Everyone’s talking about Thomas Merton again—Merton, the peripatetic would-be poet who decided to reject the noise of mid-century America to become a Trappist monk. In 1948, seven years into his stay at Kentucky’s Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton published his autobiography, a “spiritual rejection of the world.” The Seven Storey Mountain would become a best-seller and inspire young men of the postwar era to seek a life of contemplation in the monastery. This January, Mary Gordon published a book-length meditation on Merton’s writing, and in Silence: A Social History Of One Of The Least Understood Elements Of Our Lives, Jane Brox examines his grappling over the ethics of solitude.
Merton reentering the cultural conversation today has as much to do with his eventual return to public life as his retreat. Just three years following The Seven Storey Mountain’s publication, Merton would reverse course, deciding that fully isolating himself from the world around him was irresponsible, and he began speaking out against the Vietnam War, racism, and capitalism. He would continue to use periods of silence to aid his prolific writing, publishing more than 70 books in his lifetime. One wonders just how many he would have written had his toolshed-cum-writing-room been outfitted with wifi.
In How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy, artist and writer Jenny Odell advocates for withdrawing from the endless scroll of the internet, using Merton as one example to demonstrate how necessary silence is to our lives, and how purposeful retreats should be balanced with engagement with one’s fellow man. With her debut book, which began as a lecture then an article, Odell joins a growing number of voices that have recently suggested that maybe, just maybe, the internet is bad for us. Saying nothing of its having aided deadly conspiracy theories, election bias, and violent harassment and bullying, Odell focuses on the “invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.”
Because technology allows for near constant connectedness, white-collar workers and freelancers under the yoke of the gig economy are especially pressured to always be working, Odell says. Time has become dulled into the blunt capitalist measure of whether or not one is making money. (The word “optimize” is only used derisively here.) This feeling has bled into our personal lives, with individuals compelled to incessantly post something, anything, to social media, no matter how banal, reactionary, or poorly thought-out, in order to maintain personal brands, a term the author treats with such disdain you can hear her spit land on the page. Advertisers don’t care what you say on social media, just that you’re saying something. With mega-corporations like Google, Facebook, and Twitter running the show, the internet is less and less for its users; more and more, its users are for it.
Odell’s plan is not merely to turn off one’s phone during dinner or finally quit Facebook, nor is she interested in “self-care.” The kind of withdrawal she advocates for doesn’t involve loungewear or snail masks. It’s instead about being able to more clearly think one’s thoughts and meaningfully connect with others apart from the internet where “public space, environmental politics, class, and race” come together. At its simplest, this is a book about what to do with one’s free time, assuming you’re lucky enough to have any (Odell recognizes her privilege as a lecturer at Stanford with a loose schedule).
Despite its title, How To Do Nothing neither advocates for doing nothing nor instructs readers on how (not) to do it. One specific argument Odell does make is for preserving physical, public spaces, as they ask little to nothing of visitors. You don’t have to buy anything in a park or library, which is partly why such spaces are so often at risk of being taken over by commercial entities. Tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk view progress as always creating something new. As with Musk’s proposed high-speed train from downtown Chicago to O’Hare, they’re not interested in improving what currently exists (the city already runs trains to both of its airports, thanks); they’re hoping to “disrupt” their way out of sitting next to a homeless person. Odell makes the case for the maintenance of public spaces, and, when appropriate, their intentional destruction. She is also a proponent of activities performed for their own sake—for her, bird watching, visiting Oakland’s Rose Garden—in part because they cannot be considered productive in a capitalist sense.
Odell grew up in Cupertino and now lives in Oakland, the locus of so much of the tech innovation and so-called disruption she critiques. Indeed, the entire book is rooted in the area, a strategy that’s most effective when she recounts its history of civil disobedience, as in the San Francisco longshoremen strike of 1934, which began with dock workers protesting long hours and low wages and grew into a general strike of 150,000 people. While Odell argues for many instances of “resisting in place,” strikes most starkly illustrate how “doing nothing” can become an overtly political act.
Not unlike the winding Mokelumne River whose banks Odell walks during her research, the writer herself often meanders. Topics range from performance art to Bartleby The Scrivener to bioregionalism to noncommercial social media platforms; a little too frequently she bases her arguments in metaphor. Although some examples are less pointed than others (the weight she places on a few crows that frequent her balcony verges into precious territory), her wandering is part of the point. How To Do Nothing presents, and affords, the kind of deep, ruminative thinking that can only occur over an extended period of time and outside of social media, where hyperbole and polemics are favored, glimpsed before disappearing.
That one can finish the book without a strong sense of what to do also appears intentional. As with other manifestos, How To Do Nothing is less concerned with providing a list of precise actions than shifting readers’ thinking, especially around things people take for granted, namely, that the way so many live now—checking one’s phone 80 times per day, chiming in on every Twitter controversy—is the way they have to keep on living. While completely cutting oneself off from the news of the day is scarcely practical or responsible, as Merton concluded, Odell says the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Just what form their “resisting in place” may take, is something individuals must determine for themselves. What seems clear: You’ll have to put your cellphone down to do it.