recent frustrations with Twitter: no matter how well I curate my list of followers what I see is rarely what I’m looking for in the moment. Feeds lack structure and there’s no way real way for me to assert any control over it.

It’s also why I uninstalled Tik Tok when I realised that an endless scroll of algorithmically recommended content was the only real way to engage.

Odell argues that we need new frameworks for connecting online, touching on Community Memory and decentralised systems like Mastodon. Systems that build or provide context across communities.

One of the first articles I read after finishing “How To Do Nothing” was a post called “What using RSS feeds feels like” by Giles Turnbull. It neatly describes the flexibility that using a Feed Reader provides. They can support us in focusing our attention on the things we enjoy. While not a social space, they can connect to them.

The broader themes of “How To Do Nothing” are the importance of (re)connecting to our local communities and environment so that we can deal with the big challenges ahead of us. And perhaps as an antidote to an increasingly polarised society.

This really challenged me to reflect on what it would mean to reduce my use of social media. What would fill that space both online and off? I’m not sure of the answer to that yet.

But I feel like social spaces — at least the ones I currently use, at any rate — have become less fulfilling. Trading connectivity over context. I’d like to find some different options.