How to Do Nothing: Jenny Odell's case for resisting "The Attention Economy"

Originally published at:


What was that? Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.


“The rise of “productivity” as a measure of the quality of life is incredibly destructive, and it obliterates everything inside and outside of us that make us happy, because sleep and love and laughter and beauty are not “productive.””

Who is arguing that a persons productivity should be used as the metric for emasuring that persons quality life? What is the “rise”?

I question the entire thesis of the work is this is what it is based upon.

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The executives and institutional shareholders of every large (read “successful”) corporation in America, and thus by extension the politicians (especially the Libertarian-leaning ones) they’ve bought. Also, the trend-setting media personalities and life-coaching gurus who try to extend that base measure to other areas of American life (e.g. exercise, retiring early, reducing clutter, etc.).

Think of the people who say “government should be run like a business”. Think of the tech bros who drink nutrition-sludge because it’s more efficient. Think of the most popular books about highly successful people, and how that success is defined.

The increasing emphasis on the measure since the early 20th century, when Taylorism and Fordism took hold in the U.S.

There’s nothing wrong with efficiency and metrics and quantification in and of themselves, but they’ve been turned into all-encompassing requirements if one wants to be financially successful in the U.S. (because if you don’t have money in this country you don’t bloody matter to the people making decisions about politics and culture).

Similarly, the neoliberal form of capitalism we have now, the form that aspires to turn every damned thing into a frictionless and seamless transaction every moment and damn the concept of diminishing returns, is the result of this same cultural rise of productivity as the main, magic-number measure.


And more recently the economic theory that gave rise to Reaganism/Thatcherism. People speak as though we have discovered the utilitarian calculus and the “util” was the dollar all along.


Thanks @doctorow. I don’t often read the books that you review, but I am going to in this case. Very well done. Thanks again.


For a lot of ultra-wealthy people, who literally have more money than they know what to do with, it’s transcended that to become a simple score-keeping mechanism. That attitude has infected the culture to such a degree that Americans who are working just to have food and shelter and health insurance have bought into it. There’s a bizarre element of gamification going on here.

The culture of productivity has encouraged us as a society to forget that money is a means to several ends, and in the process to forget what those ends are. The ends now instead serve in large part as symbols, with “bigger” and “gaudier” and “louder” being the main signifiers of one’s current score.


What is the point of life? I would say it’s “to find happiness” and everyone has to find their own happiness. We tend to think happiness is linked to wealth (and I can see that logic: more wealth can mean more freedom) but the pursuit of wealth can be a grind. No matter how much money you accumulate, you still only have a finite amount of time to enjoy that wealth. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’"


I agree with Conan, but I’m old-fashioned that way.

Couldn’t resist.

This is key. They can always print up more money for you to accumulate, but no-one’s creating any more time. When I internalised that more than a decade ago (and make no mistake, it takes a certain degree of privilege to do that) it made me a much happier person.


I’m doing nothing right now.


you are an inspiration to us all papasan


The meaning of life is to make life meaningful
Also we need to change our calendar as it is cognitively disruptive to holistic thinking

TheAbysmal calendar was designed to track all the world’s New Years so that we can all start our years together

In keeping with the (apparent) spirit of the book, I’m going to see if I can check it out from my local library.

Failing that, I guess I’ll buy it, because capitalism.

ETA Rats. My library doesn’t have it.

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And the rise of fascism is inextricably linked to the rise of thought that people are only as useful as how much they are able to produce, and “useless” people need to be purged to save society. That is why fascists go after LGBTQIA and the disabled first.

In the future I am very confident that we will say that neoliberalism was just the early stage of recovering fascism.


Karl Polanyi approves this comment!


I am going to need to read this, I am still a baby comrade.


Classic! He basically makes that very argument you just made. It came out in the immediate postwar period… I like to think of that period of European scholarship as incredibly dark, because of what people had just lived through or witness, especially given how much the intellectual community was cut down under the nazi war machine… I’d say he was a solid Kenysian, in terms of how he viewed the economy - fully believed that the economy should be in service to people and not the other way around.


This is the argument I was trying to make a few days ago.

We have become focused on $ as the only acceptable ROI. If something doesn’t save/bring you money, it’s considered a poor investment. Simple conversation and true friends don’t bring you money. Indeed, we call those activities “idle” which we’ve equated with sin.

Sometimes, some of us are looking for other returns. But our relentless focus as a society on the $ as only important thing is what has led us to the point where poverty is seen like a moral failing and the struggles the poor face are seen as appropriate punishment.


A lot of people in the tech industries and on their peripheries are - if you follow the talk on places like hacker news and reddit there’s a really strong theme of self improvement via turning oneself into an awesome engine of productivity, with every moment measured, graphed and post mortemed to see where future efficiency gains can come from.

There’s a strong subculture of this, especially among entrepeneur wannabees. Efficiency is good and useful, but it needs a goal and a context, rather than being made into a religion.


resisting isn’t gonna earn you that shiny, shiny whuffie.