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Field of Dreams

A Stanford lecturer and author of a new book calls for a digital timeout.


In 2016, Jenny O’Dell had an epiphany. The artist, writer and lecturer of digital design at Stanford had been asked to do a keynote address for an art and technology conference. Upset after the presidential election and the deadly Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland, where she lives, O’Dell found herself visiting—and revisiting—that city’s rose garden, where she unplugged, sat, watched birds and, of course, smelled the roses. In essence, she did nothing. “Then it occurred to me,” she recalls. “I was not there to work. It is a contemplative space, a space not oriented toward productivity. And that’s where I needed to be.”

Her reveries gave birth to a keynote address called “How to Do Nothing,” which went viral and is now the subject of a new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy ($17, Melville House). It reveals how the digital “attention economy” shortchanges our development and interactions with each other.

While being constantly connected “does give you potential access to a ton of information,” O’Dell says, “that information is being presented on platforms that have an incentive to keep you on there all the time. That design element makes these things be very persuasive and addictive. And that is a problem for any kind of attention.”

As O’Dell’s garden visit illustrates, downtime allows creative thoughts to arise and brings us back to what’s happening in real time and place, likely increasing face-to-face interactions—sorely needed in the age of what she calls social media’s “algorithmic filter bubbles,” or echo chambers. O’Dell herself is no Luddite. Born in Cupertino, she has healthy followings on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—platforms that have, ironically, helped get her message into the world. Still, “when you find yourself going down the rabbit hole,” she says, “see if you can stop, pay attention to yourself and to the people and things that are actually around you. If you feel very addicted to your phone, seeking out experiences that are absorbing in other ways—like going for a walk in a new location or having a one-on-one conversation with a close friend—can be really good ways of breaking out of the loop.”


Originally published in the April/May issue of Silicon Valley

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