Is mindfulness the better opt-out from the attention economy?

Today I finished reading How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. I didn’t love the book, yet it’s important. So I find myself willing to recommend it nonetheless.

Let me explain why.

First, why didn’t I enjoy it? The writing style. Odell is an artist. Reading the book, you can tell. It’s not the narrative nonfiction I’m familiar with and learned in journalism school. Rather, Odell paints her arguments on a broad canvas. A little on this topic in one chapter, a related concept in the next. When you step back and look at the topics, they form a cohesive tapestry. But if you’re expecting a linear exposition, you won’t find it.

Also, the title is misleading. The book is not about doing nothing. It’s not, for example, about taking a digital detox, or dropping out of modern society. (Odell argues that the latter isn’t the right approach.) Nor is much of it on the attention economy itself. I’d estimate only about 25%, in fact. Just enough that someone who purchased the book couldn’t return it for false advertising.

Yet despite this, I’d recommend it for at least two reasons.

First, it’s a sign of the times. Attention is a scarce resource that companies compete for. Some very large companies have mastered its aggregation and monetization. We now see risk in their pervasive devices, persuasive design, and business models. Organizations like Center for Human Technology are fighting back. The media is catching on. And now, books like this. I’m not sure that How to Do Nothing is the Silent Spring of attention pollution. But the fact it got published at all says something.

Second, an intriguing idea unifies the book’s somewhat nonlinear content. It is that mindfulness can be an antidote to the attention economy. One reaction to attention-sucking gadgets and apps is to destroy or delete them. But Odell offers an alternative. If the physical world were more interesting, she suggests, you wouldn’t look at your phone. And the more mindful you are of the physical world, the more interesting it gets.

Odell seems to have discovered this by becoming a birdwatcher. She noticed birds everywhere. Different types of birds. Different types of birdsong. Enough to pull her interest away from devices and apps. The more mindful she was of her environment, the more interesting it became.

This further suggests that natural ecosystems are a defence against attention erosion. These ecosystems are rich in diverse objects of mindfulness. I experienced this firsthand while kayaking this week through a secluded river. We often turn to our phones when we’re bored with the humans around us. But when you’re surrounded by lots of unfamiliar wildlife, you pay attention.

Granted, I don’t think mindfulness can be the only solution. Corporations that harvest attention are wealthy and powerful. They influence billions of lives. They pay experts to hijack our minds with optimized designs and algorithms. But we should broaden the conversation beyond digital detox and app deletion. We all want to pay less attention to useless drivel. So let’s create and preserve space that drowns it out, and cultivate the mindfulness to be present when we’re in it.

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