I’ve been reading a book called How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy , by Jenny Odell. Need I say more?
If you read SCIOPS, and you’re not already ordering How to Do Nothing from your local independent bookseller, trust me: you’ll like it. If you need a second opinion, here’s Robin Sloan from the latest issue of his newsletter Year of the Meteor (not on the website yet):
This is a book about resistance. “I want this not only for artists and writers,” Jenny writes, “but for any person who perceives life to be more than instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized.”
Then, the next sentence, the one that gave me chills, reading it on the ferry:
“A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough.”
This is a book that ought to be read widely – especially, maybe, by young people. It ought to be seen peeking ubiquitously from tote bags, stuffed universally into back pockets. (This book might really be waiting, in that sense, for its paperback edition.)
I have a paperback advance copy of this book and I do want to carry it everywhere. I’ve noticed that the cover gets some very weird looks, for what it’s worth. Weirder than the looks I usually get for reading a book in public.
There’s a lot to like about the book, especially the way it’s grounded in the author’s own sense of place. She starts her narrative from her regular bird-watching spot in Oakland’s Rose Garden, and I feel myself there when I read it. It’s a rambling, amiable, intimate conversation with a brilliant stranger. It has to be – if we’re to resist the attention economy, we must deepen our ability to listen.
I find myself reading it first thing in the morning, when I would otherwise be consumed by podcasts and the 700 inane email newsletters I’m subscribed to (excluding Year of the Meteor, which is great and you should go subscribe to it right after forwarding SCIOPS to your whole address book).
I want to sit in a sunbeam and contemplate her words with the gravity they deserve, rather than skimming sleepily with my mind coated in the sticky bogosity of the day’s internet trawling. I want to make a nest of time where only the book and I exist.
That’s what we do, with our technologies. We manipulate space and time. And with the atemporal, instantaneous digital technologies we do unreal things. You can open a window in your house that goes into my house, and we can see each other and talk in real time. Not a small miracle! And we do stranger things. Social media, the global water-coolers of Fabecook and Twttier and Istangram, they’re inhuman in scale. You’re either shouting into the void, or you’re so big you’re constantly harassed by strangers.
Odell (after listing an example series of tweets from her own timeline):
Spatial and temporal context both have to do with the neighboring entities around something that help define it. Context also helps establish the order of events. Obviously, the bits of information we’re assailed with on Twitter and Facebook feeds are missing both of these kinds of context. Scrolling through the feed, I can’t help but wonder: what am I supposed to think of all this? How am I supposed to think of all this? I imagine different parts of my brain lighting up in a pattern that doesn’t make sense, that forecloses any possible understanding. Many things in there seem important, but the sum total is nonsense, and it produces not understanding but a dull and stupefying dread.
This context is architectural, spatiotemporal. We build our memories in four dimensions, as we read our books. The screen has only two. The feed has one.
I felt this quasi-physical structure this weekend when I tried Tokimeki Unfollow , an open-source app for cleaning up your Twitetr follows in the vein of Marie Kondo. It has a totally different directionality, almost like Tidner’s left-right swiping pattern. In Tokimeki Unfollow you observe one person’s tweets, stripped of their images and videos, with only the username attached to them. You’re presented with three buttons: Unfollow, List, or Keep. For each person you follow, it asks you if their tweets “still spark joy or feel important”. Do you unfollow, or keep? (Adding to Lists is a helpful tactic for power users, but the decision remains.)
Instead of the pseudo-chronological default feed, this tool gives you a cross-section of each user’s recent tweets. It’s perpendicular to the normal flow of information, sideways instead of vertical. Speed-dating, rather than an orgy. There’s an option to sort the users randomly, but I found the Oldest-First order gave me temporal context as well. I’ve been following people since 2012, apparently, and many of those people are long gone. I sifted through life phases: unfollowing Anonymous and Occupy Arbitrary City accounts, a handful of self-promoting comedians and musicians, a bunch of cryptocurrency people I followed before it became a shillfest circlejerk. I consolidated parts of my being, amputated the ones that I’ve grown out of. As I neared the end of my 1200-person judgement binge I felt more sure of myself, more clear in who I want to be and who I want to surround myself with. More solid. More now .
To use an embodied metaphor, Twiettr is usually like walking down a hill of scree. The sharp, loose rock is unpredictable and patternless. You risk at any moment a landslide, where all you can do is try to keep up with the brutal speed and mass of the rocks around you. Tokimeki Unfollow, on the other hand, felt like I had found a game trail sideways across the scree. I could scan the hillside from above, move carefully, consider which path I might tread next. It gave me the time, space, and perspective to rebuild the context Twiester had purposely dissolved.
Tokimeki Unfollow gives no metrics on tweets. No likes, no shares, no replies. When I finished, it told me that I had unfollowed about 500 of the 1200 people I looked through. It took me three or four hours to do them all. It would have been half as long but people were talking about some kind of ball game. I guess the Thrones were playing? Anyway it cluttered up all the dang feeds. I thought March Madness would be over by now, but then, what do I know about time?
Thanks for reading,
###### SCIOPS is a weekly letter about the phenomenology of trash culture. And other stuff. Feel free to forward it, or share it, or resist paying attention to it. You can find a web version of the latest letter here , or view the archive here .
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