The robots are not interested in (j)us(tice)

A quick reflection on Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing

I’ve read my fair share of books and articles about paying attention. It’s been one way of dealing with my own inability to cultivate the attentive life that I long for: one where I’m less tempted by Twitter, where I don’t need browser extensions to block distracting sites, where I don’t refresh news sites a (few) dozen times a day or make sure my podcast queue is fully stacked before running errands. One where I enjoy the silence, see my surroundings, and remember how to stare.

I’m not sure Jenny Odell’s book is the one that’ll break the spell of distraction, and at times I wasn’t sure it was working for me at all: There’s a whiff of pretense running through these pages, and one could make accusations of privilege. Odell’s attentive life involves a lot of time in museums and bird-watching, and it is free of children or even very many coworkers and neighbors.

And yet. Every time I was tempted to put it down, the next section would draw me back in. I was up well past midnight finishing this book, because Odell’s case for the attentive life is ultimately powerful and deeply ethical, and it warrants, well, full attention.

Paying attention, Odell says, is an active of resistance against a consumer-capitalist system that is using awesome tools against us–the algorithms and persuasive design systems that keep learning how to draw us in and keep us coming back. But Odell is “less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than…in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together.” She calls us to “ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.”

I don’t think the term “God” or even “spirit” shows up in this book, but the life Odell is describing is one I’d call religious: devoted to inward healing and caring for others, built of habits of restraint and intentional acts, embracing the responsibility to build a more just world. (Her models include Thomas Merton, and Wendell Berry references pop up here and there.)

Odell argues that the attentive life is not one that abandons all digital media, but it’s “a commitment to live in a permanent refusal.” That’s a higher call. I find it easy to forget about Facebook and Twitter when I delete the apps or deactivate my accounts. What’s tough is to develop practices of highly engaged, thoughtful use; of limiting the space I give to them each day, of constantly questioning what these tools are for and where they belong in my life. The apps make it tough: they are learning robots designed to attract and distract us. Every time we use them, we are helping them learn.

The stakes here are high. Odell shows how what we pay attention to renders our world. Think of how your brain responds to buying a new make and model of a car. Once you’re in your Jeep Cherokee, you see Jeep Cherokees all over the streets. Or think of the difference between walking through a new city by yourself and walking through it with a tour guide or someone who lives there and knows it well. Your attention is trained by these experiences, and attention doesn’t just change what you know–it changes what you can see. As Odell quotes William James (writing in 1918!): “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”

(Aside: Why do high rates of poverty and inequity persist in our affluent society? Because only those things which we notice shape our minds.)

Wait, that’s not an aside. It’s the main reason any of this matters. Unless we can train our attention, and invite others to train their attention, we don’t have a chance of building a more just world. The robots have no interest in the quality of the world we’re building together.