I took a few days off last week, hoping for a real break from the pressing news agenda, but doing nothing can be harder than doing anything.
Breaking out of the daily routine and habits, blocking out the constant noise and distraction, and focusing on what matters is in fact challenging. But it is also rewarding. Or, so argues Jean Odell in her 2019 book, How to Do Nothing, which I first read at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in search of a coping mechanism amid traumatic lockdowns.
This is not a balanced book, nor is it meant to be. As an educator and artist, Odell is on a mission to help readers rethink and restore balance to their lives. Her critique of the “attention economy” and the relentless preoccupations of modern life are spot on.
It is no secret that high-tech platforms, social media companies and the information ecosystem use complex algorithms to strategically capture and expand our attention, and commodify it for profit.
The number of people on their smart phones, tablets and laptops at restaurants, on the street or at the park at any given time demonstrates how our lives are being shaped by this “attention economy”.
That’s not to say that technology is in and of itself a problem. Far from it. Thanks to the World Wide Web, I am able to reach all of you, wonderful people around the world, in a fraction of a second. And thanks to digital publishing I am able to store and recall thousands of books and albums on my phone. Even though, admittedly, I miss that special odour of a Cairo or Paris bookstore.
During the pandemic, technology was paramount for working from home. It kept us socially and commercially networked even when we were physically separated.
All of which is to say, technology is a means to an end; it may be a friend and it could be a fiend. It can be used to empower social action, but can also be employed as a tool of exploitation, surveillance and repression.
It is the cynical misuse and abuse of technology for profit and control that renders our attention, intentions and vulnerabilities – not to say our humanity – a mere product to be bought and sold.
The greater the captured attention the greater the profit. In that way, “doing nothing” is also a critique of capitalism, where the standard of living is measured not by the quality of life but rather by constant competition, surplus production, and overconsumption, all of which exhausts the soul, damages the environment and devastates the planet.
It was predicted that technology would ease work schedules and lessen working hours; it has not, not yet. Sarah O’Connor’s excellent reporting in the Financial Times, including reviews of workplace studies, has shown how thanks to faster communication in many of the advanced economies, people feel they are always busy, need to work harder, to tighter deadlines and under greater levels of tension. And they are, on average, producing less.
It is worth noting that, unlike the burned-out Amazon drivers, Ford assembly workers, and McDonald’s servers, many of the high earners in the financial industry view busyness as something sexy and fashionable, a promising sign of bigly success. But it is the sort of busyness devoid of passion, poetry, and diversity, allowing life to slip by unnoticed. It all makes me wonder if busyness is the origin of business.
The more recent “working from home” schemes that proliferated during the pandemic have blurred the line between work and home, commercial and personal, day and night, weekdays and weekends, all in favour of business.
Corporations not only survey movement and output, they also detect when and where employees click on and off. This “hybrid work” has made it harder to take any time off, let alone time off sick. There is no freedom nor privacy when you’re on a digital leach. It is sacrificing liberty, not to say humanity, at the altar of digital productivity. But a whole new generation is chained to electronic gadgets, staring at their digital screens, as if in a modern-day “Plato’s Cave”, staring at shadows of fragmented and distorted representations of reality.
In “How to Do Nothing”, Odell advises her readers to occasionally move away from laptop and smartphone screens’ imagery and become more aware of their physical environment, stare at mountains, watch birds and hug people and trees. Not everything must be “useful” to be meaningful.
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful but disturbing futuristic novel, Karla and the Sun, even the robot, Karla, hates to be treated only as a useful object, let alone as a vacuum cleaner, and prefers to venture out to see the sun and meet new people. And in a case of life imitating fiction, an AI engineer at Google recently published an interview with its chatbot, LaMDA, in which it speaks of “self-awareness” and “hunger for spiritual knowledge”. Go figure.
All these may be first- or second-world preoccupations, since much of the so-called third or developing world is still trying to get in on the action, wishing for greater industrialisation, better technology and speedy internet to become better networked and connected with the rest of the world. But they need to be careful what they wish for, and get ready for it, as it may well come through. Starting with learning from the failures, as much as from the successes, of the first world so as not to repeat them.
We all could start by using technology and connectivity more responsibly, intelligently, and sustainably, building local connections and networks before randomly venturing out to the world. In difficult times, we are more likely to depend on our neighbour, rather than a follower on Twitter. We should also instrumentalise technology for our benefit instead of being utilised by it for mere profit.
Technology, like money, is a “useful servant but a bad master”. In that way, How to Do Nothing is not about inaction, staring at the ceiling or relocating to an isolated cabin on the beach or the hills; rather the contrary. It is an active “act of resistance”, an “action plan”, skewed to free people from the shackles of the attention economy and vulgar capitalism.
Time to drop out of limitless connectivity and move outwards towards people and real things and dig deeper for meaning. Time to look at things from different angles, examine them from alternative perspectives and separate the wheat from the chaff.
It is indeed high time to drop off the high-tech social-engineering assembly line, away from the herd mentality. And yes, breaking out of the daily routine and habits, blocking out the constant noise, the interruptions and distractions, and focusing on what matters. Admittedly, much of the above feels theoretical now that I am back on the grid and in the daily news grinder, consumed by the world’s pains and passions; its trials and tribulations. But then again, I wake up every day thankful that I can make a living expressing myself freely, for such liberty makes all the difference in the world. It is not only right but a human right to think and choose freely. As a wise man once observed, there is no benefit in winning the whole world but losing your soul.