One of the biggest takeaways after reading three recently published books by cultural critics Kyle Chayka, Jenny Odell, and Cal Newport is this: Solitude is a replenishing well from which we are woefully dehydrated.
We live in the information age when knowing what’s happening on every point of the earth at any given time is not only feasible, but has come to be seen as responsible, if not virtuous. As these authors point out, not only are we not evolutionarily hardwired for dealing with the degree of complexity modern-day devices have ushered in, our attempts to do so are robbing us of the significant benefits of introspection, contemplation—even boredom.
Read in triplicate, these books have a lot in common. Certain characters, like Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Merton, Steve Jobs, Marie Kondo, and Martin Luther King, Jr., amble across the pages of one and into another. If their simultaneous publication (all three were released in 2019 and 2020) is any indication, the honeymoon period of constant connectivity is over. Now it’s time to put in the hard work to establish a values-driven relationship with technology, using self-reflection to prioritize individual and collective wellbeing. These books will empower you to do so. Not with the false promises of unceasing connection and unattainable omniscience, but with the assurance that there is a whole lot of life to be lived offscreen.
If you’re seeking a plan for surviving the “attention economy,” a term used by both Newport and Odell to describe Big Tech’s monetization of our distraction, look to Digital Minimalism. In it, Newport not only supplies readers with a scientific overview on how digital devices have developed in discord with the human brain, and in accordance with corporate growth, he also provides a step-by-step plan—what he calls “the digital declutter”—for walking back your use and regaining a sense of self.
Newport’s proposed thirty-day declutter and maintenance practices are rigid by design. One of his driving points throughout the book is that the diagnosis of digital dependence cannot be pinpointed to only one thing; it’s the normalization of accumulation and optimization—each app taking a smidge more of your precious time and energy—that needs to be reassessed, as well as the fact that your continued dependence on these technologies is filling corporate coffers. It’s the same as in a messy room: the clutter is not the fault of one object, it’s the behaviors and systems that support or even feed off of its growth.
It’s difficult to turn away from what’s been engrained in us in a short amount of time—smartphones only hit the scene fifteen years ago—about what it means to be well informed and well connected. (“What’s remarkable about these concerns is how recently we really started caring about them,” Newport writes.) That’s why he suggests this monthlong process “should be one of strenuous activity and experimentation.” How else can you tap into yourself and your personal, local, and global contexts without the aid of attention economy technologies?
The piece about self is critical, as Newport points out we’ve essentially become more and more comfortable filling every second of our waking life with media input and memes and less and less comfortable sitting with our own thoughts and feelings. How instead can you tap into yourself and drink from the well of solitude that has been infilled with social media, news coverage, podcasts, and text threads for over a decade? What presence can be found its absence?
The facets of nothingness and the many different ways and whys to “do” it are the focus of Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. As Odell explains, the murkiness of the void has been an oculus for philosophers and artists for millennia. Her book looks at how “anatomies of refusal”—she considers both large countercultural dropout movements of the 60s and 70s and personal, place-based activities like birdwatching—can initiate significant, beneficial shifts in our daily lives as well as in planetary consciousness.
Her ambition for this book, which she calls “an open and extended essay, in the original sense of the word (a journey, an essaying forth),” is to recenter our attention away from the “financial incentives to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction” and back to the world immediately surrounding us. The world where there are roses and street signs and birdsong and paint drops and freckles.
“The point of doing nothing,” she continues, “isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive…From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of ‘doing nothing’ is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.” Over six lyrical chapters, Odell details why she is opposed to “designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, the and the poetic.”
There’s a lot in this book. It’s deep, wide, and generous, full of artfully woven insights that assure a reader that the process of its making was guided by the theories it espouses. As Odell articulates, the aim of doing nothing is “embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal” (emphasis ours).
Kyle Chayka’s book The Longing for LessvaN might be the most oblique of these three titles, talking less about device-driven addiction and more about how technology has impacted and commodified certain avant garde movements, namely, minimalism.
The longing in Chayka’s title goes beyond a desire for a less materially abundant existence and is more to do with a yearning for the complex philosophical inquiries initially proposed by minimalism. Is vacant space inert? What happens when you introduce a single element into a blank field? Does silence provoke transcendence? These questions are what minimalism is really about for Chayka, not the glorification of a for-purchase interior design style that has been imported across the world via pins and grams.
To answer these questions, Chayka explores four themes: reduction, emptiness, silence, and shadow. In each, he focuses on the inner worlds of artists like Agnes Martin, Donald Judd, Walter De Maria, and John Cage; architectural designers like Ray and Charles Eames and Philip Johnson; and theologians and philosophers like Thomas Merton and Junichirō Tanizaki. By the end, Chayka makes clear that minimalism is an enigmatic and expansive container, one that has held a multitude of wisdom traditions and generated an array of artistic expressions extremely worthy of our longing.
Reading these three books was a balm, a welcome reminder of how much careful thinking, deep feeling, ingenuous inventing, and skillful art-making has gone on in human history prior to the days of rapid digitization. Sophisticatedly unique as they each are, they all reinforce the same simple truth: that it can feel really good to go against the grain. And if this refusal, this slow dance of no-saying, can be done together—even better. Like poet Anne Boyer writes: “Some days my only certain we is this certain we that didn’t, that wouldn’t, whose bodies or spirits wouldn’t go along.”
If this is resistance, we’re in.