Jenny Odell: Resisting the Attention Economy
There is something about the attention economy that encourages a sense of amnesia and being able to focus on something new that has just been produced in the last five minutes.
Can we reclaim our attention from a world preoccupied by our data productivity?
In her book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell argues that reconnecting with our body and physical environment may be our most important form of resistance from society’s preoccupation with productivity, and the invasion of the internet and social media on our time.
Following a solo talk by Jenny Odell, AI expert Toby Walsh, reporter Cam Wilson and technology journalist Ariel Bogle joined Odell for an enlightening discussion on what we can do to resist the profit-driven tech landscape.
This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Sydney Writers' Festival.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for ideas podcast – a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The talk you are about to hear, Jenny Odell: Resisting the Attention Economy features author and interdisciplinary artist Jenny Odell, UNSW Sydney AI expert Professor Toby Walsh, reporter Cam Wilson and technology journalist Ariel Bogle, and was recorded live at the 2023 Sydney Writers’ Festival. We hope you enjoy the talk.
Claire Annesley: Good evening, everybody. I'm Claire Annesley, I’m Acting Provost Faculty, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture here at UNSW, and it is my great pleasure to welcome you here to our Kensington campus. We're gathering here tonight on the traditional lands of the Bidjigal people of the Eora nation, and I would like to take a moment to pay our respects to their elders’ past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples joining us tonight. Tonight's event is of course part of Sydney Writers’ Festival and is brought to you by the UNSW Centre for Ideas. UNSW recently partnered with this Sydney Writers’ Festival bringing together a shared vision of creativity and curiosity, and thought leadership.
Creativity, collaboration and inclusion are at the heart of the work that we do in the Faculty of Arts, Design, & Architecture (ADA). This partnership with the Sydney Writers’ Festival gives us such a strong platform to champion diverse voices, stories, and new ideas. And tonight, we will be exploring some very new ideas, challenging ourselves to shift perspectives and pay attention to our world in a very different way. These are exactly the kinds of creative conversations we like to have at UNSW and in ADA – so let's get on with it.
Please let me first introduce our moderator this evening, Ariel Bogle. She is a technology reporter with the ABC and has won various prizes for her work, including for a three-part radio series on health misinformation. Her reporting has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic and the Australian Financial Review, among other places. So welcome to UNSW, Ariel.
Ariel Bogle: I do think I’m thrilled to be hosting this event with Jenny Odell. We'll hear from Jenny first, followed by a panel discussion with Toby Walsh, Cam Wilson, and myself. And you'll have the opportunity after we've talked for a while to ask questions, and we hope you have plenty.
You can submit questions via Slido. I think there'll be a link on the slides so you can submit those questions and we'll also have some mics up the front for you as well. So now to introduce our speaker for tonight, Jenny Odell is the author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and Saving Time, her new book discovering a life beyond the clock. She's also an interdisciplinary artist and has been an artist in residence at the San Francisco planning department Recology SF – otherwise known as the ‘dump and internet’ archive. Odell also taught digital art at Stanford University from 2013 to 2021. So welcome, Jenny Odell.
Jenny Odell: Hi, I'm super happy to be here all the way from Oakland, California. So thank you for being here. I actually wanted to start off with a story from the very beginning of How to Do Nothing – both as an introduction to what the book is about, but also an introduction to the place where I live. So, this is a picture of a tree called Old Survivor and basically in the East Bay hills, there were once old growth redwoods. If you've ever seen a photo of old growth redwoods, you know, there's some of the largest trees and even for people in the East Bay. It's hard to believe that once the hills were full of these trees, pre-colonisation. And so, this tree is referred to as Old Survivor because it is the only remaining old growth redwood tree. It was not cut down specifically because it was considered a runt compared to other trees. It was not quite as big. It was a little bit of an odd shape, and it was on a rocky outcrop that was hard to get to, so it wasn't as accessible.
And when I learned about this tree, it really reminded me of a story Daoist story by the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu about something called, The Useless Tree. So in this story, there is a large tree that is also large and gnarled and a carpenter comes along and looks at it, and sort of makes fun of it and saying basically, it’s grown so big because it’s not useful, like the other trees – it’s not a fruit tree. You can’t use it for anything, you can’t use it up, and then, the tree appears to the carpenter in a dream, and basically says, “who are you to call me useless? You’re a mortal man about to die, you’re basically useless and my uselessness has been very useful for me like I’m still alive”. And the reason I love that story so much and the sort of real-life version of Old Survivor is that it’s a story about frame of reference and it’s funny like a lot of I think Daoist stories are funny, and the humour comes from that notion that usefulness in one domain could actually be uselessness in another and vice versa. I think it’s really helpful for describing the title of my book which I think has been confusing for some people, How to Do Nothing – it’s obviously not a book about how to do literally nothing. It’s nothing from the point of view, a very specific point of view, that sees productivity in a very narrow and specific way, and resisting the attention economy in this book basically means resisting by changing that frame of reference, trying to think outside of the attention economy.
And so, I think part of starting to see outside of the attention economy is just a simple recognition that it's designed for profit, things like advertising and social media, which is what I define as the attention economy, are designed specifically to encourage and make use of a really short attention span. I think also a sense of alienation, hyper-individualism, the idea of personal brand, and that it's no accident – it's good for the bottom line, if you are distractedly scrolling all the time and not ever really quite finding what you want, which I think a lot of the time is just meaning and connection.
So you know, there are multiple things of this demands, right? Like mostly my background as an artist, I think a lot about different ways of seeing things, seeing the world in that kind of changing the frame of reference. I want to sort of mention at the outset, that I don't think that, that, alone is enough obviously, resisting the attention economy also would involve or would need to involve things like regulation and structural changes. But that I see, you know, the things in my book as hopefully dovetailing with those other changes and actions that are needed. And also because it’s a book, I’m addressing an individual reader who is trying to live in this meantime when, for example, maybe you need to use social media for work, or to stay in touch with people and you’re just kind of confronted with this meantime in which you want to take back some of your attention in the meantime as we try to make these larger changes. So, in this brief amount of time that I have, I just wanted to pull out a couple of threads from the book that are that kind of examples of different ways of resisting the attention economy, mostly by cultivating a resistant sense of attention.
So things like art and becoming more aware of your bioregion, and more aware of interpersonal relationships. Basically, ways of bringing complexity back and maybe more nuanced and slowness to our everyday attention as one way of resisting the attention economy and a lot of the book came out of this rose garden that I live five minutes away from, that I started going to a lot after the 2016 election and sitting there and doing ‘nothing’. I spent a lot of time there – enough time there that I started to wonder why it felt so different for me to be there, and it ended up being an illustration in ways that I think you'll see of many different things in the book kind of all collected into this one place. So, one really obvious thing about this rose garden is that it is not designed like a typical rose garden. It's not like a square of rose, you know, rows of roses. It's actually quite labyrinthine, it has like a lot of levels to it and there are lots of places you can sit. It's small but dense. There are a lot of ways to interact with the space. You do literally see people stopping and smelling the roses, and it's a design that invites you to stay and that's a design that I started thinking about a lot as I was sitting there – what that means.
And it made me think of a couple of art pieces that I went on to mention in the book that do this, that creates some kind of structure for a type of attention. So, which I see is like the most generous artistic gesture you can make. This is an image of a piece called Applause Encouraged by one of my fellow artists, Scott Pollock, and it is what it sounds like – it was an event that was arranged where people came in, they were encouraged not to use their phones, they watched the sunset, they applauded, and refreshments were served. And you can see that it's using all of the tropes of like a theatre, right. And so, that's just a structure that was made by the artists in order to make something that was already there, which is a sunset more palpable, and arguably might have changed the way these people saw sunsets after that.
The other example that I think of is this piece by James Thoreau called Sky Pressure, which I had the opportunity to experience in person, three different days in a row. And it's a little bit hard to describe this without you being there in person – you'll just have to take my word for it that in this room, which has a square hole in the ceiling, there's something about the architecture of the room and the size of the hole that makes the speed and the character of the clouds much more visible than they would be if you just kind of walked outside and looked at the sky. It's also designed in a way that, again, invites you to sit. It makes it easy for you to be there for a long time and so, this is another example of a structure that is allowing you to pay attention in a certain way.
And then the other example that I think of is this piece from the 1970s by Eleanor Coppola that was both a spatial framing and a temporal framing. So it was a specific period of time in which she asked people to take this map and treat these particular shop windows as the art. So that is the frame, is basically her choosing these specific pieces and if you think about this as a piece of public art and you compare it to public art, that's like a statue in the middle of a corporate plaza, it's very different. For her, it's art that exists where it already is. It's just drawing the frame for your attention and so this, literally, whatever you saw on these windows would be a piece.
And this is something that I myself have engaged with as an artist. I was an artist in residence at the dump in San Francisco in 2015 and the project that I did, there was basically like attention marathon because I picked 200 objects to monomaniacally researched the origins of where they were made, why were they made, and what are they made out of and I produced a kind of phonebook-sized book with the object on one side, kind of a product photo, and then my ‘everything that I could find out about it’, its whole life story on the other side and so, the actual exhibition kind of looked like a library or an archive. It had these little tags where people could scan the QR code and learn all of it – learn all of that information as they were standing there with the object.
And again that was my attempt to create a frame, defamiliarise these objects and give someone the opportunity to think about it outside of its identity as a product and think about it really as material that came from somewhere and is now in the dump, and then, of course just personally, my example of this deep noticing is bird watching, or I call it bird noticing in the book because if you are a bird person, you know that noticing birds has as much to do with sound, as it does with sight. And also, I’ve been amazed by the birds on this trip so I’m very excited about that. It’s hard for me to do anything because I'm just like hearing things and I don't know what they are.
But if you think about bird watching, it requires you to literally do nothing because to me, it’s the opposite of looking something up online. You can't really look for birds in the same way, you have to be very patient, and you have to hold your attention constant and be very attentive to every little detail.
This is a recording of the birds in the rose garden. And if you had asked me what the sound was – maybe 10 years ago I would have said it was birds and now, I hear individual birds, like I can identify every bird in this sound and so I think that's something, again, a product of holding your attention constantly long enough for that complexity to come in.
In the book, I compare this to the moment when I realised that my mom speaks three languages, not two. So as I was growing up, when she was not speaking English, I assumed that she was speaking Tagalog but it turns out that she was speaking English, Tagalog and Ilonggo, which is a completely different language. It's not a dialect and in fact, many people are surprised to learn how many languages there are in the Philippines. And I really – I love this image, because to me it's an illustration of what happens when you pay attention for even like a little bit longer than you're used to. What usually happens is the thing that you thought was one thing turns into two things, and then each of those two things turns into five things, and it's a very humbling experience – where you find yourself wondering how you could ever have thought, you know, like that, that sound was just birds, for example. So like this, you know, for me is part of how I personally try to resist the attention economy is just to either seek out context and encourage… the art pieces that I described are kind of doing this for you, or just trying to make the decision in my own mind to kind of draw that frame, even if it's just for a short period of time.
And one of the effects of doing that, inevitably for me is paying more attention to the place where I lived, an acknowledgement of the bioregion that I lived in. So, I think not only does something become more complex, but you inevitably become more aware of how it's connected to other things.
And so, this is a night heron in the rose garden. The night heron is one of my favourite birds, it’s the official bird of Oakland and I was very excited to learn that you have a bird that looks very similar to this. It’s called the rufous night heron, it looks like this but the toasted marshmallow version and I saw one yesterday, it was very exciting. But in Oakland, the fact that these birds are there is an indication that where I live used to be an estuary, and so they’re still there, they just kind of hang around the city. But paying attention to them inevitably for me makes me think about longer scales of time, and larger sets of relationships than what I was experiencing on my phone, and for me, this process helped a lot by just people I knew who knew more than I did and would take me on walks, but also this amazing app called iNaturalist which is like, for me, the one of the only good uses of a phone. It's something that allows you to take photos of plants and it'll give you some good guesses, and then a human expert will usually confirm or deny, and it was with this tool and those other people that I knew that I started to get to know this place that I'd actually lived my entire life so it was very surreal to have something that you pointed your eyes at for, you know, much of your life and never were able to identify or even register.
And in the part of the book that I mentioned this… this kind of getting to know one’s bioregion, I mentioned that I learned well… now everyone in the Bay Area knows what atmospheric is now because after the winter that we just had, but at the time I learned this term atmospheric river and I knew that one was coming and I was thinking about how the water was coming from the Philippines which I had never been to but my family’s from, and that I collected some of the rainwater and used it to paint a photo or paint a picture of the sampaguita which is the national flower of the Philippines to give to my mom.
And so, I’m going to read a really brief little bit of this part of the book.“I find something comfortingly anti-essentialist in the way ecology works. As someone who is both asian and white, I am an anomaly or a non-entity from an essentialist point of view. It's not possible for me to be native to anywhere in any obvious sense but things like the atmospheric river or even the site of Western Tanagers migrating through Oakland in the spring gives me an image of how to be from two places at once. I remember that the sampaguita, while it's the national flower of the Philippines, actually originated in the Himalayas before being imported in the 17th century. I remember that not only is my mother an immigrant, but that there's something immigrant about the air I breathe, the water I drink, the carbon in my bones, and the thoughts in my mind.”
And so, there's something about this acknowledgment of how everything is connected to everything else that I find to be another kind of antidote to the way I was experiencing information. For example, on Twitter or Instagram, that felt very decontextualised and atomised and where I felt very isolated. I write a little bit in the book about what I described as an algorithmic honing in, which is like when your recommendation algorithms are shunting you into the sort of most boring static version of yourself and so just thinking about how these platforms in the attention economy change or affect the way that we think about ourselves, or what even is a self. Like I in both this book and my more current book, I am really trying to move from a very individualistic, competitive zero sum game way of thinking about identity to one that is that acknowledges how much we co-constitute each other, as well as you know, the nonhuman world and the places where we are.
And so, on that note there, to come back to the rose garden, there is a really lovely detail about it which is that it is a space of maintenance. If you go there at any time, you will see volunteers, not only volunteers working on the garden, because roses take a lot of work, but also you will see visitors regularly thanking them for the work that they're doing because the space is so valuable in ways that you could never quite, you know, obviously not put a number on, and that doesn't seem exactly productive.
And when I was sitting in the rose garden at that time, I was thinking a lot about this artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles who basically does what could be called, maintenance art – so doing performances involving maintenance. This is from when she shook hands, she spent 11 months shaking hands with, and thanking New York City’s 8500 sanitation men and telling each of them, “thank you for keeping New York City alive”. She also made some work about being a mother and the amount of work that takes, and she has this amazing statement in one of her exhibition proposals where she says, “my work is the work”. And so, in the rose garden, interestingly there is something – I’m not sure what it’s called – but it’s like, a promenade where it shows the mother of the year, for every decade starting in the 1960s. So, every year, there’s mother of the year who gets nominated in Oakland and there’s a ceremony on Mother’s Day and I just threw in a picture of me and my mom, because that's mother. I don't think you need to literally be a mother to experience a mothering impulse. If this is something that you're interested in, I really recommend Angela Garbes’s book, Essential Labour which came out last year, but she talks about care work as being something that's both obviously undervalued but also that's something that can be creative and full of meaning when given freely and valued, as much as it should be. But I find this, again, to be something that feels resistant to the way that the attention economy makes me feel because it's an acknowledgment of everything that's already happening. Everything that has already been done, there's something about the attention economy that seems to me encourages a sense of amnesia, and only being able to focus on something new that was just produced, you know, in the last five minutes and even for yourself feeling like if you're not doing that, and you're not externalising your thoughts or your actions that you are somehow not existing. And so, for me, kind of focusing on these kinds of relationships and how important they are has been really important. And so in the book, I write that basically a desire to protect ourselves and each other, to protect our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, non-commercial activity and thought for maintenance, for care, and for conviviality.
And I don't know, hopefully, you can read this quote – I think a lot of what I write about in this book can be summed up in this quote by David Abram, who's an amazing writer. He’s been very inspirational to me, but he writes that, “all our technological utopias and dreams of machine-mediated immortality may fire our minds but they cannot feed our bodies. Indeed, most of this era's transcendent technological visions remain motivated by a fright of the body and its myriad susceptibilities, by a fear of our carnal embedment in a world ultimately beyond our control – by our terror of the very wilderness that nourishes and sustains us.”
And so, I ended the book with this image of habitat restoration. Basically, this is the Oakland port and interestingly, part of it was given over to the city and they restored it to the marsh that it used to be and surprisingly, the birds came back and I ended with this image because when I think about resisting the attention economy – what I imagine is a restoration of contexts, complexity, flourishing like dense webs of connection. Everything’s that's been kind of stripped away by a very narrow way of thinking about ourselves and our relationships to each other.
So I think I will end there, and we'll have a conversation but thank you for listening.
Ariel Bogle: Thanks Jenny, I think with that talk and with the book, you really put into words a lot of my own discomfort and I’m sure many of the audience here tonight, our discomfort with technology and really some meaningful paths of resistance. Before I’ve got a lot of questions to ask you, I just want to introduce the rest of our panel – to my right, I have Toby Walsh, who’s the Chief Scientist of UNSW’s new AI Institute. He is a strong advocate for limits to ensure AI improves our lives, having spoken at the UN and two heads of state parliamentary bodies, company boards and many others on the topic, and his most recent book is Machines Behaving Badly. And on the other end, we have Cam Wilson whose work covers the intersection between internet culture, online extremism and politics. He’s currently associate editor at Crikey, and previously worked at ABC, BuzzFeed, Business Insider and Gizmodo, and has been published in The Guardian, Slate, Sydney Morning Herald and many other places.
So Jenny, I want to ask to begin this talk and your book started from ideas you were mulling over back in 2017/2018 and since then, there’s been a lot of obviously, the world spins pretty fast, it’s been a lot of changes. But it was Trump-era book to some extent and then even the technological change for myself, my time gets sucked up by TikTok which I don’t think was such a big app back when you wrote the book. So I just want to know how your thoughts have changed on your attention… or how you recalibrate your attention given that sort of change of context?
Jenny Odell: Yeah, that’s a good question I mean, I feel like TikTok specifically is everything that I described in the book, accelerated, and I refuse to get a TikTok account, I’m scared of it mostly because of my students. My students told me not to get on it because they’re like, “it’s so addictive”. But yeah, I guess thinking about the time since then like, during the pandemic, I thought that was an interesting time because I think people were feeling even more isolated, and so it seemed like people were really relying on social media a lot and so I think it made me more sympathetic to what maybe what people are looking for when they’re alone. I still don’t think that it delivers that, and I think it exploits that impulse but you could really see the need for that, like the need to feel connected to other people. The other kind of interesting development – I mentioned Mastodon at the end of this book which is like a decentralised alternative to Twitter and a lot of people started getting on Mastodon last November from Twitter, like I wonder why. And I’m on Mastodon, I noticed a lot of conversations where people were basically saying, “let’s not rush into this and just recreate the thing that we just were complaining about forever, you know, can we actually take a pause and one, think about how this could actually be different”. And it’s still kind of up in the air but I found it actually, really heartening that people wanted to have that conversation.
Ariel Bogle: And now blue sky on top of that, it’s hard to keep track. Just to remind people too, if you want to submit questions online – we have the web address up there and then we’ll have microphones as well in the audience. So I mean, Jenny mentioned the pandemic there for a lot of us caused a profound disruption in many ways but did it affect your relationship with the attention economy? Did your screentime go way up? Or did you take an opportunity to step out?
Toby Walsh: Two interesting observations on I think about the pandemic. I mean it was first of all, hastened our adoption of the technology. I mean it was quite remarkable that we actually had most of those tools were waiting to be used and it took the pandemic for us to realise, ‘oh yeah, we have Zoom and many of us could work at home’. It forced us to adopt these technologies much more rapid rate than we would have done.
Equally I think, in all of the acknowledging of the pain, death and hardship that many people went through in the pandemic. There were a few silver linings and one of the silver linings was, we got to stop. I mean, I really loved the fact that I stopped travelling. I stayed at home and we started to realise what were the things that we valued, being able to go for a walk in the park we valued, missed greatly. Being able to spend time, FaceTime – real face time with people. Those were the things that even though we had their digital equivalent, we could Zoom to people, we missed the physical presence of people. We missed the physical presence of being in nature, those were the things that we realized gave us sustenance in life. So, I think that was great and I’m just a bit disappointed how quickly the world started spinning just the same speed it did beforehand, thinking, ‘did we not remember? Are we going to now forget all of those moments of calm that really defined that time?’. I mean it was in many respects… I miss the pandemic, I’m not allowed to say that.Am I'm allowed to say that? I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that.
Ariel Bogle: Well Cam, give us the temperature of your own relationship, I mean as a reporter like myself, who has to report on the internet. We have to wade through the sort of rubbish of the internet daily. What’s the temperature of your own relationship with your tech, and I wanted to comment on something Jenny mentioned in the talk, like this temptation to find people you identify with online and to present to the world online – your preferred version of yourself and how do you mediate that as well?
Cam Wilson: Yeah, I feel like I was invited on this panel as the cautionary tale about resisting the attention economy. I did my research before I got here, I feel like this is confessional. I looked at my screen time on my phone, I'm at four hours and 53 minutes a day. That's actually down 17% from last week, so things are getting better. I've listened to 110 days of podcasts since August 2020, so I'm not sure I'm like the best person to talk about how to resist it, perhaps. But some things that I've done, because I've really had to figure out ways to separate myself from this, as someone who reports in the attention economy and someone who's so enveloped by it, you know, everything from meditation pomodoro – that's the kind of twenty-five minute on, five-minute break time technique for when you're working.
Even just turning off notifications, probably the biggest change is that I got married and my wife is just like, “you have to come and do things”. And I know, I know, that sounds funny but the social connection of and obligations to the outside world is such an important grounding factor that draws us away from things that are just trying to take up all our time. As to the question about identity, I mean, I think it's really interesting, you know, the last decade, we saw social news and social media obviously become such a big thing and what that does really well, I think, is it gets people to almost subscribe to different identities.
Funnily enough, I used to work at BuzzFeed and the thesis of the guy who invented BuzzFeed was he kind of came up with the idea that capitalism both wants identity to be stable but also wants it to be schizophrenic. And that didn't mean the medical term, but he meant he wanted it to be able to change all the time and so, when you saw the BuzzFeed model build off this – because so much of their content is like, you know, ‘44 memes that remind you that you're a cat owner’, or whatever. That's the stuff that a lot of this attention economy is built off.
These very stable, specific ‘yes or no’ forms of identity not defined by each other, but defined by who you are, like on Facebook or on Instagram and you see how that is then kind of converted into money so I think that that is such a big part of the attention economy and you see it all the way up to things like, you know, ‘stan culture’ for those people who don’t know, that the idea of really being into something, and musicians have it, politicians have it and you know, I’m sure there are Jenny stans out there as well. But also, it’s this obsession with being able to quantify the idea of social interactions and so thinking about how many people follow you on TikTok or whatever – that is unfortunately for me – a part of my life and a part of other people’s lives as well, but I think what that offers to people is that it offers a way to… it gives them a certainty where social interactions are nebulous but if you’ve got 30,000 followers on Twitter, you’re like ‘hell, yeah!’, so I think that that is like a big part of it and I found that really interesting in Jenny’s book.
Ariel Bogle: Yes, I feel like TikTok too – Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed, “it’s thesis on steroids”, because there’s ways you scroll and you pay a little more attention, you spend a little bit more time on a video and then suddenly you’re getting served endless content about a very particular type of cooking technique, or a very particular type of film genre, or very particular type of identity as a mother or father, you know, it's really like a little sub-divide right, it’s very interesting. I mean speaking of TikTok and that kind of endless scroll. Jenny, I mean the book talks about the diction of design – you've got the scroll, you have the like buttons, the feedback loops, but now I think over the past year, we've been talking about lot on AI content, of course, ChatGPT. I wonder Toby, if you could guide a little bit how much more addictive could these kinds of technologies be? How much more could they capture our attention?
Toby Walsh: Well, I think it’s bad news actually, we can be seduced by much more interactive, much more audio/video content and the algorithms will be again training on finding what’s going to grab our attention so I think we were going to have to up our game. Social media we’ve had so far was hopefully a training ground for us though, it’s going to become that more addictive and we’re already starting to see AI memes capture our attention, move the stock market, you know, that picture of the Pope and a white puffer jacket – fake AI generators…
Ariel Bogle: Tell us about the Pentagon one you mentioned the other day.
Toby Walsh: Yes, so just yesterday there’s a fake photograph of the Pentagon and it looks like there’s an explosion, and it actually moves the stock market. It was on an account that had a blue tick unfortunately you know, Elon’s ruined Twitter by selling ticks to anyone but we’re going to have to… I have to say to people now, ‘”unless you see it, unless you’re physically in the room and you saw it with your eyes and heard it with your own ears, you have to entertain the idea that someone’s trying to fool you”, but this is synthetic, this is made up. This is not real.
Ariel Bogle: I mean one thing I think about which makes me sometimes slow down when I use my technology is thinking about the labour behind it – the people that are sitting in some port office screaming all the horrible things on Facebook that keep my feed clean, or the people labelling the data that's training their AI algorithms, or if anybody's following the writers’ strike in the United States, in Hollywood, fighting off, I suppose AI being trained on their work. I mean, I'm sure the AI has already taken all of the work that we've published online to train ChatGPT and…
Toby Walsh: It's the greatest heist in history. All of intellectual property is being hoovered up by these algorithms, and none of it’s being returned back to the people who generated it.
Ariel Bogle: Yeah, but do you think that is a way? How are you thinking about that, Jenny? I mean, I know you advocate for taking time to notice our bioregion thing and taking time to notice the world around us, but is there a sort of case for pausing with the tech itself and understanding the kind of layers behind it?
Jenny Odell: Yeah, I mean, so I'm from the Bay Area. I grew up there and I’m very used to tech, booster, flavour – where it’s always like, the next new thing and I think AI is a perfect example of something where it sounds really new even though it’s not really, but people talk about it like it’s this unprecedented thing, like in a breathless way, in the Bay Area. And, I think the writers’ strike has been really interesting for me because the way that the people who are on strike are talking about it, really puts it in a larger historical context where it's just an example of something, some form of automation, that didn't necessarily replace work, it just made it a lot worse for a lot of people and it weakened the people, it weakened the power of people who are doing the work and you know, probably makes their work cheaper as well.
And I just find the strike to be a really valuable concrete example of people sort of seeing the writing on the wall and seeing what could happen with this work, like you just said – all of the work that they've done. It's very telling that how the studios have not wanted to touch that. Something or I forget what they said, they wanted to have a meeting, like “we’ll have a yearly meeting about the technology”, and it’s like, “okay” – that tells you that they want to use it.
Ariel Bogle: Yeah, definitely. Okay Cam, how have you seen the tech itself that captures our attention change over time in the sort of years that you have been reporting in this area?
Cam Wilson: Yeah, I definitely think that the pandemic was a massive thing and thinking about Zoom and what came out of it, which was, Facebook changing its name to Meta for the metaverse, which hasn't quite taken off yet. But I know that Apple is working on a headset.
Ariel Bogle: I don’t think anyone’s even uttered that word to me in like…
Cam Wilson: I know, it’s all about AI now baby. Yeah, I mean that was obviously such a massive thing and like you mentioned before, there has been a trend in social media networks from… they’ve taken the guardrails off algorithms even more like it used to be. If you were on Facebook or Instagram, and you’re like, “I follow these people”, maybe some friends, maybe some organisations, brands, or whatever and with things like TikTok, it’s entirely mostly chosen for you and responding to how you react to it and that just really stepped this up – this passiveness where you’re just being fed things that they think that you want.
I do think that there are some little good trends as well like, I do think that there has been a bit of a reaction away from this version of social media where everyone can look at you at all time – that context is collapsed, because you know, you might be tweeting to your 50 followers but then if someone takes it out of context, and then brings it to a bigger audience and then you get this whole online mob against you there is like there is a kind of trend as well towards more closed social networks and that’s everything from, like you mentioned before, Jenny mentioned Mastodon but also, everything’s like discords, or people spending more time on just group chats and I think that although that is still very much within the technology space – that is the kind of change that obviously, I think gives me a little bit more control. But ultimately these tools are still very much in the hands of people who are trying to monetise our social interactions and that always means they’re going to encourage you to do more and somehow spend more time on it, so that they can get more money.
Ariel Bogle: And a lot of people are talking about digital detoxes I mean, I also like try to put my phone away but often when I do that, I’m thinking about how to calm my mind to be better for work and you do write about this in your new book, Saving Time about what can look like leisure, switching off can also be sort of the realm of eternal self-upgrade, you know, hacking yourself to be increasingly productive for work and not just for your own self or for pleasure. I mean, talk us through a bit there, like how can we resist turning our resistance to the attention economy into just another productivity hack?
Jenny Odell: Yeah, I know I think in this book, I say that there's something ironic about like quitting Facebook and then Tweeting about it or something like that, making that into a thing. I mean, I think a lot of what I talked about in both books could be summed up by something that’s in How to Do Nothing, which is the difference between an I-It and an I-Thou relationship that’s from the philosopher Martin Buber. But an I-It relationship is basically like an instrumental relationship to everything like everyone and everything is either a product, or it’s a nuisance or it doesn’t exist but it’s there for your use or consumption and then an I-Thou relationship would basically be something where you’re relating to something that has its’ own reality like I mean, if you think about a conversation with a very close friend or something like that, right. And I feel obviously, social media runs on the kind of I-It right, it’s like there’s an impatience in it, it’s like ‘what is it? Do I want it? Can I use it? Is it a thing that I like? And you need like three seconds to make that decision you know, and so I think that’s part for the reason for my argument for just trying to render oneself more open to encounter and surprise. I mean it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately because I give the example in this book – KALX 90.7, which is a college radio station for UC Berkeley and it’s obviously not Spotify but they have a rule called the grandma rule, which is that every set has to have at least one song from three different genres that would be identifiable as different genres to your grandma. So it can’t be like three genres of metal, you know, it has to be different, right? And I think my experience listening to that is very different from listening to my ‘Discover Weekly’ right, because I often hear things that I don’t like but I’m interested in them and they’re surprising and also, it cultivates the patience to wait until the next song also if you don’t really like it. Anyway, that’s just to say I think that kind of instrumental controlling attitude is the really big obstacle and oftentimes, I think that the self-treating leisure time as self-upgrade time is when you’re still in that mindset of ‘I want this time to work for me somehow’.
Toby Walsh: It’s that beautiful word, ‘serendipity,’ where you find things.
Jenny Odell: Yeah, or they find you.
Toby Walsh: Yeah, somehow chance upon them.
Jenny Odell: Yeah, exactly.
Ariel Bogle: How do you think about the regulatory piece here which Jenny mentioned in her talk as well, like of course we can do a lot ourselves but some ways, there’s only so much we can do here and then the companies do this – we need regulation to come, and how are you thinking about that?
Toby Walsh: That’s crystal clear today. If Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI comes here and puts it in everyone’s hands, and says “we need to regulate, governments need to regulate this space more”, I mean governments needs to regulate this space more, it’s very clear. I mean, it’s going to steal our attention, it’s going to blur this distinction between true and false, it’s going to pervert the course of our democracy. I mean, how much clearer does it have to be? I always believe we should have learned the lesson from social media. That was the first example of how it can go wrong, we’re going to repeat the same mistake again if we’re not careful.
Ariel Bogle: I’m always a little suspicious when the CEO themselves says, “regulate me” because they show opennesss to certain forms of regulation, but not others.
Toby Walsh: Well, I think if you get caught in front of Congress, you’re going to be regulated. You have two ways of playing it, you can sit there like Mark Zuckerberg and be hit around the head and you’ll be regulated or you can sit there and acquiesce, and you will be regulated. I mean, I think it was probably a smart decision to say, “well, let’s just take it on the chin”. I talk to people in these companies and they’re all expecting to be regulated right, it’s just a matter of how quickly and what it is.
Ariel Bogle: In speaking of Silicon Valley CEOs and Jenny mentioned it in the book and there’s been a lot of press about how a lot of them do not let their own children use the tech that they built, which is of course, such an irony. But I do wonder if there’s like a bit of a class system emerging because obviously, the opportunity to take time out is a privilege of sorts, a lot of companies do these retreats where no phones are a treat so you can think up great ideas for the business. But is there an element there of a class system building? Do you think that's going to continue?
Cam Wilson: Yeah, definitely. I mean, look when the tech founders and people working are asking for regulation like Toby says – also, shout out to the person who clapped for regulation – you don’t get that very often, like you said, tech workers not using their own products. There was a controversy today because I think Google published an ad showing something using YouTube but the computer that they had screen captured, when I click something it showed that they actually had an ad blocker on it which is Google’s whole business.
Yeah, there’s all these examples of people in tech maybe taking a step back from the technology itself but taking steps to distance themselves from society. And you know, Peter Thiel who is the early Facebook founder, big funder of tech and you know, he wanted to… is it seasteading? I’ve never actually said that word.
Ariel Bogle: Seasteading, and he has a beautiful piece of land in Wanaka in New Zealand.
Cam Wilson: And he is a New Zealand citizen or Elon Musk wanting to go to Mars and you know, you’ve got to wonder what’s going on if the people who are in charge of everything are trying to get out of here? Yeah, I mean I think there is a potential kind of big class divide. There is one already, but I think it’s going to get potentially worse with something like AI like I’m imagining a future where we get more and more services pushed on to AI which for the most part is not as good as dealing with an actual qualified person and so when you see people already using AI, like AI products for things like legal services, for psychiatry, for you know, going through therapy, that’s concerning. Are we going to go to a future where that access to even some of the stuff we still use, mediate through human contact is getting outsourced to AI because that's cheaper and easier. That's a really concerning future and I think that AI as powerful as it is, makes it really possible and potentially lucrative. So, you know, thinking about that it's already happening now, but I think it could – sorry to be the bearer of bad news – get worse.
Ariel Bogle: I mean all of us on this stage. We have deadlines, we have this sort of way that we break down our time into sort of little money-making bundles but of course, there are people that are employed in Amazon warehouses, there are plenty of roles now which have the kind of surveillance of time built in, and you do talk about this in your new book, Saving Time, Jenny. I wonder how you envision a kind of workplace movement, you know, the unions fought for an eight hour work day, eight hours for leisure, eight hours for rest. We need some sort of new workplace movement to oppose, I guess that breaks down our attention into sort of little fungible bundles.
Jenny Odell: Yeah, yeah I mean again, I find the writers’ strike really inspiring on this point because it’s like this big sort of hand, there’s a way in which certain kinds of technology get talked about as being inevitable like it’s going to happen you know. Again, it’s very common in the Bay Area, it’s going to happen sooner or later, don’t stand in the way of progress. You know, what I’ve seen from the strike is this kind of collective decision of, no, actually it doesn’t have to be terrible like this. We actually have the ability to make the decision that we want work to be a certain way and have dignity.
But actually, to go back to what you were saying, I mean I think towards the end of this book I talked about when I mentioned the CEOs who don’t let their children use the technology, this kind of worrisome potential for like, walled gardens of attention where if you think about when you are the most susceptible to the mindless scroll, it’s when you’re tired, you know, it’s like when you’re tired, or you’re scared or you’re uncomfortable and then you think about like, people who give the iPad to the kid – it’s like they’re overextended you know, they don’t have support and it’s just kind of like a last ditch kind of thing.
And so, that was actually part of what inspired me to write Saving Time was because that comes at the end of this book, but isn’t really fully fleshed out in just in terms of being rendered susceptible to something really nefarious, it does depend on your circumstances, right? Like how much you would be…
Toby Walsh: I don’t think we should hold out too much hope, though, for the writers’ strike because, with respect, if writers’ go on strike, sadly, the world’s not going to stop.
Ariel Bogle: The films will stop at some point.
Toby Walsh: Well, we use the algorithms to make the film. So you know, we want postal workers or the food workers to go on strike – that’s good to make people sit up and pay attention, but writers getting on strike sadly, I think is a bit of a slow way to make change.
Jenny Odell: I don't know, I think it's valuable, at the very least for being in the news, you know, it's like again, a concrete example and it’s pretty like cut and dry, too. It’s like an easy example for people to understand. I also think people associate labour actions with blue collar work and it’s an important illustration, but it affects everyone, like all types of work. So yeah, I think it's important for that reason.
Ariel Bogle: We’ve got that 15 minutes for questions so if people want to come up to the microphones. I think there’s one in the corners and up there as well, but I’ll ask one from Slido first.
So there’s a question here about activism, so we rely on social media for some elements of activism for informing or keeping informed, how can we temper this relationship with social media and remain engaged? I mean you do tackle this to an extent in the book.
Jenny Odell: Yeah, so towards the end of the book I mentioned some work by Veronica Barassi who is someone who studied activists’ use of social media and the problems that it creates for them in Spain in particular. And she basically identifies a couple of problems like, it creates a form of almost de-facto censorship because of the noise that it creates, like there’s just so much noise going on and also, it’s very fast so you don’t have time to elaborate on political ideas like in a community and it makes you have to make everything sort of short and sweet but then there’s an interesting quote that she has from an activist where they say, “you know, the times that it worked for them was when they used it to get everyone in the room”, so they used social media to create like a meeting point or a meeting place but that the meaningful things happened, you know, they’re in the place and that’s what people took away from it.
And actually, when I was in Auckland last week, I talked to some young climate activists who basically said the same thing – that they weren’t kind of troubled by having to engage with it and they were experiencing those same problems, but they also echoed that sentiment that if you could use it to get people in the space together, and then have people have that experience, like that is not something that you easily forget. Whereas like this, you do easily forget.
Toby Walsh: Yeah, yeah. There's too much shouting in social media.
Ariel Bogle: Does anyone have questions in real life? There's our microphones here, here, and then up there. Oh yeah, go ahead please.
Audience member: Hi, Jenny. I have a question about one thing which is that in your book, you talk about ways in which we can regain our attention on an individual level while we sort of wait for the bigger structural changes to happen. Can you elaborate what you mean by those big structural changes?
Jenny Odell: I mean, I feel like this is your kind of domain because that's what I was kind of trying to set out at the beginning I'm coming to it from a very specific perspective, which is as essentially an artist who knows about art and ways of seeing and so I'm not a policy person. I mean, just broadly yeah, some regulation would seem to be in order but also, I’m adjacent enough to people in the Bay Area who are working at these companies who really just see the government as this thing that they need to sway away. I’m sure you’ve encountered this, just sort of like, ‘get out of the way, while I design my thing’, and so, it definitely comes up against that.
Ariel Bogle: It seems likely that the health of children will come first in regulation. I mean, the Surgeon General of the United States today made a big pronouncement about the potential ill effects of social media on teenagers, I mean, what do you reckon, Toby?
Toby Walsh: I think we’re going to look back in 10 to 20 years time at social media like we look at tobacco, we look at alcohol, which is we don’t let young minds that are still being formed be exposed to it because it’s so easy to corrupt them into ways that are harmful, and we’re going to say, “maybe we should just keep young children out of it”. In terms of the structural changes, I think we should learn from history, right? We went through the first industrial revolution, we made not just regulation but made some huge, great changes to the way society works.
We introduced unions to organise workers, to protect them from the automation of their work, we introduced our welfare state to support people, we introduced pensions so that people were supported at the end of their working lives, we introduced universal education for people educated for those jobs. A huge number of great things we did to change the way that society works, the nature of work, the nature of our society and the nature of our government. I think we’re going through an equally profound structural change, and we have to think about things as radical, universal basic income. There’s lots of conversations we should be having to say, “okay, our life is going to be disrupted by this technology. There’s good things and bad things about it. How do we marshal it so that we come out of improving the quality of everyone's life?”.
Ariel Bogle: Another question from Slido, Jenny, do you think complexity connection and art can be successfully built online? You know, places like Tumblr, Goncharov – I’m not sure what that is but does it always come back to the bottom line?
Jenny Odell: Yeah, that is kind of an open question for me like that’s why I was interested to see what happened on Mastodon. I mean there’s also not a hard line between the two right, like interaction online is very interwoven into what we would call, ‘real life’ right? And so, I think that there are probably really interesting ways in which online interactions could like foster and support that kind of complexity but it’s hard to imagine it happening only here. It seems similar to what I was saying earlier about the kind of activists’ response which is it would be ideal if it could be integrated with something that was in person or not online.
Ariel Bogle: Number two.
Audience Member: Jenny, I think one of the things that I understood from reading your book was that actually being an artist helps you arrive at some of the ideas that you put forward in the book and I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about how being an artist brought you into a more reflective relationship with technology, because I think regulation is okay, and it will only take us so far, though. And I think there's something about the kinds of attention that art can cultivate that can really help us in our engagements with technology. And I was just wondering, as I was hearing everybody talking, what do you think about maybe, we should just have tech executives doing art workshops and learning to cultivate different kinds of attention? I mean, it sounds funny, but I do think there's a different mode of being that's needed and what kind of other tools can we use?
Jenny Odell: That's a great question. I'm sure they're already doing those workshops, actually I know that they’re already doing those workshops because sometimes I get invited to do it and unfortunately, no artistic workshop is going to make them not want to make a profit. But I do feel like for those of us interacting with the with those tools, I mean, this is an odd example because I grew up in Cupertino, there was a computer in the house and both my parents – my dad's an electronics engineer, and my mom worked at HP. So I was just kind of around technology in general, but I've used it to do weird things, like I would use like the equivalent of PowerPoint to make basically an animation and just kind of come at it from an odd angle and maybe because I was a child, I don’t know, I kind of grew up not ever taking for granted the way that something was supposed to be used or we’re actually wanting to use to it against the way that it was designed, and I still find that kind of curiosity which I think we all have, at least remember from childhood, it can be really interesting. Like one time, my boyfriend and I just watched our Instagram ads like very carefully, and we’re like, “okay, what font are they using? Why do they think I want this’”, just pretend like you’re in the past and you’re looking at the Blade Runner ads of the future, but now and just treat it like that and it’s like, it’s morbidly fascinating but I think that kind of dislodging from taking something for granted like whether or not that’s happening in… whether or not that’s a piece of art, I think it doesn’t need to be specific to art. It’s just that kind of curiosity about something that is working very hard to be below your level of attention.
Audience Member: Thanks, Jenny. Thanks to all of you. It's been really, really wonderful. My name is Kitty. So I have a bit of a long winded question but please don't cut me off. I do have a question. So, I really love your perspective as an artist, Jenny and it's so refreshing to see the view of artist’s practitioner looking at these problems that I think are obviously very political but I think that can be lost sometimes in these kinds of talks where we, can endlessly intellectualise and analyse you know, we can describe phenomena, we can problematise it, and I guess the response is to resist it.
But what I guess I'm asking, what does resistance really mean, given the kind of conditions of exploitation and the near liberal agenda that we are surrounded by? I think it's very natural to kind of resist it, I think you said earlier by like hacking yourself, you know, finding these little tricks and tools to kind of like, make yourself more immune to your attention being exploited and marketised, and so on. And I think I just wonder, what do you think about the power of acting as a citizen, not just as a consumer. So I think, you know, getting these apps and trying to make yourself more productive and, you know, going to these talks, I think we are, we can easily fall into this trap of responding to a problem in an individualistic way, because that's kind of the only way we know how because the power of capitalism is inescapable, you know, it's all around us.
It seems impossible to overcome. But, you know, so did the divine right of kings so I guess, I like your view of rendering yourself open to encounters, and I'm a bird watcher myself, and I think that's so wonderful. But what's all of our responsibilities that are going beyond that at getting active and saying, “hey, is this even a democracy? These technologies aren't serving us, they are created to make somebody else money, you know?”.
Ariel Bogle: Sorry, just because we’ve got other people. Can you jump into the question, please?
Audience Member: What do you think?
Jenny Odell: Yeah. I mean I have thought some about that just in terms of how even my book is marketed, right. Like, I’ve been told that it’s in the self-help section in some bookstores. I’ve actually had some friends move it out of the self-help section in the bookstore…
Toby Walsh: So they put it into the politics section in the bookstore.
Jenny Odell: Someone put it in social science which I don’t think it really belongs there but…
Toby Walsh: Let’s put it in politics.
Jenny Odell: Yeah, I guess, you know that question of the sort of personal, and the structural is a really difficult one but it’s also a really generative one that I try not to shy away from. I think it’s really tempting to want to collapse into one or the other like, it’s either self-help or it’s like, selfless political activism and I think actually they’re very integrated like the way a person actually experiences them and there is a part of the book where I say – I’m talking about attention and I say, “that to be hold, is to become beholden to”, and just to give an example of like even if you decided that you got into bird watching and you start noticing more birds, it’s not like, it’s just going to end there.
Like if you keep paying attention to birds, you’re going to have to start thinking about habits and habitat loss, and then you’re going to have to think about climate change, you’re going to have to think about fossil fuel companies and you’re going to have to… Like you know, it doesn’t just somehow end there unless someone really is approaching something where they really just want self-help. But I don’t feel like this is written to that type of person so I would just say I don’t see those things as being necessarily a binary and it would really disappoint me if someone stopped at just the kind of, cultivating personal attention.
I use the language in the book of seeing it as a stop on the way to somewhere, something more important, something more collective and you know, I’m thinking there’s a quote in my second book – a Spanish journalist told me that there was a saying there, ‘do you need a therapist, or do you need a union?’, and I think that kind of gets at a certain point if you’re pressed for time and you’re always stressed out like that is not necessarily your problem to more efficiently use your 24 hours in a day, that’s a structural problem and you need to start talking to other people about it and that’s what’s so beautiful, when you see people organised – it’s like people who have been exploited. But sorry I keep going back to the writers’ strike but that’s a group of people who’ve been devalued and has these horrible work experiences but because of the nature of the industry, which is very competitive, they were not necessarily talking about it and trying to sort of appear like they’re doing well and now they’re all talking about it and seeing these kind of larger patterns and realising that they need to work together to combat that.
Ariel Bogle: I think we missed that last question or maybe two last questions. Just up here. Yeah.
Audience Member: Yeah. Hi, my name is Eric. Jenny, just a quick question in the context of work – if not productivity – what can we use as a frame of thinking and acting in the context where we're asked to be productive, without turning into Bartleby, the Scrivener, which is one of the stories you mentioned in your book, the guy was refusing to do any work and ended up in prison?
Jenny Odell: Yeah, I don’t know I think it really depends on your work, right? So in my second book I describe, there's a sociologist named Hartmut Rosa who gives us an example of a hypothetical character named Linda, who when I read the subscription, I was like, ‘oh, this sounds like me’, and it was like an overworked Professor who doesn't have enough time for her students, doesn't have enough time for her partner, doesn't have enough time to work out and she's just always running out of time, and then at the end of that description, he says, “but doesn't she have herself to blame?”, and when I read that I was very taken aback.
And then you contrast that with someone who is say, a nurse or someone who works in a restaurant, or someone who’s on a schedule and their time is very surveilled like as you were saying earlier and he makes that distinction right between there’s a type of person who doesn’t have control over their time because of the nature of their work, and then there’s the Linda character who in theory, could be doing less but doesn’t because she’s internalised this logic of expansion, so I feel that’s a helpful distinction. I think there’s a big grey are between those two like – an adjunct lecturer in the US, in particular, which I was for a long time, is someone who has to perform to look like they’re being productive, a lot, to get hired the next year but you do have control over your time more than someone in a different kind of work. But the main thing is that the answer is different based on those. Like one person needs to try to deal with that internalised boss, the other it’s not necessarily their problem that obviously that they’re overworked, that’s a structural thing.
Ariel Bogle: Unfortunately, this is going to have to be the last question.
Audience Member: Very quick question, actually. I’m just picking up on something that Toby touched on which was during the pandemic, there was an opportunity to pause, to rethink things. There was a campaign that was called, The Second Chance, I don’t know if you remember The Second Chance but do you think that opportunity has been lost, or do you think there’s possibly we’ve sown the seeds of a second chance?
Ariel Bogle: Would you like to start, the possibility of a second chance to pause, Toby?
Toby Walsh: I don’t know what The Second Chance campaign was.
Audience Member: Basically, The Second Chance campaign was to reconsider where we were in the world right now, what we valued in the world so I guess, what that campaign did was it asked us to reassess where we are.
Ariel Bogle: The moment of the pandemic and that re-assessment, has that been lost or can we pick that up?
Toby Walsh: It sadly seems to be losing it. I mean, it was heartening to see that the people’s mental health, in many respects improved, anxiety levels went down. We were actually happier in many respects, despite all the uncertainty and all of everything that was going through it and we seem to have forgotten that, and we're going back to exactly what we were before.
And the idea that, you know, paying people to stay home – a radical idea – people say, “oh, you cannot afford universal basic income?”, well, in most countries, we had a form of universal basic income and the economy hasn't stopped, the economy seems to have managed to survive there, you know, modular wars in Ukraine and various other things that are causing problems in the economy at the moment but I think we should remember those lessons better and say, “maybe we should actually pay people in these professions a bit more, maybe we should pay people to stay at home sometimes”.
Ariel Bogle: Jenny, do you feel like the momentum of that sort of undoing that the pandemic did for that moment, can we continue in that thought, or is that lost?
Jenny Odell: I mean it’s hard to say. I mean I wrote my second book during the pandemic and I did write it in a way, I was trying to take advantage of the interruption and a lot of things that people were taking for granted particularly around work, and ways that we spend our time and it’s almost like I wrote the book in that space to try to keep it open, like the memory of the interruption. I don’t know, I don’t know how successful that is and I am similarly alarmed at how quickly everything has kind of gone back but there are other things that though I feel you can’t unsee, you know, I do remember during the pandemic for example when people who were working from home in the Bay Area, were asked to come back to work in person, when it had just been demonstrated that everyone could do their work from home perfectly well and many of them had small children and so that’s time now lost, and they’re being asked to spend four hours in traffic today.
It's like, that’s just what we do and then during the pandemic, it’s like, ‘no, we don’t have to do that’. And so, I kind of hold out hope for things where, maybe you had an experience of something that felt meaningful that stays with you and you want to hold on to that.
Toby Walsh: I suppose lots of people are making those sorts of choices, now, lots of people are choosing, making better choices. I mean, this is again to the person who asked the collective, personal choice question. On a personal level, I think we have remembered some of those lessons – people are making some of those choices.
Ariel Bogle: Unfortunately, that’s all we all have time for. Thanks so much to our panel – to Jenny for her talk, Cam, and Toby.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival. For more information, visit centreforideas.com and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Cam Wilson, Jenny Odell, Toby Walsh and Ariel Bogle
Claire Annesley, Dean, UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture
Jenny Odell is the author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. She is also an interdisciplinary artist and has been in residence at the San Francisco Planning Department, Recology SF (otherwise known as the dump), and the Internet Archive. Odell also taught digital art at Stanford University from 2013 to 2021. An enthusiast of birding, geology, and local history, she is based in Oakland, California.
Toby Walsh is Chief Scientist of UNSW's new AI Institute. He is a strong advocate for limits to ensure AI improves our lives, having spoken at the UN, and to heads of state, parliamentary bodies, company boards and many others on this topic. This advocacy has led to him being ‘banned indefinitely’ from Russia. He was named on the international ‘Who's Who in AI’ list of influencers. His most recent book is Machines Behaving Badly: the morality of AI.
Cam Wilson is a tech reporter whose work covers the intersection between internet culture, online extremism and politics. He’s currently an Associate Editor at Crikey, and previously worked at the ABC, BuzzFeed News, Business Insider and Gizmodo.
Ariel Bogle (Host)
Ariel Bogle is a technology reporter with the ABC. She has won various awards for her work, including for a three-part radio series on health misinformation. Her reporting has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic and The Australian Financial Review, among other places.