What is the difference between hearing and listening? It’s all about attention, argues Jenny Odell in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. While hearing is merely auditory, listening is acoustic and psychological, registering with the ears and the brain. It allows us to learn, to relate, and to truly experience. But there’s a problem.
As Americans, we are undergoing a “colonization of the self,” as Odell puts it, with capitalist ideas of productivity and efficiency impeding our listening and controlling our time and focus. By doing nothing, Odell proposes, we find the time and space necessary to repair our broken attention with sustained reflection. We turn FOMO into NOMO (the Necessity of Missing Out) and slowly discover the full context that defines us.
Retreating and Refusing
Scanning history and literature from ancient Greece to the communes of the 1960s, Odell argues that complete escape from the reality of any seemingly untenable situation, while an instinctive desire, is unattainable. She shows the “impossibility” of permanent retreat by laying out its core challenges.
For instance, only the privileged can afford to even try a long-term escape. Furthermore, we can’t escape our political context permanently because we have a societal responsibility. Asking what that responsibility looks like is often a key pivot point in any narrative of escape.
Odell instead suggests the idea of a “refusal-in-place.” The objective is to refuse without choosing – in other words, find a “third space” where we don’t accept the situation as it is, but neither do we actively refuse to exist within it. But arriving and staying in the “third space” takes will, desire, and training, Odell emphasizes.
Popping Filter Bubbles
The attention economy, laden with Facebook ads screaming for our clicks and seconds, creates bubbles of information that confine us to ever-smaller intellectual spaces. In a refreshing chapter titled “Ecology of Strangers,” Odell lays out compelling reasons to “care about, and co-inhabit a reality with, the people who live around us being left out of our filter bubbles.”
One powerful reason is that we are bound and beholden to one another in the most practical sense. When homes are battered by hurricanes, flood victims don’t turn to their Instagram followers, but to their proximate neighbors.
“As physical beings, we are literally open to the world, suffused every second with air from somewhere else; as social beings, we are equally determined by our contexts,” Odell writes. “If we can embrace that, then we can begin to appreciate our and others’ identities as the emergent and fluid wonders that they are.”
Restoring Collapsed Context
The Attention Economy has created a void of context that is both spatial and temporal. Odell describes a “permanent instantaneity” and “constant, amnesiac present” that not only threatens our ability to comprehend information but limits the time needed for appropriate elaboration.
To combat this, Odell suggests the critical importance of gaining an “ecological understanding” of our context. As social media collapses the spatial and temporal contexts of reality, we must resist by developing a sense of the nuanced “ecologies of being and identity” that surround us.
An ecological understanding is, in short, an acceptance that our complex and shifting web of context eludes simple explanation. It demands humility and openness to confessing that “we don’t know the full story.” Most importantly, she says, we need time, above all else, to hold open our attention long enough to revive the context devoured by the attention economy.
Catching the Bobcat
In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder considers the challenges of attention and the unifying power of shared aspirations.
“There are more things in mind, in the imagination, than ‘you’ can keep track of – thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden. The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas, and that is where a bobcat is right now. I do not mean personal bobcats in personal psyches, but the bobcat that roams from dream to dream.”
Maybe the elusive bobcat, that nimble insight yet to be discovered, is simply waiting for our sustained attention. It’s waiting for us to understand our context. It’s waiting for us to listen.