How To Do Nothing

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5/10/19 - Constant smart phone use may not be great for us, but what are we supposed to do instead? Artist and writer Jenny Odell explores how we reclaim our time and attention in her new book, How to Do Nothing.

Transcript below.

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Producer: Gina Delvac

Hosts: Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman

Theme song: Call Your Girlfriend by Robyn

Composer: Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs.

Associate Producer: Jordan Bailey

Visual Creative Director: Kenesha Sneed

Merch Director: Caroline Knowles

Editorial Assistant: Laura Bertocci

Design Assistant: Brijae Morris

Ad sales: Midroll


What it Takes to Put Your Phone Away by Jia Tolentino

A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit

4:33 by John Cage, a musical composition built on silence

Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield

Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich

After the Future by Franco Berardi

How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell… and more of Jenny Odell’s writing and art




Aminatou: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.

Ann: A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.

Aminatou: I'm Aminatou Sow.

Ann: And I'm Ann Friedman. I talked to the artist and writer Jenny Odell who has a new book called How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. And a lot of her book is about how you can't just tell people "Don't look at your phone so much." You kind of have to retrain or help them think about other places they could or should be putting the attention that they currently give to say social media.

[Theme Song]

Aminatou: Hi Ann Friedman.

Ann: Hi, hi! How's it going?

Aminatou: How's it going? [Laughs]

Ann: I asked you first!

Aminatou: I believe we asked each other at the same time.


Ann: Oh my god, okay, well I will tell you -- I know we talked about this over text message but we have not talked about it which is that I was hiking yesterday and I almost stepped on a baby rattlesnake. I'm not even kidding.

Aminatou: Ann I don't know that you and I have specifically talked about this before but you know that snakes are my number one fear right?

Ann: I did not actually know that.

Aminatou: Like to the point where it's why I was so anti-Crocodile Hunter because there are so many snakes that popped up in that genre of Discovery Channel. It's why I had a hard time with the Taylor Swift/Kimye beef because there are so many snake emojis.

Ann: [Laughs]

Aminatou: The thing doesn't even have to be alive. Yeah, it's just thinking about it now I'm getting goosebumps. And so when you sent me that photo this morning I screamed and I was like wow, nowhere is safe. Truly nowhere is safe.

Ann: Wow. And I feel bad that I didn't even know to send it with a trigger warning.

Aminatou: Oh my goodness. Well you're alive so that's good.

Ann: I'm alive and it was one of those things where it took me -- I was like okay, I'm going to take ap photo of this thing. I'm just going to assume it wasn't actually dangerous until I get home and compare it to photos of other snakes in this particular state park. And lo and behold it was 100% a rattlesnake.

Aminatou: I can't even wrap my mind around not-dangerous snake, a concept. I don't understand. So as far as I'm concerned everything is a cobra or a rattlesnake.

Ann: It doesn't bother -- I mean I really don't have . . . I'm trying to think. I don't love the idea of coming across a snake in my bathtub or something, like random.

Aminatou: No! Can you imagine? [Laughs]

Ann: Where I don't expect it. But there's really not that many things that, unless they are actively trying to do me harm which most little things in nature are not, I really don't have many bug or creepy crawly kind of fears.

Aminatou: It's the only bug/creepy crawly fear I have and I like can't quite pinpoint it to where it's from. Maybe it's that J. Lo snake movie from a million years ago or something. What was that called? Anaconda.

Ann: Anaconda. [Laughs]


Aminatou: Or something else. But no, truly, yeah. I fully cannot with snakes. But I'm glad that you are here to podcast today.

Ann: Oh my god. Well this is actually an unexpectedly perfect intro to today's episode. I talked to the artist and writer Jenny Odell who has a new book called How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. And a lot of her book is about how you can't just tell people don't look at your phone so much. You kind of have to retrain or help them think about other places they could or should be putting the attention that they currently give to say social media. And once place that she comes up with as an answer a bunch is nature. Not snakes in particular although presumably that's part of the experience of paying attention that I should've been having otherwise I wouldn't have almost stepped on this thing.

Aminatou: Well but nature is not not doing nothing.

Ann: How to do things that capitalism doesn't value is not the catchiest although I would also buy that book. [Laughs]

Aminatou: I would totally buy that book but I think that's really interesting. It's that nothing is in relationship to capitalism and to productivity, right? You know, the argument of put your phone away is something that I think we've talked about this before a little bit. I chafe at that a lot when it's an argument against technology but if it is an argument against capitalism then I'm 100% onboard.

Ann: Yeah. And you know she gets into this a little bit too which is to say it's not that interacting with people through the device of your phone or through digital means is bad. It's more about questioning things like the way Instagram and Twitter and Facebook are designed and the way that they're designed does not actually privilege the things that you're going to them for. And I think that idea of okay, so when we talk about social media right now we're essentially talking about a few really popular apps created by a few big companies. We're not talking about literally everything you do with your phone. One example being the group text thread is not a monetized space right now. I mean yeah you pay your AT&T bill or whatever but not . . . you know, a company is not wracking up how many texts you sent if you're on iMessage or whatever and selling advertisements against them and things like that. So I think she makes some important distinctions too that you're right, it's not like phones equal bad or digital communication equals bad. It's more like think harder about the platforms you use that someone is monetizing.


Aminatou: Woof. I'm just thinking now about who's the bad company that's going to monetize our group chats because you know that that's coming some day in the future.

Ann: What I really like about Jenny and what I really like about this book is that she's kind of talking -- it's not just a critique of what's happening on social media. It's not just asking you to think harder or be better about how you use it. It's also asking you to evaluate where you put your attention beyond the space of your phone and what you're designed to really hone in on and pay close attention to. And I think that for me even when snakes are not involved is very crucial life advice that I'm taking to heart and it like, you know, this is one of those books I read where I just kept underlining things. Do you have a book like that?

Aminatou: Oh my god. You're just like everything is relevant. Underline, underline, underline.

Ann: Too relevant. So here is Jenny Odell.

[Interview Starts]

Ann: Hi Jenny, welcome to CYG. So when did you decide that you wanted to change your relationship to attention?

Jenny: [Laughs]

Ann: Or maybe the better phrase is when did you decide you wanted to use your attention differently?

Jenny: You know I talk a little bit in the book about this moment of crisis in late 2016 in which I found myself sitting in a rose garden near my apartment pretty much as often as possible. Like any time that I could get there I would be there. So I think maybe initially I was just struck by the difference of not really like amount of attention but quality of attention between when I was spending time there and then kind of the rest of the day.

So almost kind of like a difference in kind, not quantity. I think we pay different kinds of attention to different kinds of things and so putting yourself in situations that invite a different kind of attention can be very therapeutic in a time like this.

Ann: You know when I was reading your book I kept thinking about that phrase pay attention. Like ugh, it really is a form of currency like capitalism. What have you done to our language? But also we get to decide where and how to spend it even though our phones make it feel sometimes like we don't have a choice in the matter at all. So what does a deeper, better kind of paying attention feel like to you? Or what does it look like? I mean you don't have to talk too personally. [Laughs] I'm assuming it doesn't look like staring at your phone.

Jenny: [Laughs] ] I mean I think without sounding too cliché I think some of it has to do with depth of attention. I don't know, or like resolution maybe? I just feel like from my own experience looking at things on my phone or just online there's so much and I feel like the attention that I pay to everything is uniformly shallow. I don't feel like I'm fully really making contact with anything. And I certainly don't have the ability to process or reflect on anything in that kind of situation. Versus I think when I am outside and I'm kind of looking at things you don't have to be in a totally naturalistic setting to be able to kind of access different scales of time and space.

I mean I talk a lot about bird watching in the book. But looking at birds and starting to think about all of the forms of life that are around you and things that are much older than maybe the city that you're in, I don't know, it just seems to expand out into other scales of time and space and it feels a lot less claustrophobic to me in that way.


Ann: And so do you get that expansive feeling by just letting yourself ask questions that lead to other questions? Or how do you do it?

Jenny: Yeah. Asking questions or, I don't know, being curious about things or just getting outside of a very myopic and kind of self-centered point-of-view. There's just something about the kind of social media that we have right now that feels even though it's so built on anxiety and envy it's still very much centered around the self. There's so much kind of algorithmically catered to you and after a while I start to feel so sick of that. And so it's kind of a relief to have it in some kind of context that's not so centered around me or even like a human perspective.

Ann: So yeah, 100% the algorithms can only do so much. They can recognize that you're upset about like the 2016 election results and they can serve up more and more anti-Trump posts that you'll like but they can never create the experience of walking through the rose garden or what that represents to you and how you made sense of that 2016 election experience.

Jenny: Right. And even if they did somehow it would be so boring. [Laughs] Compared to the actual rose garden I feel like.

Ann: Okay. But just to clarify you're not arguing that we stop using the Internet as a tool for organizing and doing activism, right? Like the Internet is still good for some things.

Jenny: Yeah, no, that's true. I mean and it kind of gets to the point also that I make in the book that I'm not anti-social media either. I have problems with commercial social media and this kind of financial incentive to keep someone on a platform all the time and to advertise to them and whatnot. But the actual just fact of social media or being connected to other people and being able to share information and find out about things is not in itself bad. It's actually quite amazing.


Just even the other day I was driving home and I was listening to the UC Berkeley radio station and I don't know what -- there was just this DJ that every single song she was playing was amazing in ways that I could not explain. And they weren't even of the same genre. So it was like an eerie person version of Discover Weekly or something. But it's just, you know, it's like that person -- that individual person's sensibility that I was just very surprised by.

Ann: Yeah. I love that part in the book where you write about the experience of listening to the radio in your car and how it's so different from like what Spotify wants to serve you as Jenny Radio (TM). Like how it can be so wonderful to hear something that's so far outside your personal algorithm.

Jenny: Yeah, no, and that's a great example of how something like -- yeah, being connected to other people can be really useful and you can . . . you know, like we've always found out about really interesting things from each other so obviously anything that helps us do that is going to be useful.

Ann: So I read an interview with you where you said it's pointless to tell people to give up their phones unless you're also offering some meaningful advice about where that attention should go or how to rewire our ability to do things without our phone. And I really love that. It really resonated with me and maybe stoked some of the annoyance with bold statements about leaving Facebook. It's sort of like okay, sure. I don't really believe it when you're saying it on Facebook or whatever. And we can't all just go cold turkey on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. It won't take. It won't work.


Jenny: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely. I don't know. I think it's . . . for me it's pretty simple. It's just sort of like you can't ask someone to stop paying attention to something without giving them something else to pay attention to or at least suggesting a direction they can go in. I feel like this kind of obsessive wanting to stop looking at your phone is in its obsessiveness still giving actually a lot of attention to that whole kind of realm whereas I'm kind of interested in walking away from that altogether.

I'm extrapolating from my own kind of experience but I am a person who gets absorbed in things and I feel like social media is designed to hijack that capacity, to get me absorbed in things that it wants me to be absorbed in. And there's nothing wrong -- again there's nothing wrong with that impulse but I think that if you take that as a given and you say "Okay, we're human beings and we're curious and we get engaged in things" then it doesn't make as much sense to kind of like tell someone to just stop doing something in sort of like a reprimanding way. It kind of makes more sense to maybe look around and find somewhere else that you could reinvest that attention and that curiosity.

So for me that just happens to be, you know, ecology and local history. But really I think these feelings of curiosity and being surprised and learning about things and the way that kind of gets you out of yourself to me is a really genuine antidote to kind of the whole ethos of the personal brand and being kind of caught up in social media.

Ann: Okay so maybe this is kind of cynical but what about people -- I assume there are these people -- who just don't want to step outside of themselves. Like they're people who are excited to only listen to their curated radio station or to have their views reinforced, who only want to see things that they know they're probably already going to like. Is your book for them too?

Jenny: Yeah.

Ann: Like people who don't even know they're dissatisfied or maybe people who truly aren't dissatisfied.


Jenny: Hmm, yeah, that's . . . [Laughs] I think this is an odd example but one of the books that I quote from is Rebecca Solnit's Paradise Built in Hell which is about -- it's basically case studies of disasters after which people were surprisingly resourceful and flexible and actually sometimes had a surprising sense of humor in the wake of those disasters. And the book is really meant to push against the kind of sensationalized coverage that you often see after disasters where it's kind of every man for himself and people fighting and we're all kind of just uncivilized animals.

And the reason I bring that up is that in a lot of the interviews that she quotes from these are just people who had lived say like on a street next to a bunch of other people that they had never talked to. And what happened after these disasters, a lot of them they express this kind of awe where they say "I had this feeling of purpose and I was surprised by the people around me and what we were capable of. And it just sort of broke through the monotony of the everyday."

And I just feel like some of those people probably weren't expecting that. I'm wondering if you can be going along with your life and think that it's great and then something comes along that interrupts that and surprises you and you find out that there's actually this other kind of layer of meaning that feels good. [Laughs] So I don't know. I can't know whether that's the case but that's one of the reasons I love that book so much is because it really gives me faith in humanity. [Laughs]

Ann: Right. This sense that we're not actually all craven, horrible individualists at heart and in fact we're just so alienated about what feels good about living in true community.

Jenny: Yeah or I think there's something in-between too where you might feel dissatisfied but it hasn't quite surfaced to the level where you can articulate it. I mean I certainly have feelings like that, you know? And then I think ironically that drives someone to then engage with something like social media in a kind of toxic way as a way to kind of get away from that uncomfortable feeling of being dissatisfied with something.


Ann: With social media as this easy default option we all have when we're feeling bad about the world or when we're feeling lonely how do we individually and collectively encourage ourselves to want something better? Like in an ideal world how would we all be using our attention to pursue something better together? Like that to me seems like the goal.

Jenny: Yeah, right. That's the keys in an ideal world because it's sort of depressing to me actually to look back at something like the movement for the eight-hour workday in the 19th century as this kind of . . . I mean I take huge amounts of inspiration from that in the book but it also more and more in retrospect looks like this kind of island of stability in what has otherwise been this kind of crush of extreme bottom-line thinking.

Ann: Maybe you can back up for a sec and explain how the eight-hour workday came about for people who haven't read your book or don't know their labor history?

Jenny: So in 1886 there was a very concerted labor movement for the eight-hour workday. So their motto was eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will. And they had a kind of block print graphic for that and obviously there's people working in the factory in the first one. Then you see kind of like feet sticking out of a blanket for the second one. And then the third one, what we will, coincidentally is people reading a union newspaper. [Laughs]

But still I think the kind of -- the description "what we will" is very humanely not defined. It's not eight hours for self-improvement or exercise or education. It's literally what we will. And if you look at kind of the history of that and how long it took to actually establish the eight-hour workday and the resistance to this otherwise kind of bottom-line mentality of everything must be as highly efficient as possible even at the cost of human well-being you really see that these moments are kind of like islands that have been precariously held open against this capitalist logic that continues to work its way into every facet of our lives. So now we obviously don't have -- a lot of us don't have the eight-hour workday anymore and then you kind of also have this 24 potentially monetizable hours kind of schedule, especially for someone working in something like the gig economy or someone who's working more than one job.


So, you know, it's something that I definitely felt like I needed to address in the book because if you're talking about refusal there's also a kind of margin that's required for refusal. Whether it's legal for you to protest, whether you have the time, or you have the luxury of refusing. And unfortunately it feels like that margin is being closed down continuously and continues to be for a lot of people.

Ann: Exactly. So it's been redefined as a luxury. And I think in some ways carving out time and space away from being productive or working is in many ways what all this current language about self-care is about, at least on a surface level. Like in the face masks and baths sense. And on that level, in that use of the term, self-care is just another privilege for people who already have time and already have the ability to keep capitalism from infecting their every single waking hour. So I don't know. I guess what I'm saying is yes, the right of refusal should be a right but anti-capital is bad for our privilege. It's horrible.

Jenny: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that's just so tragic, you know? Because when I look at these islands of resistance in history it feels so much like putting one's foot down in this kind of argument for what we need to thrive as people. And so that's why I kind of end up saying in the book that even though this isn't something that a lot of people have access to I still see it as a right and I'm kind of holding it as an ideal that hopefully we can move towards but still recognizing that it's something that a lot of people don't have access to.


Ann: And if you do have some space in your life that you can choose to claim for not being productive which definitely applies to me and I would say probably applies to a lot of people listening to this podcast you almost have an obligation to do it. You know, for everyone who can't opt to do nothing or who has to monetize or be productive every hour of their waking day, those of us who don't have to can log off, can just not do it and refuse.

Jenny: Yeah, right. I mean I think what I'm saying is really similar to what a lot of people have said about privilege in general which is if you have it, use it. Like if you have it use it to try to lift others up around you. So my argument's sort of similar which is if you look at how much organization it took for something like the eight-hour workday or any of the other kind of moments of refusal that I talk about in the book obviously that requires concentration on an individual and a collective level. You know, the things that I'm kind of talking about in the book are aimed at that kind of space where it's not quite activism yet; it's the thing that comes before maybe. It's something that might help you think more clearly, have the kinds of dialogues with yourself and with others that would be necessary to then kind of push on all of these forces.

Ann: I think a lot about how the only reason I'm able to distance myself from Twitter which is an increasingly toxic place I think, but is also a place where a lot of my fellow journalists hang out for hours and hours every day, it's sort of an industry water cooler, the only reason I can walk away from that even though I don't live in the same town as a lot of other journalists is because I'm at this point of stability in m career. I have connections now and therefore more power and I don't need to try to respond to potential colleagues on social media all day as a result. And then I also get this not only am I more stable and that allows me to opt out but I get this additional mental health benefit which frankly I could've used those mental health benefits a lot more back when I was trying to establish myself as a writer and up my pay rate and things like that.


Jenny: Yeah. I mean I think Gia Tolentino made kind of a similar point. Yeah, she has kind of a similar observation about getting to a point where she can afford to not be online so much. That it is this kind of . . . its own form of capital. And so foregoing it is in some ways sort of a luxury. 

Ann: Ah the luxury of refusing to participate in circular outrage. Such a luxury.

Jenny: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I talk in the book about this moment again in kind of late 2016 where I was seeing this kind of -- at least among people that I was connected to -- this kind of uptick in expression on Facebook and Twitter, especially on Facebook because you can write really long posts on there. Where myself included a lot of people were sort of posting these very genuine posts about being outraged and just being kind of caught up in this emotion. And then those posts are getting tons of likes and tons of engagement and everyone . . . I think I describe in the book as like a bunch of firecrackers going off in a room that fills up with smoke.

And again it's important to me to say I don't think that those emotions were not genuine and they're obviously very warranted. But I sort of wonder what it was doing. That obviously on the one hand it's generating a lot of revenue for this platform because it's just more engagement and it's more time spent on there. And then it also seemed like it was just kind of fomenting more emotion. Like there's something very seductive about being in an emotional state, like you kind of want to stay in it. Like when you're angry you want to stay angry and when you're sad you want to stay sad. And getting a bunch of likes or comments on a post kind of feels that way versus things like coordinated action which often I think follow an emotional reaction where you then have to kind of think strategically about okay, who am I going to talk to? How are we going to do this?


Just like how much coordination and strategy that takes and that's something I have a huge amount of admiration for is for people who are able to do that. And so I just can't help but wonder what would happen if you took all of the energy that was being funneled into these outreach posts and actually directed that towards more intentional communications, like whether that's a group chat or in-person meeting or just something that feels a little bit more targeted versus kind of like shouting into the void.

Ann: But here's something I struggle with. I mean on social media it can be hard to tell when you're doing important work, like amplifying activism opportunities and stories that are maybe not on the front page of the New York Times. When you're essentially not letting something important fly under the radar and you're just throwing firecrackers in a room and not being productive.

Jenny: Yeah. Yeah, I think it's sometimes hard to tell but for me especially in that moment in 2016 I definitely could tell that being in a state of complete freak out is just not good for anything. [Laughs] For anyone, right? Like I sometimes describe my book as being about just how to be okay enough to do anything. And, you know, also I recognize that maybe there are a lot of people who don't have that problem. [Laughs] And are just still doing the work. But I think, you know, I was just observing with myself and people I knew, especially here in Oakland -- because we had the Ghost Ship fire here around that same time that year -- it's really addressed to someone who is caught up in that kind of emotional and claustrophobic cycle online to the point where you're not even able sort of think clearly about what you would like to do and what you need to say and who you need to say it to.


Ann: Or like you can't see the claustrophobic cycle at all.

Jenny: Yeah. Yeah. I mean I have definitely gotten some use out of things like that. I mean I feel like they're all just kind of reminders of the same thing which is just occasionally you need to step outside of something in order to evaluate it and evaluate your own participation in it. And I think, you know, I approach that with the same curiosity that I approach, you know, like learning about my local ecosystem which is something I talk a lot about in the book. But just inhabiting this kind of curious and open-ended mindset whether that's directed towards things around you or yourself.



Ann: I love the story in your book about how having dinner at your neighbor's house shifted your entire perspective on your neighborhood.

Jenny: Oh yeah. [Laughs] Yeah. So I live in a really big apartment building but the apartment building is next to a house that we can kind of see from our balcony. So, you know, we've been here for almost three years but it wasn't until this past year that we actually really got to know our neighbors and they invited us over for dinner at one point. So in the book I talk about how strange it was to see my own street just from a slightly different angle and also to be inside the house that I had looked at every day.

I also don't have a ton of friends with children and they have children. So it was just sort of a perspective on the shared reality that was slightly shifted over from ours. And so I describe kind of coming back home to our apartment and the apartment doesn't feel like the center of the universe anymore; it just feels like another place on the street. And I just kind of thought about all the people living on our street turning in for the night, like having their own individual worries and this universe of concerns that there's no way I could possibly know. And this actually caused me to see every single street differently. That it's not just kind of this inert space that exists around me but actually there are many kind of points and centers everywhere around you all the time.


Ann: I really like this idea of decentering yourself or stepping outside of your own comfort zone or experience and into someone else's world as a way of learning to pay attention to new things.

Jenny: Yeah. Your own . . . the sort of three-dimensionality that you experience within your own mind, it's like there are literally hundreds of those around you. I mean depending on where you are, but if you live in a city this kind of density of experience is really very mind-boggling if you pursue it even a little bit.

Ann: Right. Like at any point you have infinite choices of what you could be paying attention to which we like to think of as a new thing but that's true outside your phone as well, like all around you: what you're hearing, what you're seeing, the way you're seeing it. And I really appreciate how you write about the many art projects that have shifted your personal thinking on this and helped you pay attention to the world in new ways like music and performance art and even painting.

Jenny: Yeah. So I think one of the most important experiences I had like that which I talk about a little bit is the John Cage piece that I saw at the symphony many years ago. So John Cage is kind of best known for his piece, it's called 4:33. There are several movements so someone does sit at a piano but they don't play anything. I think that piece gets written off as just kind of a conceptual art stunt but what the piece is really about is the ambient sound in the room.

It still gets formed to this day and it's different every time because you'll have like chairs scraping or coughing or nervous shifting in one's chair. And he was sort of the philosophy that all sound is already music which is something that in my own artistic practice I really sympathize with.


So I saw a John Cage piece. It was not 4:33. It had a score but the score is very based on chance and it involves like a blender and a shuffled deck of cards. You know, it's definitely not your typical orchestra performance. And all of these things are supposed to be part of the piece including the audience laughing nervously. [Laughs] And so I just remember walking out of that symphony hall and realizing that I had never really consciously listened to a lot of sounds around me in San Francisco which at that point I had lived in for quite a while and so I was kind of floored by this idea that there had been sound that was technically going into my ears but just kind of not . . . not being consciously processed and not really being grasped.

And so I feel like I've had that same experience over and over again with different pieces of art specifically where I just feel like my entire way of perceiving things in reality is remapped and it's permanent. I really don't think I listen to sound the same way now that I did before seeing that piece and to me that's such a generous thing. You know, something that an artist can do for viewers or listeners is to open up some part of perceptual reality for them.

Ann: Right. So like intentionally refocus their attention to something new.

Jenny: Yeah or just, I don't know, like pointing things out. I mean we've all had experiences of someone pointing something out to you, say a building or something that you walk by every day and you just had not seen it at all. And that could go on forever. I mean there are many, many perspectives on any place where you are. So I kind of present those in the book as training apparatuses for attention that if you spend time with things like that you can eventually kind of learn to move your attention around and expand and contract it with intentionality and volition rather than kind of having it jerked around all the time and always kind of stuck in the shallow state.


Ann: So reading your book really allowed me to critique some of the ways that I live and work and question the fact that for example I feel the best at the end of the day when I think I've been productive. And I don't necessarily mean that in a work sense although often I do but I kind of mean it in terms of like the to-do list, like if I've done what I set out to do that day. Like maybe I ran the errands I needed to run or I've worked on a craft project I wanted to work on or dropped off a meal for my friend who just had a baby. Like whatever, some of these things are not work. But I found myself getting defensive like hey, some forms of productivity are good.

Jenny: Yeah. Um . . .

Ann: Like I'm attached to that feeling of being productive.

Jenny: I mean it's kind of funny, right? Like the word productivity could mean a lot of different things. You know, the kind of productivity that I'm critiquing in the book is very specifically tied to like an ego-driven kind of personal brand type of productivity as well as kind of innovation for innovation's sake which is a very Silicon Valley kind of concept. So the question that I'm kind of asking at the beginning is like producing what, for whom, and why? Because I think if you get very caught up in the cult of productivity you risk not asking those questions.

I don't know, I think about my internal reward system and what makes me happy at the end of the day. And it's like I feel like I'm always just kind of looking for moments where I am reminded that I'm alive. And I know that sounds sort of cheesy but I just read Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich and that book is about basically how much of your life should you spend obsessively trying to extend the length of your life? [Laughs] With . . .

Ann: Right. Tech bros who are getting blood transfusions from young people who work out every day or whatever, like trying really, really hard not to die.


Jenny: Yeah, exactly. And I was sitting in the rose garden, I was reading it, and there's this paragraph about what happens to your brain after you die. And it's this unsparing . . . I mean the whole book is sort of darkly funny but it's this unsparing description of how your brain just liquefies and comes out of your ears. And like -- I was just like oh my god. And I looked up from this book. I'm in this beautiful garden, right? And I was like my brain is just holding itself together right now but it won't forever. And I just was so . . . I think I laughed out loud. And then the whole rest of the day -- I mean I went to the grocery store. I waited in a really long line at Safeway but I was just looking around at everything and everyone in line and I was like oh, we're all alive. That's so weird. What does it even mean to be alive? What am I? You know?

And that could be potentially very disorienting but for whatever reason I just really love that feeling because I think I sort of have this fear that like the opposite of that to me would be doing everything that I think I'm supposed to be doing over and over again every day, kind of like an automaton. And then I worry that I would get to the end of my life and realize that I didn't feel any of it or something. [Laughs] So yeah.

Ann: Yeah, you want to appreciate whatever magical thing it is that's keeping your brain from leaking out your ears.

Jenny: Yeah! I mean that's crazy. I don't know. I mean it also just so happens to be a really great antidote to getting sucked down some rabbit hole on my phone. It's like that space kind of can't compete with the craziness of that thought, you know? [Laughs]

Ann: Okay, but I love an Internet rabbit hole.

Jenny: Yeah.

Ann: Like sometimes I think those are the best digital experiences I have outside of like group text. You know, like looking up a weird thing that leads to a weird video that leads to ten Wikipedia pages that leads to a Google Image search that I then bring back to the group text and we all laugh about it. That feels like the good kind of attention to me in some ways.

Jenny: [Laughs]

Ann: Are there good ways of thinking about or inhabiting digital space too?


Jenny: Yeah. There's a term multiple simultaneous adjacency and I don't know who coined that but it's supposed to mean almost like perceptual multitasking, like this idea that you can be aware of two facets of reality at the same time. And there's a chapter that I assigned to my students from a book called Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield where he -- maybe he's the one who coined it? I'm not sure. But he references that term and he says there's no such thing as multiple simultaneous adjacency. Like you can only kind of be in one of those at the same time.

And so . . . and I kind of feel that that's true. And I like you enjoy a good rabbit hole. I think it's just I worry about the kind of attrition of one of those in favor of the other. Like I worry about spending all of my time not fully inhabiting just the place where I am. I mean as a weird example I talk about the crows that I have befriended in this book, the crows on my street. And crows can recognize human faces and are some of the smartest animals that exist.

And I was walking down the street the other day near my apartment and I was looking at my phone and I was looking at something really dumb that I didn't need to be looking at. And it was this beautiful day and one of the crows landed right next to my head and just cawed at my really loudly. [Laughs] And I mean I know them. It's been a couple years. I know them well enough I know that sound. It's the same sound that they make if they land near the balcony and I don't see them and I'm looking at my phone, they make the same sound.

And it was just this funny sort of reminder of hey, you're here. You're here and I can see you. To the crow it's like I'm just this human animal that's like, you know, I -- even if I don't feel like I'm walking down the street I am walking down the street and I can be observed walking down the street. So I value those kinds of reminders because physical reality doesn't have the same kind of persuasive design working for it as social media does.


Ann: So do you think that paying more attention to the physical world around you makes you a more sensitive human, like in the way we usually use that term? Like emotionally sensitive? Or maybe makes you a better communicator or something like that?

Jenny: Yeah. It is an interesting question. I mean I think it's related a little bit to one of the ideas that I borrow from Franco Berardi who's this Italian theorist who wrote a very depressing book called After the Future that I borrow from a lot. But he makes this distinction between connectivity and sensitivity. 

So connectivity is sharing of information where neither the sharer nor the receiver changes. So they're kind of like stable units. And the information also doesn't change and it happens very rapidly. My example of that is some headline getting shared very quickly by like-minded people on Facebook.

And then sensitivity is the opposite of that. It's two kind of ambiguous, weirdly-shaped bodies sharing information which might get changed in the transmission. And then those two, the sharer and the receiver, might be changed by the interaction as they kind of go their separate ways. And he very much ties that to . . . he ties sensitivity to bodily interaction, the sort of body sensing another body. And all the kinds of communication that we know how to do that are more than verbal and more than written.

So I mean it's kind of mind-boggling to think about when you sit across from someone and you communicate with them all of the other information that you're getting and responding to and it's affecting how you're responding. That would not show up in something like a transcript.


Ann: Right, which I think is one reason why podcasts feel so intimate, not to make it all meta.

Jenny: [Laughs]

Ann: But they're in some ways more like an IRL conversation than a text message. Side note, hello listeners. Hope you're paying attention to this intimate conversation. 

Jenny: But still it's still so different than something like -- certainly different from texting and it's very different from me going on a social media platform and throwing something into the void. Like it's very different than that.

Ann: Right. I mean podcasts are also happening in people's heads, in their ears often, like in spaces where physical real life is also happening. So unlike looking at your phone and feeling like you're in the world of the phone I think people listen to podcasts while they're running errands or exercising or commuting to work, whatever. And so they're more integrated with like this fully-formed real world experience than if you're just staring at a phone and boxes on the phone, ignoring the physical world around you.

Jenny: Yeah. I mean with podcasts, right, it's in your ear. [Laughs] It's like very . . . it's very close to you. [Laughs] 

Ann: Extremely close to you. But we're talking about a book that you wrote and how do you feel books fit into this? Because sometimes for me I feel like the experience of reading a book is not that different from the experience of being in my phone. I mean it's taking me away from the physical space that I'm in, like I'm absorbed in the world of words on the page. Sometimes I guess there's a deep connection with the author but it doesn't feel like the kind of community or IRL attention and interaction that you're describing.


Jenny: Yeah. It's very abstract I think and that's why . . . I mean I feel like so much of actually reading a book for me is talking about it afterwards with other people. It's such a big part of actually taking in that information.

Ann: God, I'm always trying to reverse engineer book club. Like I can't join one upfront because I don't like to be told what to read but I love trying to get all my friends to read a book that I liked just so we can talk about it.

Jenny: That's kind of my style too. [Laughs] 


Ann: Okay. So if I gave you one billion dollars or whatever, some absurd amount to make a social media network that prioritized deeper attention and more meaningful connection what would you make?

Jenny: I mean I have only the vaguest idea. Actually my secret hope is that someone out there who knows how to make something like that will read the book and then yeah, somehow magically get funding, right? And then make this utopian social network that I am trying to imagine. I really hope that happens. But in the meantime the things that I can say, qualities that would be really great for something like that to have, is number one to be non-commercial so I give some examples of open source, non-commercial networks like Mastodon which is similar to Twitter. It does something similar to Twitter but isn't really owned by anyone and you basically own your own data there.

And then I think on top of that it'd be something that doesn't have persuasive design elements. So it would have no incentive to keep you on it all the time. And that's actually not that hard to imagine because we have an example of that already, it's Craigslist. [Laughs] You know, Craigslist, it's not a coincidence that the person who started Craigslist purposely chose not to go the route of kind of investment and growth that other platforms have gone.

I watched this interview with him once where someone's basically asking Craig Newmark who started Craigslist why he didn't do that. And his answer is sort of almost like "Why are you even asking me the question?" He's like "I just didn't -- I mean why would I do that?" And it sounds so self-evident when he says it but then you look at everything else that comes out of Silicon Valley and it seems quite exceptional.


Ann: Right. Well also Craigslist is designed to facilitate offline things. You know, you don't buy virtual patio furniture or make a virtual adult friend there.

Jenny: Yeah. [Laughs]

Ann: You typically use it for physical things in the offline world.
Jenny: Yeah. When I guess it's just, you know, I'm biased. But that is where kind of my own allegiances lie where I would love to see some form of non-commercial social media in the service of things like habitat restoration and other kind of decidedly physical things. But I just think, you know, in general Craigslist is an interesting example of something that has remained the same for a long time and it still works and it does what it says it's going to do. You use it to do the thing that you want it to do and then you leave and it's that simple. [Laughs] So I would love if we had some kind of decentralized, non-commercial social network that it would be kind of equally inert and just kind of like a tool that you use to do something really important and then you walk away.

Ann: Okay. So I have to ask what have you paid attention to today?

Jenny: Yeah. I actually unsurprisingly went to the rose garden this morning. [Laughs] I was paying attention to -- so there's a type of bird that's called an oak titmouse. Yeah, and it's not a mouse. It's this little gray bird that likes to hang out in oak trees. I've seen it described as the voice of an oak tree because they're just always in there.

Ann: Oh my god, a bird called mouse that sounds like a tree? I love that. That's like a children's book, a bird called mouse. Yeah.

Jenny: Sounding like a tree? Yeah, exactly. You know, I got into birdwatching probably, let's see, two or three years ago? And so I learned what they look like pretty early on because there are a lot of them in my neighborhood and I probably knew the one or two songs that they most commonly sing. So I kind of considered that like a case closed, like I know that bird. [Laughs]


And then this spring I realized that -- this is actually . . . and I kind of have a lot of descriptions in the book of being embarrassed by my own inattention to something. But I was embarrassed to find that a bunch of songs that I thought were other birds that I just didn't know yet were all the oak titmouse. But I was trying to make a list of all of the different songs that I was hearing them make and the list is still going. It's also really hard to write down a bird song in human phonetic terms. They're just the silliest looking words and phrases and I'm not going to imitate any of them right now. [Laughs]

Ann: Okay. I'm not asking you to do actual bird calls but maybe you can just read them to me deadpan style.

Jenny: Yeah. I mean one of them is definitely skidoo, skidoo. [Laughs] So yeah, there was one in the tree today when I went to the rose garden and I was just kind of sitting and listening to it and thinking about how I have no idea what any of those mean. [Laughs] And like this . . . I don't know, just kind of sitting with the fact of this other creature that's expressing itself and living its own life and inhabiting this slice of reality that I can't imagine. So that's kind of what I was zoning out on this morning. [Laughs]

Ann: Right, right. Or zoning into. Let's be real.

Jenny: I was -- yeah, exactly.

Ann: Jenny thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Jenny: All right. Thanks so much for reading and for having me on the podcast.

[Interview Ends]

Aminatou: You know this is a really good interview, Ann. I told you already that I'm moving this book to the top of my pile to read because, you know, I think that it's a really, really -- it's a really, really important topic and also something that, you know, we can still do something about. So I'm excited to read it.


Ann: I have a little experiment I want to do before we end the podcast if you'll humor me.

Aminatou: All the time.

Ann: So Jenny talks about how there are a few different music performance art pieces that really helped her start to listen to the world in a more attentive way. And sometimes when we record interviews the best producer on earth, Gina Delvac, sometimes makes us record like a minute of room tone which is just the fancy podcast production term for sitting there with a microphone on and recording and not saying anything. And I was thinking we could leave a minute of our room tone in this podcast but then also invite people who are listening to this to take out an earbud or enjoy the silence coming from their speaker and pay attention instead to what's happening in the world around them. Do you want to do it?

Aminatou: Okay. I'm going to set a one minute timer for us and we are all going to sit together and do nothing but think. Okay, the timer is started.

[Room tone]



Aminatou: Well look at that. That was extremely pleasant.

Ann: Oh my god. What did you hear during your minute?

Aminatou: I heard a very low hum. I heard it the whole time.

Ann: I heard a really beautiful bird singing outside and also my own nose whistle I'm embarrassed to report.

Aminatou: [Laughs] I heard a really low hum which I'm pretty sure is coming from the building next door but it was actually really, really pleasant.

Ann: I -- also how long did a minute feel? It felt so long.

Aminatou: A while ago I would've told you that it feels really long but I've been doing this meditation outside. It's literally Couch to 5K for meditation. But I remember the first time it was like you had to close your eyes for 30 seconds and I closed my eyes for what I thought was an eternity and it had been seven seconds exactly.

Ann: [Laughs]

Aminatou: So I -- you know, like to pat myself on the back today when I opened my eyes it was literally we had five seconds left on the timer.

Ann: Wow.

Aminatou: I was like okay, that . . . I know what a minute feels like now of sitting still.

Ann: A champion.

Aminatou: Not a champion. Just trying to -- you know, just trying my best.

Ann: You're always a champion to me boo-boo.

Aminatou: Aww, thank you. But you know this is the thing. It's like you know exactly how many minutes are in a day and taking just one tiny one to listen to what's going on around you, it feels pretty damn delightful.

Ann: Yes, okay. If you want to get Jenny's book it's called How to Do Nothing. We'll link it in the show notes along with a few other things she has written and also her artwork which is how I first got to know her and I'm a huge, huge fan of it. At least at some point in her career she's been the artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Dump. So if that does not pique your interest I don't know what will.

Aminatou: We love a multi-hyphenate. So boo-boo I'll see you on the Internet.

Ann: I'll see you on the nature walk.

Aminatou: [Laughs] Shade! I'll see you soon. You can find us so many places on the Internet:, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, you name it. Wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. You can subscribe, leave us a rating or a review, and tell all your friends. You can leave us a voicemail at 714-681-2943. That's 714-681-CYGF. We're on Instagram and Twitter at @callyrgf. Sophie Carter-Kahn runs our social accounts. Our theme song is by Robyn, original music composed by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs. Our logos are by Kenesha Sneed and this podcast is produced by the amazing Gina Delvac.