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Recommended Reading: How To Do Nothing

Reading “How to Do Nothing”: A Call to Inaction

By Taylor Long


In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and Governor Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order this weekend, I have been consumed thinking of a book by Jenny Odell called “How to do Nothing.” The book, which was released last year around this time, makes a case for “doing nothing” in a society where social media apps are constantly vying for our attention and everyone seems obsessed with self-optimization or the latest productivity hack.

The book is particularly prescient now as the CUPPA community — a civically engaged bunch of intellectuals, activists, artists, politicians and organizers — grapples with the reality that by doing nothing we are, in fact, doing what is best for our communities. The book has much to teach us about refocusing our attention during this anxiety-producing time, offering a framework for managing the onslaught of social media commentary while tuning into our surroundings, individual needs, and the needs of our families and communities.

As we collectively hunker down to comply with social distancing directives, social media, email and the 24-hour news cycle have become our constant companions, making the act of reclaiming attention even more crucial. The already ceaseless assault of notifications has only become more omnipresent and confusing as the absence of face-to-face interactions have increased our sense of being socially isolated — the sort of loneliness and ennui upon which many tech companies have long counted on to turn a profit.

It’s important to point out the distinction between refocusing attention and tuning out entirely.  Odell, whose work has been called “digital art,” who grew up and now lives in Silicon Valley, is far from a luddite. Nor does her book advocate that we delete social media accounts and drop out of society — a sort of modern digital equivalent of the counterculture communes of the 60s. She instead advocates for making time to re-immerse ourselves in the “augmented reality” of everyday life, beyond the horizon of our screens. Perhaps on a walk, watching birds outside the window, taking stock of the emerging spring bulbs poking out of a neighbor’s garden.

But this refocusing can also happen within the digital sphere. To some extent, I have already seen this as communities are gathering on digital platforms to share needed information and resources. Sure, there’s a fair number of distasteful memes, but there’s also Instagram accounts like Covid-19 messengers — a platform mobilizing volunteers willing to run errands or provide services to at-risk populations in their cities. Google docs have sprung up to document and share resources available to those who are out of work or otherwise disproportionately impacted by the crisis. Virtual tip jars have kept my friends in the restaurant industry afloat and my local humboldt park community facebook group is alive with people offering to fix cars, run errands, or providing tips on where to find groceries. The implication is clear. The digital sphere is helpful insofar as it is a tool for engaging with the people and the places around us. When used in this way, it becomes instrumental in helping us to maintain and foster new social ties during this period of social distancing.

In the chasm left by talks cancelled, travel plans abandoned, meetings and class assignments postponed, we have also been left with large swaths of time. And the impulse to be productive with that time has not gone away in the time of coronavirus. A recent article in The New Republic “Against Productivity in a Pandemic” unpacks this impulse to be productive, invoking Odell’s book and attacking pressure leveled by society, employers and our own inner critic to “make the most of this time” or “spend it wisely.” Meanwhile, our instinct to instead take care of ourselves, our families and communities chaffes at these directives a little more than usual.

The recent pandemic invites us to honor these instincts and participate in the day to day maintenance and care taking that usually gets a second shift to the latest “work emergency.” Things like comforting nervous or restless children, checking in on elders, maintaining a clean and healthy home, or being of service to your neighbor suddenly seem imbued with a new significance. At CUPPA we often study sexy, large-scale community development projects and policies (and certainly our colleagues concerned with public health must have much to say about this ordeal), but don’t these small actions like getting groceries for an eldery neighbor also sustain just, resilient and livable cities? In the book, Odell writes, “The fact that the “nothing” i propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity explains the irony that a book called “How to Do Nothing” is in some ways also a plan of action.” The current pandemic, if we allow it, can act as a reminder that “doing nothing” in this context is not only essential to our individual health and safety, but also good planning and good governance.

One of my favorite passages in “How to Do Nothing” is the parable of the useless tree. It is both a zen parable and a story come to life in the embodiment of a very real tree in Oakland called “Old Survivor.” The tree is the only living old growth redwood in Oakland, the others having been decimated by the logging industry. The tree is perched on a hard to reach cliff face and its trunk and branches are twisted in an odd and contorted shape. The tree, having been useless to loggers, was spared. In the zen parable the tree is similarly spared by loggers, who believe it is useless. The question is posed: useless to whom? It provides a safe habitat and shade to wildlife in the area. How, then, could it be useless?

The parable is instructive of how we spend the excess time we find ourselves with in the coming weeks and where we choose to focus our attention. It prompts us to reexamine for whom our time is useful and invites us to reconsider whether machine-like productivity makes sense now. If it ever made sense. Perhaps volunteering time to help our neighbors or going on a walk is not the most productive task. It doesn’t make us more employable, it doesn’t provide us with additional income, and it won’t help us get ahead of that backlog of assignments. But much like the useless tree, these acts of charity, kindness, and maintenance certainly aren’t useless. They are life-sustaining.