Appunti da How to do nothing

Formazione permanente

Gli stimoli che genera un libro sono direttamente proporzionali alle parti che sottolineo (in digitale). Sotto riporto quanto sottolineato leggendo How to do nothing, di cui avevo già parlato.

I am opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic. I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression—including the right not to express oneself—and its deliberately addictive features. But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and affect the way we think about our offline selves and the places where we actually live.

As it turns out, my dad went through his own period of removal when he was my age and working as a technician in the Bay Area. He’d gotten fed up with his job and figured he had enough saved up to quit and live extremely cheaply for a while. That ended up being two years. When I asked him how he spent those years, he said he read a lot, rode his bike, studied math and electronics, went fishing, had long chats with his friend and roommate, and sat in the hills, where he taught himself the flute. After a while, he says, he realized that a lot of his anger about his job and outside circumstances had more to do with him than he realized.

Our required reading, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution, by the creators of ROWE, seemed well intended, as the authors attempted to describe a merciful slackening of the “be in your chair from nine to five” model. But I was nonetheless troubled by how the work and non-work selves are completely conflated throughout the text. They write: If you can have your time and work and live and be a person, then the question you’re faced with every day isn’t, Do I really have to go to work today? but, How do I contribute to this thing called life? What can I do today to benefit my family, my company, myself? To me, “company” doesn’t belong in that sentence. Even if you love your job! Unless there’s something specifically about you or your job that requires it, there is nothing to be admired about being constantly connected, constantly potentially productive the second you open your eyes in the morning—and in my opinion, no one should accept this, not now, not ever. In the words of Othello: “Leave me but a little to myself.”

Berardi, contrasting modern-day Italy with the political agitations of the 1970s, says the regime he inhabits “is not founded on the repression of dissent; nor does it rest on the enforcement of silence. On the contrary, it relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent, and critique banal and ridiculous.” Instances of censorship, he says, “are rather marginal when compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention, combined with the occupation of the sources of information by the head of the company.”

I WANT TO be clear that I’m not actually encouraging anyone to stop doing things completely. In fact, I think that “doing nothing”—in the sense of refusing productivity and stopping to listen—entails an active process of listening that seeks out the effects of racial, environmental, and economic injustice and brings about real change. I consider “doing nothing” both as a kind of deprogramming device and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully.

That’s a strategic function of nothing, and in that sense, you could file what I’ve said so far under the heading of self-care. But if you do, make it “self-care” in the activist sense that Audre Lorde meant it in the 1980s, when she said that “[c]aring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This is an important distinction to make these days, when the phrase “self-care” is appropriated for commercial ends and risks becoming a cliché. As Gabrielle Moss, author of Glop: Nontoxic, Expensive Ideas That Will Make You Look Ridiculous and Feel Pretentious (a book parodying goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s high-priced wellness empire), put it: self-care “is poised to be wrenched away from activists and turned into an excuse to buy an expensive bath oil.”

So connectivity is a share or, conversely, a trigger; sensitivity is an in-person conversation, whether pleasant or difficult, or both. Obviously, online platforms favor connectivity, not simply by virtue of being online, but also arguably for profit, since the difference between connectivity and sensitivity is time, and time is money. Again, too expensive.

In the environment of our online platforms, “that which cannot be verbalized” is figured as excess or incompatible, although every in-person encounter teaches us the importance of nonverbal expressions of the body, not to mention the very matter-of-fact presence of the body in front of me.

the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth. In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.

In other words, digital distraction was a bane not because it made people less productive but because it took them away from the one life they had to live. Poswolsky writes of their initial discovery: “I think we also found the answer to the universe, which was, quite simply: just spend more time with your friends.”

To me, one of the most troubling ways social media has been used in recent years is to foment waves of hysteria and fear, both by news media and by users themselves. Whipped into a permanent state of frenzy, people create and subject themselves to news cycles, complaining of anxiety at the same time that they check back ever more diligently. The logic of advertising and clicks dictates the media experience, which is exploitative by design. Media companies trying to keep up with each other create a kind of “arms race” of urgency that abuses our attention and leaves us no time to think.

William Deresiewicz warns of this in “Solitude and Leadership,” a speech to an audience of college students in 2010. By spending too much time on social media and chained to the news cycle, he says, “[y]ou are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.”

So to a question like “Will you or will you not participate as asked?” Diogenes would have answered something else entirely: “I will participate, but not as asked,” or, “I will stay, but I will be your gadfly.” This answer (or non-answer) is something I think of as producing what I’ll call a “third space”—an almost magical exit to another frame of reference. For someone who cannot otherwise live with the terms of her society, the third space can provide an important if unexpected harbor.

This particular night, I had come to see the symphony perform pieces from John Cage’s Song Books. Cage is most famous for 4′33″, a three-movement piece in which a pianist plays nothing. While that piece often gets written off as a conceptual art stunt, it’s actually quite profound: each time it’s performed, the ambient sound, including coughs, uncomfortable laughter, and chair scrapes, is what makes up the piece.

For months after this, I was a different person. At times, it was enough to make me laugh out loud. I started to act a lot like the protagonist of a movie I had seen on accident a year earlier. The film is called The Exchange, by Eran Kolirin, and to be honest, it doesn’t have much of a plot. A PhD student forgets something at home, goes back to get it, and finds that his apartment looks unfamiliar at that particular time of the day.

Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding—seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions—and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known.

Let’s not forget that, in a time of increasing climate-related events, those who help you will likely not be your Twitter followers; they will be your neighbors.

When something goes from being an idea to a reality, you can’t easily force your perception back into the narrow container it came from.

If I think I know everything that I want and like, and I also think I know where and how I’ll find it—imagining all of this stretching endlessly into the future without any threats to my identity or the bounds of what I call my self—I would argue that I no longer have a reason to keep living. After all, if you were reading a book whose pages began to seem more and more similar until you were reading the same page over and over again, you would put the book down.

I worry that if we let our real-life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed—never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege. That’s not to say we have nothing to gain from those we have many things in common with (on paper). But if we don’t expand our attention outside of that sliver, we live in an “I-It” world where nothing has meaning outside of its value and relation to us. And we’re less prone to the encounters with those who turn us upside down and reorganize our universe—those who stand to change us significantly, should we allow it.

For example, I once dated someone whose very intelligent brother only ate at chain restaurants when he traveled, his reasoning being that he wanted to know what he was getting and that he didn’t want to waste time risking something he wouldn’t like. This used to infuriate my then-boyfriend whenever he visited, since we lived in a part of San Francisco famous for its Mexican, Salvadorian, and Ecuadorian food. The idea of eating at Chipotle instead of La Palma Mexicatessen or Los Panchos, especially when you were only going to be in San Francisco for a few days, seemed absurd. Food-wise, this man had achieved the strange feat of going somewhere without actually going anywhere.

In the very same essay, he mentions the importance of having a close friend to have real and substantive conversations with. If critical distance is what we’re after, I think there is an important distinction to make between isolating oneself versus removing oneself from the clamor and undue influence of public opinion. After all, it is public opinion that social media exploits, and public opinion that has no patience for ambiguity, context, or breaks with tradition. Public opinion is not looking to change or to be challenged; it is what wants a band to keep making songs exactly like the hit they once had. Conversations, whether with oneself or with others, are different. The book you are reading—as I would guess is the case with most books—is the result of many conversations I’ve had over the course of many years, in my case with both humans and nonhumans. Many of them happened while I was writing this, and all of them changed my mind. Now, as you read it, this book forms a conversation with you as well.

TODAY, WHEN WE are threatened not only with biological desertification but cultural desertification, we have so much to learn from the basics of ecology. A community in the thrall of the attention economy feels like an industrial farm, where our jobs are to grow straight and tall, side by side, producing faithfully without ever touching. Here, there is no time to reach out and form horizontal networks of attention and support—nor to notice that all the non-“productive” life-forms have fled.

When we take an instrumental or even algorithmic view of friendship and recognition, or fortify the imagined bastion of the self against change, or even just fail to see that we affect and are affected by others (even and especially those we do not see)—then we unnaturally corral our attention to others and to the places we inhabit together. It is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency. In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics. Bioregionalism teaches us of emergence, interdependence, and the impossibility of absolute boundaries. 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. If we can embrace that, then we can begin to appreciate our and others’ identities as the emergent and fluid wonders that they are. Most of all, we can open ourselves to those new and previously unimaginable ideas that may arise from our combination, like the lightning that happens between an evanescent cloud and the ever-shifting ground.

When we take an instrumental or even algorithmic view of friendship and recognition, or fortify the imagined bastion of the self against change, or even just fail to see that we affect and are affected by others (even and especially those we do not see)—then we unnaturally corral our attention to others and to the places we inhabit together. It is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency. In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics.

IT’S PRETTY INTUITIVE that truly understanding something requires attention to its context.

Surprisingly, it was this experience, and not a study on how Facebook makes us depressed, that helped me put my finger on what bothers me so much about my experience of social media. The information I encounter there lacks context, both spatially and temporally.

Think about it: Would you want to be friends with someone who never changed their mind about anything? But because apologizing and changing our minds online is so often framed as a weakness, we either hold our tongues or risk ridicule. Friends, family, and acquaintances can see a person who lives and grows in space and time, but the crowd can only see a figure who is expected to be as monolithic and timeless as a brand.

One thing that really surprised me about the 15M was that all the tweeting, all the social media messages and internet campaigns effectively had a unique effect: they made people come together in a single square, sit on the floor and start to talk…So technologies have made people come together but what made the movement so powerful was the physical space, the process of discussion, and reflection and the availability of the people to sit down and discuss without the pressure of time.

What becomes clear in Barassi’s analysis is that thought and deliberation require not just incubation space (solitude and/or a defined context) but incubation time. My experience suggests that these challenges apply not only to activists but also to an individual trying to communicate with others, or just maintain coherent trains of thought. Whether the dialogue I want is with myself, a friend, or a group of people committed to the same cause as I am, there are concrete conditions for dialogue. Without space and time, these dialogues will not only die, they will never be born in the first place.

As Oliver Leistert puts it in “The Revolution Will Not Be Liked,” for social media companies, “the public sphere is an historically elapsed phase from the twentieth century they now exploit for their own interests by simulating it.”

What if we spent that energy instead on saying the right things to the right people (or person) at the right time? What if we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return—and more time talking in rooms to those for whom our words are intended? Whether it’s a real room or a group chat on Signal, I want to see a restoration of context, a kind of context collection in the face of context collapse. If we have only so much attention to give, and only so much time on this earth, we might want to think about reinfusing our attention and our communication with the intention that both deserve.

This is where I think the idea of “doing nothing” can be of the most help. For me, doing nothing means disengaging from one framework (the attention economy) not only to give myself time to think, but to do something else in another framework.

Second, consider that while seemingly every kid in a restaurant is now watching bizarre, algorithmically determined children’s content on YouTube, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both severely limited their children’s use of technology at home. As Paul Lewis reported for The Guardian, Justin Rosenstein, the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button, had a parental-control feature set up on his phone by an assistant, to keep him from downloading apps. Loren Brichter, the engineer who invented the “pull-to-refresh” feature of Twitter feeds, regards his invention with penitence: “Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about.” In the meantime, he has “put his design work on the back burner while he focuses on building a house in New Jersey.” Without personal assistants to commandeer our phones, the rest of us keep on pulling to refresh, while overworked single parents juggling work and sanity find it necessary to stick iPads in front of their kids’ faces.