Jenny Odell's "How to Do Nothing"

How to Do Nothing came out recently and has taken my social media feeds by storm. I ended up picking it up at the recommendation of a few friends – I loved it. I feel like it’s incredibly relevant at this particular point in time, when thinking about all the problems facing the world (late capitalism, climate change, loneliness, etc), but it’s not grim. It brought me a lot of peace and motivation.

Anyway, I’m curious if anyone else has read it, and if you haven’t, I would recommend it!


Reading this right now and really enjoying it! I’m about halfway through currently, but a few ideas that are already really making me think–

  1. The impossibility of escape, and the better route of resisting in place instead, via subversion of social norms. Helped me understand why I love so many societal rebels like Bartleby the Scrivener

  2. The role of art to make you see your world with fresh eyes and newly sustained attention, both as an audience member and a maker of art. Made me realize that I personally draw as a form of meditation, especially when drawing from observation/life–it forces me to really slow down and pay close attention to my subject. I always feel refreshed afterward.

  3. The unethical-ness of trying to create a better world via design alone, since it makes the designer a figure in power who makes decisions on behalf of others, sort of controlling their minds. Even if you have their best interests in mind, it still removes some aspect of free will. As a product designer, this is making me think hard about what I do (and giving me a healthier perspective on user testing results where the user doesn’t do what I want :stuck_out_tongue: )


“The impossibility of escape” is such an important topic. All too often we see people saying “just quit Facebook! just move to a better state! just leave your shitty job!” etc, not recognizing the overwhelming amount of privilege and resources it takes to do any of those things! It’s a big reason I get frustrated when tech “geniuses” start talking about colonizing Mars etc: no, we need to make things work here, in our world, in our immediate environment. It may not sound as exciting or cool, but it’s where the real work happens. And it doesn’t really help anyone to completely remove yourself from society either.

Definitely made me think more of how I can be a better person right where I am today instead of getting lost in fantasies of dropping everything and moving to a cabin in the woods (where I’d be miserable anyway!!)


It’s definitely making me want to brainstorm ideas for staying on social media (and other unsavory parts of modern life) while subverting its purposes. A few months ago I followed a bunch of art history bots and flooded my feed with old paintings, I feel like maybe that got me 1% there.

I guess that trolling is supposed to subvert social norms, but in the world of social media it has itself become a norm to subvert…:thinking:

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I’ve been struggling with a lot of the same things. This book sounds great, thanks for the recommendation.

I followed a bunch of these, they’re great.


I’m doing a staycation next week and looking forward to reading this at the start. 8)


Just finished this yesterday, I really enjoyed it too! Haha I read the whole thing this weekend — was already planning to read after Jinjin finished but this discussion motivated me to get through it even quicker. We already lent it to another friend too :smiley:

Felt like a nice blend of genres, I think Odell described it as kind of a cross between a self-help + activist field guide; also mixes in memoir, history, art, naturalism… Short enough to get through in a few hours but also dense with good ideas and references; dozens of books and artworks I want to look up now!

This was a (for me, relatively) rare book where I went through again right after reading to skim and take notes b/c a lot of things felt important to reflect on further. A few things that stood out for me:

  1. Really liked learning about the idea of bioregionalism, and the key takeaway of the importance of grounding oneself both in time, and in a specific place (nice quote: “groundedness requires actual ground”), not only to gain greater awareness on a personal level of where you are / what’s around you, but because we’re enmeshed in a kind of web of mutual responsibility with our environment and it’s important to make this tangibly felt.

  2. Also liked the idea of structures like parks, libraries, museums, labyrinths, that “hold open a contemplative space”, a kind of expanded middle ground between active and passive experience. And related, the idea of “third spaces” (physical or otherwise) where you can apply your attention in ways that may “enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity”. Many reasons this kind of space is important, including for incubation, decentering oneself, creating room for ambiguity and surprise encounters… Another quote I liked: “Mixed neighborhoods create public simultaneous thinking, many perspectives converging on the same moment at the same time, in front of each other”. Public simultaneous thinking — I love that!

  3. The need for context — all kinds of context! — resonates a lot. Loved the description of aiming for an “ecology of contexts” rather than a “contextual monoculture”. Making me think about how to better spend my time both on- and offline immersing myself in a wider variety of contexts.

  4. Also the idea of reframing, and imagining e.g. acts of refusal as not simply negation but disruption / inversion. Similarly, seeking experiences that are transformative or disorienting in a positive sense, altering perception…I liked the example of Blender and how the infinite possible variations in “rendering” a scene apply to attention, too.

  5. I enjoyed learning about “Community Memory”, an early community BBS that served as a kind of spatiotemporally grounded social network, and thinking about how this ethos is being extended now with various decentralized web projects (Mastodon, Scuttlebutt, etc.) A couple key aspects of this kind of thing include: communication being grounded in a particular context, and being guided by intentionality — a conscious, directed decision to connect / share particular things at a particular time to particular people. I think this space right here, and niche forum communities in general, can be a good example of this! Also appreciate the emphasis of plurality; makes me want to work more to bring this sort of discussion into physical space as well, and generally experiment more…

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Also relevant: The book is actually an adaptation of a talk Odell gave as the keynote at Eyeo a few years back. The talk was recorded and edited really well (properly spliced in with her slides), so if you want a major overview of the book’s themes/ideas, check out out the talk here (it’s great!):


Ah yes good call! Also reminded me, the written transcript version of this talk is here as well:

For those who enjoyed the book (which I haven’t read yet!) I deeply enjoyed this conversation between Jenny Odell and Ezra Klein, two very smart and lovely people:

They keep coming back to a phrase from (lovely writer/designer/artist in her own right!) Sara Hendren of artists as “orchestrators of attention.” Odell gives an example of a fellow artist who organized a “performance” of watching the sunset. After the sun set, the audience broke out in applause.

This also relates to her description of the “context collapse” on social media. Algorithmic feeds optimize for engagement item by item, but fail to meaningfully curate items together in a way that feels intentional or temporally and narratively coherent. Feeds are poor quality (if addicting) orchestrators of our attention. The result leaves us disoriented. She also talked about this in an excerpt I read in The Paris Review:

Context also helps establish the order of events. Obviously, the bits of information we’re assailed with on Twitter and Facebook feeds are missing both of these kinds of context. Scrolling through the feed, I can’t help but wonder: What am I supposed to think of all this? How am I supposed to think of all this? I imagine different parts of my brain lighting up in a pattern that doesn’t make sense, that forecloses any possible understanding. Many things in there seem important, but the sum total is nonsense, and it produces not understanding but a dull and stupefying dread.

My biggest personal takeway from what I’ve read and heard from her so far is the importance of seeking out meaningful communities for yourself, where you’re not shouting into an abstract group of disparate connections and hoping for the best, but instead “saying the right things to the right people at the right time.” To people who are engaged in collaborating toward common goals.


@saltzshaker yes!! I’ve been thinking about context collapse a lot since reading that book. It really does explain a lot of the churn and pointless frenzy of social media drama too.

I like to think that @brendan is trying to create a more context-aware space here on this forum, which has fewer people and is obviously focused on a single topic and not well suited to one-off hot takes.

I also liked her focus on getting to know your local environment and community. Has anyone done any activities that were inspired by reading this book or hearing Jenny Odell speak? (Hikes, attending community meetings, no phone time…?)


I’ve definitely been trying to hike more, or walk more in general. I also changed my phone to grayscale to make it significantly less appealing to use (Apple does have a handy accessibility shortcut where you can triple tap the home button to switch between modes, so I can go back to color quickly if I need to – pretty handy!)

Started journaling a bit, calling people more… I wouldn’t say these changes have been super dramatic (all stuff I’d do anyway, but not as frequently). But I do think I can confidently say the book’s had a lasting effect on how I see the world.

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Ah nice I tried the phone grayscale thing for a while but haven’t enabled since I upgraded to a phone with a bigger screen earlier this year…which is both blessing and curse haha. With you on hiking more, went on a really nice one a couple weeks back and definitely need to make that a priority. (Also really like long walks / biking in Brooklyn but not quite the same.)

I just read something I thought you’d enjoy, very relevant to this book in both specific & general themes!

Our ancestors were ecological polylinguists. To listen was to learn about food, danger, opportunity, and the subtle nuances of ecological time and space, the mastery of which allows all creatures to thrive. To listen was to live and to find meaning. Disconnection and inattention invited death. And thus, natural selection placed the capacity to hear and understand beyond-human languages at the core of our human nature. So when we walk outside today and open our ears to the sounds of a sparrow, we reclaim what is ours by birth. We connect to meanings that emerge from the deep time of our membership in life’s community.

Includes five “invitations” / observational practices, like “revel in the acoustic diversity of bird sounds around your home” and “compare the sonic textures of morning and evening”, noticing differences in season and location, etc. I really like the last one:

Tell others what you hear. An unusual robin call in the parking lot. The sparrow whistle from underbrush—a new sound. A silence where a song had been, a departure, a death. The geese’s laughing conviviality. Speculate about rhythms and seasons. By sharing your observations, you’ll stitch strands of bird language into the weave of human conversation. Through your stories, bird minds and human minds unite.

Also listening to this album which just came up in my queue, very apropos… :smiley: :bird:

Also to what @jinjin mentioned above:

I think that’s the idea! Hopefully it’s serving that purpose at least a bit. I do like how we can have slow ongoing conversations here…unlike with something like Slack or Discord where missing a day can feel like you lose all context as the stream passes you by, I enjoy the forum pace where we can come back to topics over week and months, adding to things.

I’ve been thinking about alternative social networks, P2P web stuff etc. which is one thing Odell brings up a bit in the book. But so far I haven’t found the experience of something like Mastodon or Scuttlebutt to be “sticky”. I think partly because I’m not part of a tightknit group using those platforms and something like “Twitter, but with fewer people and somehow it’s decentralized” isn’t really a strong selling point.

But I think a place like this — a small-ish forum with a thematic / topical focus — can be great for providing more of a feeling of context and purpose. Like, I may not come here every day, but when I do come here it’s to talk about specific stuff I’m interested in, and not to mindlessly scroll around and procrastinate like I do all too often with e.g. Twitter.

I think “antilibraries, but offline” would be a great next thing to explore and something that I could experiment with to better ground this community in local connections etc.


Ahh what a great article – thank you for sharing! Listening to birds is such a joy :slight_smile: I also recently went stargazing in Utah, where I could actually see more than like 5 stars. Sitting in the dark, focusing on the sky, the stars, the emerging Milky Way, had the same therapeutic effect as listening to birds. It’s good to slow down and just notice the world sometimes.

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“Ecological polylinguists”!!! what a great term. Reminds of Pauline Oliveros’ concept of deep listening, + this episode of 20K Hz podcast about “acoustic ecologist” Gordon Hampton in which he describes finding sonic hotspots in nature and hearing how different species coordinate acoustic space with each other in different frequency bands.

re: p2p web stuff being sticky, my take is that these communities have (from what I’ve seen) not innovated on the actual experience, so for users are functionally very similar to things like Slack, but with less critical mass. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing. Thinking in the long-term, I do think it’s powerful for communities to own their own data, and hypothetically be able to negotiate with known networks of people when it comes to modifying the rules of a network vs having to talk up to a big corporate entity that can move stuff around and put up paywalls. But all of this is quite abstract for most users, who are just looking to talk to people they know wherever they happen to be talking.

Re: context-aware spaces, what I like about this forum is that, in addition to the slower synchronous pace compared to an asynchronous chat app (I think there’s a place for both!), I know that you, Brendan, are not a profit center, but a person engaged in the outcomes of this place as a community. And it’s small enough that if any of us did have any gripes, I could negotiate changes in a human way. This kind of stuff is why I’m so excited by the potential of Darius Kazemi’s work to help people spin up their own social networks!

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Fantastic, yeah, deep listening & acoustic ecology are fascinating. I participated briefly in a deep listening inspired workshop a while back that was very cool but have not spent much time doing these kind of exercises in actual nature.

Nice! I had a similar experience seeing SO MANY STARS with @jinjin recently out near Taos, NM. And right now I’m up in Vermont at my uncle’s house and it happens to be firefly season and at night the backyard (right by the shore of the lake) lights up with…not like a few but hundreds/thousands of fireflies all blinking about like the most peaceful light show you’ve ever seen and you can stare at it for minutes on end and forget your phone exists…love it!

Thanks yeah I hope so! I saw Darius’ new site and was meaning to share that too; just have it a read through and seems like a great primer, I think he gets at a lot of the reasons I enjoy this kind of online space.

Question for anyone here: after reading the info on that site ( do you think there’s anything we can change or start to do with this community to improve it? This site runs on open source software too and there are lots of plugins I could test and theoretically do pretty much whatever we can think up. Also very open to trying out different things in terms of policy, prompts, structure, etc. if anyone has ideas please let me know!

(Private chat category? Custom themes? Some kind of tagging system? Weekly prompts? Better onboarding? Etc…!)

You and @jinjin (and whoever else is reading this & interested in the NY area) should come do some deep nature listening at this found nature sound workshop thing on Gov Island this Sunday! Think I’m gonna go:

As for incorporating insights from Darius’ site, I will think on that! One thing: I’ve heard him talk about, how many people would have to get hit by a bus for a network to go down? Right now for better or worse (mostly for better – starting communities is hard!) this spot still feels quite centralized around you, Brendan. I wonder what ways others could have more decentralized nodes of power over things like discussion and moderation in this space. PS I swear I’m not planning a coup haha

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Thanks, I’m not sure if we’ll be back in town for that workshop Sunday but looks very cool. Sounds like Pioneer Works has a bunch of interesting stuff happening @ Governor’s Island this summer. Will let you know if we check it out!

Good point re: exploring ways to decentralize a bit here. Right now I’m more concerned with just having enough happening here to make it feel like this place is worth sustaining for the long term! I like 50-100 active users as a good number to aim for…interesting he posits that as a maximum; my guess is for a more niche subject oriented community where people are checking in say a couple times a week rather than an all-the-time water cooler chat sort of thing, could probably support more, but that’d be a nice number to get to just to feel like there’s enough activity to be worth checking back regularly etc. I think we’re at something like 50 or so signups but many who dropped by once (or haven’t posted at all yet) so I feel like I may want to explore some kind of more active onboarding.

I’d definitely be happy to consider having other moderators, getting more folks in here who know how the site works and are interested in guiding some discussions and whatnot. Maybe I can put out a call for this at some point soon. I’ll think some more about how this could work / what sort of collaboration might be most helpful here :smiley: :thinking:

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FYI for anyone in NYC, @warshawshaw brought to my attention that Jenny Odell is doing an event at McNally Jackson this Monday (7/22) at 7pm:

If anyone’s interested let me know! I’d be down to check it out and grab a bite after.

cc/ @saraha @saltzshaker @gabekelley @tomcritchlow @HotTake @qdo @kyle + anyone else I missed who’s in the area…

Bit last minute I know… I also would love to do some kind of antilibraries dinner in Brooklyn, maybe Aug/Sept, will try to get something on the calendar for that as well!

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