There’s an insidious feature of modern life: as the economy and technology continue to grow, attention becomes ever more scarce. Nowadays footage from Russian dash cams and the latest “wisdom” issued on social media by people who are good at kicking balls compete to grab our attention and suck up our time. This state of affairs could be laughed off except that it keeps most people from focusing on climate change and other existential crises of the 21st century. If all goes well, by the end of this episode, you’ll feel inspired to shut down your electronic devices, stow your earbuds, and go outside to scan the skies, dig in the dirt, watch the wildlife, or find some other healthy way to pay attention to the natural world. Artist/writer Jenny Odell joins in the fun to discuss how to resist the attention economy. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

Transcript

Rob Dietz  

Hi, I’m Rob Dietz.

Asher Miller  

I’m Asher Miller.

Jason Bradford  

And I’m Jason Bradford. Welcome to Crazy Town. Where Black Friday meets the Black Death.

Rob Dietz  

The topic of today’s episode is competition for attention. And please stay tuned for a perceptive interview with Jenny Odell.

Asher Miller  

Guys, I want to start with an apology.

Jason Bradford  

If you just cut the cheese, I’m not gonna smell it. We’re distanced. You know. . .

Asher Miller  

That’s not the apology. But the apology is to you, Jason. So what I want to apologize. It took me like eight hours respond to that email that you sent when you said that your car broke down and you were stuck on the side of the road. 

Jason Bradford  

Right. 

Asher Miller  

You sent me this message.  And you asked if I could help you out and pick you up. 

Jason Bradford  

Okay. . . 

Asher Miller  

Yeah, sorry, I . . . 

Rob Dietz  

You don’t seem to remember doing that, Jason

Jason Bradford  

Well, he’s got a point. And this happens to me too where I actually think with instant communication like, why aren’t they responding? Why aren’t they responding?

Rob Dietz  

I’m actually glad that you apologize to Jason. I was feeling a little left out, but this means you respond immediately to all my emails.

Asher Miller  

Well, so if you were to guess how many unread emails are sitting in my inbox? How many would you guess? 

Rob Dietz  

Oh, 4.78 trillion.

Jason Bradford  

Wow, I don’t know cuz I get a lot of stuff where I don’t delete it. It just sits there. But it’s obviously something – 

Asher Miller  

But did you read it? 

Jason Bradford  

No. It’s like an ad or whatever. I can tell from the subject like fast. I have no idea.

Asher Miller  

You don’t know how many you have? Or you don’t know?

Jason Bradford  

I have no idea. 

Rob Dietz  

It’s it’s somewhere more than 3, I’m guessing.

Asher Miller  

I’ve got 4,122 unread emails. 

Jason Bradford  

That’s reasonable.

Asher Miller  

Oh, good. I feel better.

Rob Dietz  

This is like how many social media friends you have. How many unread emails do you have, Jason. I’ve got 6,820.

Asher Miller  

I’m trying to seek status here. No, no, no. My wife, Kirsten, she would be breaking out in hives at the thought of this.

Jason Bradford  

Really?

Asher Miller  

Not only does she not have any unread emails in her inbox after a day.  She has no emails at all in your inbox. Eeverything gets sorted.

Rob Dietz  

Well, let’s  talk about how many inboxes we have now, too.

Asher Miller  

Right. That’s true. That’s impressive. You can probably divide people into categories by how they manage email. In my defense, I don’t think it’s just about categorization. It’s about all the distractions we have being inundated with so many things all the time. I don’t know if you guys can relate to that?

Rob Dietz  

I can relate a little bit I think, I mean, I’m a very, very focused individual, as you can tell by all the pop culture addled crap that I spew at you guys, but . . . Okay, so the other day, I was actually working on this podcast, not this episode, but an upcoming episode. And so um, yeah. I’m doing the research. I’m diving in, and I’m on the internet. And I need a little break. So I turned over to YouTube for a second. And a – 

Jason Bradford  

a second . . . 

Rob Dietz  

Yeah. Well, so I found this video of near death experiences. So it’s not people who actually died. It had a lot of views, like 20 million views or something. So it’s got to be good. And it was like a 10 minute compilation of people almost getting whacked. Like these two guys are chasing a grizzly bear in the snow on snowmobiles and the grizzly bear – 

Asher Miller  

They were chasing a grizzly bear? Like idiots?

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, I know. Totally. They got the GoPro camera on their head. Yeah, totally. And you almost wish the grizzly bear – it turned on him swung its paw, and they even slowed the video down. You see the paw just barely go over the top of the camera.

Asher Miller  

Karma

Jason Bradford

Dash cam videos are the best.

Rob Dietz  

Well, that’s the thing there. There were hundreds of near misses and traffic and stuff in it. You know, you got the Russian dashcam which is especially good. I don’t know what happened. I think their insurance industry is so new over there that everybody has to prove what happens in a traffic accident or something. 

Jason Bradford  

So, you woke up like three days later? Like coming out of this?

Rob Dietz  

So it turns out they’re like 80 of these compilations. 

Asher Miller  

Did you watch every single one of them?

Rob Dietz  

Well I mean . . . let’s say it was a lot more than I intended to – before I got back to the task at hand recording this podcast. 

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, you’re on company time.

Rob Dietz  

 Oh, no, no, no, no, no, I wouldn’t. My boss is over here. Shut up.

Asher Miller  

Yeah, well, so I bring this up, not just to apologize to you, Jason. 

Jason Bradford  

Okay. Yeah, that’s fine.

Asher Miller  

I’m glad that you didn’t get killed, you know, as you’re like bummin’ a ride back. 

Jason Bradford  

No, no. 

Asher Miller  

No, I’m bringing up because I want to talk about what I think is another hidden driver. And we spent a lot of time on this podcast talking about how blind mainstream economics is about the role of energy and other environmental resources like soil and you know, stable climate, and all that. They tend to see them as just for their values and  input and into the global economy, right? Their dollar values. And they sort of assume like, well, you know, if that resource like fossil fuels, for example, gets scarce – 

Jason Bradford  

or food . . . 

Asher Miller  

or food. Yeah, you just replace it with something else. Right? Well, I want to talk about a different scarce resource that can’t be replaced. And that is our attention, our capacity to focus on things that is a finite resource.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah. And that’s what economics is all about. How do you apportion finite or scarce resources amongst various competing ends?

Jason Bradford  

Our time. Just like our lifetime. How much time we have in our life. So I guess attention is what you’re spending your time focusing on or paying attention to.

Rob Dietz  

Like watching near death videos for hours on end. It gets you a lot closer to death.

Jason Bradford  

You could have been scratching your dogs head or, or smiling at your wife. . . 

Rob Dietz  

Planting a tree . . . 

Jason Bradford  

Or learning more about the world? But instead –

Rob Dietz  

Hey, I learned a lot about the world

Asher Miller  

Yeah, you learned a lot about Russian traffic.

Rob Dietz  

Don’t jump out of airplanes. 

Jason Bradford  

Cancel the wingsuit order. 

Rob Dietz  

Well, the one thing that I notice about attention, scarcity, and the problems that we have with it is that it’s not like it’s new, right? I mean, when we were kids, you had television, you had things competing for attention well before we had all the social media and YouTube and all that. But yeah, you can even go back in history and look at stuff like the printing press. I mean, suddenly, you had the ability to spread information around that you never had before. So people’s attention have been getting cut up. But it seems like we’re on a really massive acceleration path.

Jason Bradford  

Oh my gosh. It’s just crazy. I just start to imagine like the day where, you know, oh, the town crier is now out there speaking. Let’s all gather around.

Rob Dietz  

Jason, man. You you would have been a good town crier, I think. We could have got you a three cornered hat, a bell, and put you out on the. . .

Asher Miller  

Jason spends a lot of his time crying everyday. 

Jason Bradford  

Yeah. I mean, think about it. It’s just hard to imagine, but pre-literature. . . 

Asher Miller  

I think they’re always competing. You know, there’s always been competition. You were just saying, Rob, a scarce resource, right? And and that’s what the field of Economic Studies is like, how do you manage that? Well, people have always had to manage their attention and focus And there’s, there’s always been demands for those things, and competing demands for those things. So even before there was access to information through the form of the written word, or even the printing press, or whatever, that people had to allocate their time, either to growing food, or taking care of their kids, or whatever it is, I mean, that’s always been a reality for people.

Jason Bradford  

But it’s definitely then accelerating. So just the advance of technology. There was, what’s the thing where you did “dot dot dot dot dot”

Asher Miller  

Telegraph. 

Jason Bradford  

Telegraph wire. And suddenly, you could get information from one part of the world to the other quickly, right. And so yeah, and then pamphleteering –

Rob Dietz  

Fuck off, Thomas Paine. You messed up our attention span with your stupid pamphlets.

Jason Bradford  

And then somebody figured out how have the printing press turnover rapidly. So you could get newspapers, right, you could do rapid typesetting. 

Asher Miller  

Sure. 

Jason Bradford  

And so suddenly, that’s a big deal.

Asher Miller 

I mean, yes, there’s been these technological advances have allowed us to disseminate information, more broadly, more of it. But obviously, what you know, we’re really talking about something different now with with the internet.

Rob Dietz  

It’s gotten to the point of stupidity with stuff like podcasts.

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, yeah. I mean, it was like 100 years ago, radio started taking off or something, right. It hasn’t been that long  even where you can have broadcast radio, right? It’s just shocking. 

Asher Miller  

You know, maybe I’ve even talked about this on the podcast before, but my dad was born in 1945. And he was somebody who just had a mind for science from a very early age. He was born that way.  Incredible curiosity, loved science. He would get to go to the library on  a weekly basis and check out science books, you know. And then he would look forward every week to listen to this one half hour long radio show that was a science show, right? So he would have to wait every week to listen for half an hour and he was talking to me – my dad was actually very involved in the growth of the internet. And he was just talking to me about how miraculous it was that my kids could follow their curiosity and find anything they wanted whenever in it. And it’s true. There’s like this incredible gain in terms of our access to information. But there’s another side to it. This competition for our time,.

Rob Dietz  

And think about your dad waiting for that show, and what thoughts he might have been processing or coming up with in that intervening time. Like, that’s something that you know. . .  Instead now I’m like Watching 12 Youtube videos, asking some Professor something over email, going all over the place where, I don’t know, it’s an interesting comparison.

Jason Bradford  

When I was in college, I spent three weeks trying to sell encyclopedias door to door. Like physical. They used to be actually books that were printed out. There were like 30 of them. 

Rob Dietz  

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Asher Miller  

My family had the Encyclopedia Britannica Collection. And I used to sit when I was bored,  I would sit you know, on the ground in the living room. I would grab whatever was there, N through M, you know, and sit there and just flip through. 

Rob Dietz  

I feel like we’ve talked about this because I had the Britannica as well. And my friend had the World Book. Which you to go look at the world book because it had color plates of dogs and flags, and the human circulatory system and stuff. God we’re such nerds.

Asher Miller  

We are nerds and old.

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, yeah. But maybe there is something about that flipping of pages and randomly finding stuff you weren’t thinking about. You happen to be perusing. Or the tactileness of it, or the ability that you had to seek it out, you know, the extra effort involved. And you just wonder if that that makes that information a little more salient to you? 

Asher Miller  

Or sticky?

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, make it sticky,

Asher Miller  

Well let’s just take a quick second and just think about the scale of information that we now have access to, and what people are spending their time doing now in this age of the internet.

Jason Bradford  

They’re listening to us. Thank God.

Asher Miller  

They just tuned out.

Rob Dietz  

9.3 billion people listen to Crazy Town, every episode.

Asher Miller  

More people than exist. So just a couple quick stats here. In 2019, so a couple years ago, this is probably ballooned since then. 

Jason Bradford  

Oh, yeah. 

Asher Miller  

How much time do you think the average person on earth – This is global, right – spent on social media? 

Rob Dietz  

I love these game show questions. Per day?

Asher Miller  

Per day. 

Rob Dietz  

Okay, per day, each person on earth spent 12 years on average. . . 

Asher Miller  

You’re good at math, Rob. You’re great at math.

Jason Bradford  

Well, this is hard because I don’t know how many people are on social media. Maybe half the planets on social media. And yeah, those might span out over 4 billion people on the internet now. Close to 4 billion have mobile phones. Most of those are have access to social media. An hour? 

Asher Miller  

It’s 153 minutes a day.

Jason Bradford  

That’s too much. That’s just too much.

Rob Dietz  

That is a that is a big chunk of time.

Asher Miller  

That’s 60% more then in 2013, right? So it’s just growing. 

Jason Bradford  

In 2013 it was an hour.

Asher Miller  

It’s not like they have more time in the day. It’s not like, we’re now at 26 hours, 27 hours in a day.

Rob Dietz  

I feel like that would make me 153 minutes dumber per day. I don’t know. Is that too harsh? 

Asher Miller  

You’re pretty dumb to begin with.

Rob Dietz  

I am. But I feel like, the more time I spend, I end up watching stuff like near death experience.

Jason Bradford  

I’m not going to quiz you and make you look stupid like Asher did. I’m just gonna run through some additional stats that are “Wow” .

Asher Miller  

Please. 

Jason Bradford  

Okay. Every minute, 200 million emails are sent. It’s kind of old fashioned technology now, but that’s still a lot.

Rob Dietz  

I just sent 150 million.

Asher Miller  

Just to me.

Jason Bradford  

4.7 million videos are watched on YouTube every minute.

Rob Dietz  

I feel like a solid contributor there as well.

Jason Bradford  

And 4.2 million Google searches happen every minute.

Asher Miller  

Those are all people like, “Is this little spot on my on my hand cancer?” Is that the kind of thing people are searching for?

Rob Dietz  

It is pretty incredible how how quickly that’s arisen. And how many people use it. And and I mean, I don’t want to sit here and just say it’s it’s all bad, right? I mean, or that obviously it’s competing for your attention. But there are a lot of cool aspects to it. The ability to find out something, learn something, learn a skill. So it’s like, everything. It’s such a mixed bag of is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Asher Miller  

One of the things that’s not talked a lot about in our circles, or enough about I would say, is you sometimes hear people talking about the information age and you know, if everything is done using the internet, the internet of things, we can get more efficient. We can use less resources, the economy will switch from being all about, you know, material throughput to other things.

Rob Dietz  

That’s my favorite, the materialist information economy.

Asher Miller 

Someday, if you want to hear me rant we’ll talk about you know, Rifkin and his – 

Jason Bradford  

Let’s go to a data center and talk about that.

Asher Miller

So not only are people spending all their time uploading videos, watching videos, tweeting, doing all this stuff. But all this stuff gets stored, and then it gets duplicated in places. So I was trying to look up how much data is actually stored out there, you know, and how is that changed?

Jason Bradford  

How much data are stored?

Asher Miller  

Sorry. How much data are stored.

Rob Dietz  

The grammar police have spoken. Or has spoken?

Asher Miller  

I’m gonna throw some terms at you that I bet are new to you. And maybe to our listeners. Okay? So PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that there were 4.4 zettabytes of data in 2019. And that number will grow to 175 zettabytes by 2025. So in less than five years.

Jason Bradford  

So does this have anything to do with Catherine Zeta Jones?

Asher Miller  

Yes, that’s that’s it. New unit of measurement.

Rob Dietz  

Got it. Thanks.

Rob Dietz  

I think a zettabyte. . . Yeah, I mean, it’s got to be bigger than a gigabyte, obviously, but no idea what that is.

Jason Bradford  

There are terabytes. Are terabytes bigger than gigabytes?

Rob Dietz  

I think so. 

Asher Miller

Terabytes are bigger than gigabyters. Okay, so I’ll tell you. A zettabyte is only 1.1 trillion gigabytes.

Jason Bradford  

Okay, so that means 1.1 billion terabytes, I think.

Rob Dietz  

You lost me at a trillion. I don’t even know how big that number is. 

Asher Miller  

I know. It’s impossible.

Jason Bradford  

It’s just an economic stimulus package. 

Rob Dietz  

Right, right.

Asher Miller  

It would take you about 2 billion years –

Rob Dietz  

You lost me billion.

Asher Miller  

– to download 175 zettabytes.

Rob Dietz  

Oh, oh, is that all? 2 billion years? Yeah, good. I’m glad that I’ll be uploaded to the Cloud so that I can complete that task.

Asher Miller  

So the point of that is not just the sheer amount, of course, you know, and our listeners will know this. That it actually does take real resources in the real world to store, right? I mean, people talk about the cloud. It’s not literally some data floating in the clouds in our atmosphere. This is like real physical shit being stored somewhere.

Jason Bradford  

I wonder if the sun is still gonna be yellow in 2 billion years?

Rob Dietz  

Right, I’ll be a gas giant. 

Asher Miller  

Start downloading and you’ll find out. 

Rob Dietz  

There’s actual crossover here with the whole energy blindness idea, right? Like we sort of think the information economy, I’m using the air quotes now, is some magical thing that doesn’t require any resources. And you’re exactly right, that much data requires a lot of resources,

Jason Bradford  

Once you get into the zettabyte realm. Yeah, there’s resources.

Asher Miller  

Yeah. And, of course, we could talk, we could spend a lot of time talking about, you know, the real world, you know, impacts of the information age, but again, the reason I bring this all up is that all that data is competing for our attention, competing for our focus. And there’s a real consequence of that. And it’s not – 

Jason Bradford  

Will you hurry and get to the point then please?

Asher Miller  

Okay, I’m getting to the point.

Rob Dietz  

You’re gonna lay some consequences on us.

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, don’t beat around the bush.

Asher Miller

I’m gonna treat you like my kids. You know, people have actually been warning about this. There’s a guy named Michael Goldhaber, who’s a theoretical physicist. He’s still around. He lives in the Bay Area somewhere. Back in 1997, a long time ago. Many, many, many moons ago. He was actually warning about what would happen with all this information. And all these competing things looking for our attention on the internet. It’s really fascinating when you look back at the things he talked about because a lot of what he was warning about totally came to fruition. Just in terms of like thinking about the power dynamics and things that people will resort to capture our attention, to get our focus.

Rob Dietz  

Like put you in a headlock and say, “Look at this, look at it!”

Jason Bradford  

Give ’em a noogie.

Rob Dietz  

Well, you can go even a lot further back than the 1997. If you go to the super dark ages, like around the time the three of us were born in the early 70’s. Or sorry, Jason, Summer of ’69. So if you go back there, you actually had an economist named Herbert Simon who coined the term, Attention Economy. And he actually was a good coiner of terms. Is that, uh, did I just coin that term?

Jason Bradford  

It’s called a meme. 

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, he came up with the idea of satisficing. Meaning, when you have so much so many choices and so many things vying for your attention, you kind of use this process of sort of mixing up a satisfaction with something that suffices. You don’t always get to the best selection. So anyway, this guy, he came up with this stuff, and I want to read you guys a quote, if I may. 

Jason Bradford  

Okay. 

Rob Dietz  

Okay. He says, “in an information rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else. A scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. And a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” So that’s a little bit, what would we call it? Like Byzantine, weaving around. 

Jason Bradford  

Well, he wrote that in a time when people could actually follow the train of thought.

Asher Miller  

Those are big words. 

Jason Bradford  

Like back then you could actually – right now it’s like a TLDR like on that quote. 

Asher Miller  

Yeah. Actually, I have to tell you. Like on the Post Carbon site, when we post articles or things in there, we’ve got a tool that that helps us try to figure out what’s going to make it most optimized for search engine searches. And this tool, this little plug in tells us, you know, it gives us a score rating, it’s actually smiley faces. So we’re constantly getting these very red frowny face. Why? Because our sentences are too long. And our words are too complex.

Rob Dietz  

We don’t speak like advertisers. 

Asher Miller  

Exactly.

Jason Bradford  

I have a friend who used to work for USA Today. And he basically he’s like, “we screwed this all up. We wrote to the fifth grade level, right? And people loved it. Short articles.” 

Asher Miller  

Think about Trump. Trump’s success is like talking to people at a second grade level.  Really, I mean, short sentences, just these tweets in all caps.

Rob Dietz  

So really, what we got to say is when information goes up, attention goes down. Is that what Simon was saying? 

Jason Bradford  

Interesting. Now, I remember, you know, walking through – I try not to do this anymore. It’s depressing. Sometimes I have to. But you go to like a major grocery store, and you walk through the checkout line. And there’s those those rag like world news or whatever that have like –

Rob Dietz  

the Enquirer?

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, yeah. Like, you know – 

Rob Dietz  

Tabloids? You’re talking about tabloids?

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, like Elvis is still alive, someone has an alien baby. You know, this sort of stuff. And so there’s this weird form also of trying to like just be sensationalist to grab your attention. Right? So that’s been out there, too. That’s that’s a tactic.

Rob Dietz  

I never even see them. I just see the Mentos and the M&Ms.

Asher Miller  

So what you’re talking about, Jason, is that’s example of sensationalism. And I think your point is that that’s been around for a while. 

Jason Bradford  

Yes.

Asher Miller  

But definitely happening on the internet. With more competition for people’s attention. More sensationalistic. And I was just talking about that with Trump.

Jason Bradford  

Outlandish stuff sells.

Rob Dietz  

Right? A clickbait is the new tabloid, right? It sends you to these articles that are ridiculous.

Jason Bradford  

So you got you got to write to the second grade level. And you’ve got to just tell outlandish, mostly fabricated stories in order to get through anymore. Right? We’re screwed up. How’s this show going to go anywhere?

Asher Miller  

There’s another thing? I think it’s a consequence that I find fascinating and worrisome. And I think maybe a bit under the radar. Which is, you guys familiar with the sort of the 80-20 rule?

Jason Bradford  

Yes. 

Rob Dietz  

No?

Asher Miller  

So maybe you can explain, Jason?

Jason Bradford 

No, I can’t remember.

Asher Miller  

So the 80-20 rule is just the idea that it’s like –

Jason Bradford  

80% 20%.

Asher Miller  

Yeah, well, 20% of the things out there get 80% of the attention. 

Jason Bradford  

Yep. That’s what I meant.

Rob Dietz  

I like how we just caught Jason in a pretending to know moment. 

Jason Bradford  

Well, I heard about it, but I didn’t feel I’d be articulate.

Asher Miller  

So my point is, I actually think it’s more like a 99 to 1.

Jason Bradford  

99% to 1%?

Asher Miller

Yeah, so think about it. You see these trends on the internet. You see them with podcasting. You see them with, I actually think with book sales. Where 1% of what’s out there is actually commanding 99% of the sales attention. And partly it’s that there’s so much more that’s out there. Right? So, so many more books are being published because you could self publish now.

Jason Bradford  

Not enough podcasts, though.

Rob Dietz  

So many podcasts, you know, growing by leaps and bounds. But only like 1% of the podcasts are getting this disproportionate amount of attention. And what then happens is, and actually Goldhaber really warned about this is that you get a consolidation of power. When there’s competition for the scarce resource, which is attention, and there’s so much power in capturing that attention, it tends to be that the people that hold power figure out a way to maintain that power. Yeah, I mean, and you’re actually seeing that now as we’re talking about podcasting. You got Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama launching a new podcast.

Jason Bradford  

Entering our space!

Rob Dietz  

Well, so I mean, I have a friend who, he has a lament that in the 80’s and 90’s, he called himself a mid-level author. Meaning, he was writing books and he actually got a reasonable salary for doing that and he can’t do it anymore because of this this consolidation. It’s like the superstars all write the books and  make all the money and get all the readers, and so his books can’t achieve that level. And he doesn’t feel like he’s had a drop in quality or anything. It’s just a structural change in the in the way information is delivered.

Jason Bradford  

I can’t even break through now as an Instagram influencer.

Rob Dietz  

Yes, that’s right. Instagram –

Asher Miller  

You need to use filters better.

Jason Bradford  

Okay, thank you. I need some feedback. 

Rob Dietz  

You are lacking compared to Cristiano Ronaldo. You know how many Instagram followers – 

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, you have to tell me who that is? 

Rob Dietz  

Oh, good god. Okay, Ronaldo is one of the best soccer players in the world. 

Jason Bradford  

So, he’s like the Roger Federer of soccer?

Asher Miller  

Some people would say he is the best.

Rob Dietz  

I know. Some would even say greatest of all time. But yeah, he’s a very suave, good looking soccer player who scores a lot of goals. He can kick balls really hard.

Jason Bradford  

Okay. Can he – how’s his serve? 

Rob Dietz  

You know, I don’t know. This is not a tennis podcast. 

Rob Dietz  

Okay, okay.

Rob Dietz  

So how many – let’s go back game show style. How many followers does he have on Instagram?

Jason Bradford  

More than I do?

Rob Dietz  

Yes. He He has 205 million followers. 

Jason Bradford  

It’s like the population of Indonesia.

Rob Dietz  

I think there’s only four countries with more people in them. Like, maybe Indonesia.

Asher Miller  

So if he ran for like president of the planet. He could probably win. 

Rob Dietz  

He’s got he’s got a good start. Yeah, yeah. So you know, you talk about the ability of somebody like that, who’s good at kicking balls. He’s like super influential. Whereas, you know, you got you got other people whose ideas you really want to get out there. Like in this podcast we’ve talked about Herman Daly, who’s one of the –

Jason Bradford  

Oh, yes, he got a good account? 

Rob Dietz  

You know, he’s one of the founders that –

Asher Miller

You should see the way Herman poses on Instagram. He’s always showing off his bling.

Rob Dietz  

He can kick in economic theory really hard. I mean, he’s one of the founders of ecological economics. He’s written some good books on it.  I think he’s influenced people who know of him and find his stuff, but he has exactly zero followers on Instagram.

Jason Bradford  

He needs to learn how to use hashtags. 

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, right.

Jason Bradford  

Well, I think you know, what’s interesting is like, we talked about the supernormal stimuli of the modern world. And – 

Rob Dietz  

That just reminded me of a Ronaldo picture when you said that supernormal stimuli. So, Ronaldo got a bronze statue put up of him a few years back. So there was a bronze statue on the college campus I went to of Benjamin Franklin and he’s sitting on a bench. And all the people who walked by the bench, they like rub him on the head. And so you know, bronze when you rub it it gets like polished. So Benjamin Franklin’s head is brighter than the rest of the sculpture. So this Ronaldo statue has a really big bulge in the pelvis area. I mean, if you Google it like Ronaldo statue.

Asher Miller  

We just lost all of our listeners because their attention just got diverted.

Jason Bradford  

They’re all like checking out the –

Asher Miller  

One of the 4.2 million searches happening.

Rob Dietz  

This is why Ronaldo has 205 million followers. 

Jason Bradford  

After our episode he’ll have 205 million and one.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, but his statue, the bulge is actually polished from all the people touching and rubbing it in their photo opportunity.

Jason Bradford  

Let me tell you what that’s about all right. It’s a cup. They wear a cup. It protects the jewels. Okay, so, yes. Okay, good. 

Rob Dietz  

So back to you and your supernormal stimuli, Jason. Sorry for that aside.

Jason Bradford  

You hijacked my discussion item with supernormal stimuli.

Rob Dietz  

I was actually a good example. I was competing for your attention. 

Jason Bradford  

Yes. But that’s the deal is like, you know, there is a wanderlust in humans, there’s a desire to seek novelty. Our dopamine system, you know, rewards system gets can get kind of bored in a sense. It can get weak. The same thing doesn’t give us the same kick again, right? We can habituate. And so we look for new things to kind of get our jollies. And I think nowadays, boy, it’s easy to do that compared to the past. So I thought it was going on as we’re just like, getting amped up on, “Well, I’ve seen enough of that. I’m gonna go see, look at this,” and you just move…

Asher Miller  

There’s a positive feedback loop that happens with that which is in a in a landscape where it’s harder and harder to get attention because there’s so much information and noise. And that competition. That people will revert to things that trigger that dopamine rush, right? That novelty seeking. It could be sex, it could be violence, it could play on fear, it could play on desire, it could do whatever. But it’s going to this very base part of ourselves. That gets the attention. And then, because they see the success of that, others are competing and using those same techniques. So you have this positive feedback loop, where there’s more of that happening that gets more and more rewarded, that creates more of that competition within that space. And we essentially get dumber, right?

Rob Dietz  

I think what you’re talking about, Asher, is there’s a flip side to it. I mean, there’s this habit forming thing, right, that you’re talking about where you’re after this dopamine hits, and you’re avoiding boredom because you go to the next video, you go to the next social media post, whatever it is. Sometimes it even, you know, does it automatically for you, like –

Asher Miller  

Oh yeah, it’ll happily do that for you. It’ll play forever. 

Rob Dietz  

You got an infinite set of possibilities to look at. So you no longer have to deal with boredom. You might think, “Oh, that’s a good thing.” But I think there’s a downside because it’s in those moments of boredom and quiet, especially for kids, that you come up with the most imaginative thing. Like that’s where games are born. That’s where ideas about how the world works are born. And, and I think if you don’t have that space, you have a lot less creativity. 

Asher Miller  

Creativity and critical thinking, I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of boredom from that standpoint. Or time to ruminate. I mean, right? Think about Albert Einstein, Theory of Relativity. If Albert Einstein was born in this period . . . 

Rob Dietz  

He’d just be watching cat videos.

Asher Miller  

I mean, that may be not fair.

Jason Bradford  

“How does the cat land on it’s feet all the time?”

Asher Miller  

It could be that Albert Einstein would be exposed at a younger age to information that would have led to you know, who knows. But yeah, it’s scary to think that without creating space for new ideas, we don’t have critical thinking and we don’t have creative thinking. We’re sort of locked into this reinforcing cycle.

Jason Bradford  

Yes. And we’re getting hijacked with stimuli that are more and more extreme. So then you get this problem of anhedonia. Right, where people like, they have a hard time feeling pleasure anymore because they’re just they’ve been jacked up so much. It’s almost like withdrawing from drugs if you take this away. So I think there’s a lot of health impacts that happen where you can’t keep your head on straight because you’re constantly getting distracted. So there’s an anticipation that happens where you’re almost like, expecting during the day to get the stimulation out of the unanticipated reward. Where at some point, the phone needs to go off, there needs to be an alert that says, oh, I’ve got a new like to my post, or I got a phone call, I got a new email. That constant interrupting, like what you’re saying, the ability to stay in kind of a flow state, or to just ruminate. And maybe we don’t even know how to do that. But I think not being able to do that any more then keeps us in a state of kind of stress where we’re going to have cortisol and adrenaline in our body more than it should be. 

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, we’re dealing with too much stimuli. And you can’t possibly get to all the things that are competing for your attention.

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, you have email inboxes like Asher that are out of control. 

Asher Miller  

Yeah, no. Guilty. Everyone should feel bad.

Rob Dietz  

Well, you can get real world injuries from this too, like texting while driving wasn’t a problem in Albert Einstein’s day now was it? I mean, driving might not even been around much. But yeah, it’s. . . 

Asher Miller  

 And it does have . . .I mean, you were just talking about this, Jason. It does have a real impact on people’s productivity as well. There’s some interesting studies that have been done. Looking at the impact of interruption and stimulus, some kind of distraction coming in on productivity. And this one group of researchers, they said that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after having been interrupted

Rob Dietz  

I’m so glad I didn’t interrupt you because it would have taken us 23 minutes to get back to where you can finish that thought.

Asher Miller  

I mean, when I first heard that number, I was like, what does that possibly mean? So here’s here’s what they’re getting at: and in the example that they gave, I thought was an interesting one, which was, you know, if you’re sitting working on a task at your computer, like let’s say the office, remember when people used to do that they’re actually in an office?

Rob Dietz  

What’s an office?

Asher Miller

. . . and somebody came in to get your signature on something. That’s not going to take you 23 minutes to get back to what you were doing before, right? Because it’s not something that’s fully taking your attention away, reorienting it to a completely different project. 

Rob Dietz  

Like if I came in and said, “Asher, look at this near death experience video.” Now it’s going to take an hour . . . 

Asher Miller

That would really take – so you’re completely shifting your focus. I mean, there are things you could do, you could do dishes, you can multitask on some level if it’s using maybe different parts of your brain, you know. But if you’re focused on a task, you have to take that focused attention, and shift it to another completely different project or task, it can take a very long time to get back into that flow of focus with the original task, you know. And think about how many times we get interrupted every day. So we think that the internet and modern technology are making us more efficient, more productive, but that’s not necessarily true. The frog is really disagreeing with me.

Rob Dietz  

I’m gonna go silence the frog.

Jason Bradford  

Just gotta wave at it maybe.

Asher Miller  

Well, while Rob does that, let me circle back to why I wanted to bring this up, you know, as a hidden driver topic for why we’re going crazy. And I think the big thing here is really that this diminished capacity for us to focus keeps us from being able to concentrate collectively on what really matters, right? Right.

Rob Dietz  

I’m sorry, this is gonna be an attention grabbing thing. I just deflated manually, very gently, the throat bubble of a Pacific treefrog.

Jason Bradford  

It’s only the male that calls and the males are smaller than the females.

Rob Dietz  

They’re right there on the window sill. There was a male and a female. 

Jason Bradford  

Do you know what it’s called when the male clasps the female in the mating ritual?

Rob Dietz  

It’s called Ronaldo.

Jason Bradford  

It’s called amplexus. Wow. And they do that. Theey spend a long time together, usually at night,  near water.

Rob Dietz  

Here we are really competing for people’s attention with factoids now. This is good. 

Asher Miller  

You guys are proving my point with this episode.

Rob Dietz  

I am sorry.

Jason Bradford  

I love Pacific Tree Frogs though. They’re great. They are.

Asher Miller  

So what I was saying –

Jason Bradford  

Oh, you were saying?

Asher Miller  

When you, Rob, wandered off to touch frogs was that this has, I think, some really significant and somewhat hidden implications for what’s brought us to Crazy Town and how we’re going to get out of Crazy Town. And that is that with so much of our attention, and our focus, being splintered and pulled in all of these different directions, that keeps us from concentrating, collectively, in particular, on what really, really matters.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, I think a clear example of that, it’s why we haven’t done anything about climate change over the last 40 or 50 years. And even the people who were able to cast doubt on the science, they were using this attention dividing techniques to get us to doubt that it was even a problem. But you know, if you’re spending all your time worrying, or looking at what this celebrity is doing, or what this video is showing, you may not be paying attention to what really requires the attention. 

Asher Miller  

Yeah. And in the collective piece to me is, I think, a really important piece of it. And not only is this scarce attention economy, this competitive attention economy, keeping maybe us as individuals being less productive or less focused on things that really matter. It’s the collective piece of it. It’s so hard to get – not even a consensus view on what’s important, but a critical mass of attention and focus on things. And we’re actually seeing, even in the world of social media, these pretty worrisome trends where there are these researchers in Europe who sort of looked at Twitter hashtags, you know, in the top trending hashtags, and in just a period of three years, from 2016 to 2019, the amount of time like a trending hashtag spent – and those are oftentimes things that people sort of view as collectively important. You know, sometimes it might be Cristiano Ronaldo. But oftentimes, it’s  meaningful, important things.

Jason Bradford  

Wait, you’re saying that hashtags aren’t getting the lifelong jeopardy they deserve…

Asher Miller  

I know you’re feeling bad about it, but  I just mean in three years it’s gone downfrom 19 hours to 13 hours. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot – 

Jason Bradford  

But I get the point. I’m being silly, of course. 

Rob Dietz  

Well, and think about a really important issue like I remember a few years ago. You know, anybody that’s keeping track of things in the world of conservation and biodiversity knows that species are taking a beating. And everybody was concerned. But then a few years ago you saw a news story about pollinators and insect populations crashing. And that  like, you know, instead of a predator at the top of the pyramid, you’re talking about base of the pyramid stuff.

Jason Bradford  

So like #insectageddon or whatever, does not trend very long anymore.

Rob Dietz  

Well and it’s like barely a blip in the United States. You know, it doesn’t even last for one news cycle. 

Jason Bradford  

Okay.

Asher Miller  

I mean, it’s hard enough to get attention at all on these existentially important things. But then even if you’re able to get attention put on it it just goes away.

Jason Bradford  

Okay, but hold the fort for a second, guys. Because this runs counter to stories we’ve heard from people who like, you know, believe that the greatest resource is human mind, and that, you know. If we just had a billion Americans, for example, we could just solve more problems, right? Because we have more minds to solve problems with.

Asher Miller

More people more problems. 

Jason Bradford  

More people, more problems, more people to solve problems, but what you’re making it sound like is that we’re actually not solving any problems. We’re just watching cat videos, and Ronaldo’s junk.

Rob Dietz  

It’s like you have to question the time that we freed up . . . what exactly are we using that for? 

Jason Bradford  

Right. Okay, so  I think you’re saying like, we’re suddenly like this society where we don’t have to toil in the fields. Right? And so now, we can think. We can learn. We can listen to our Baby Einstein videos – do people do that anymore? 

Rob Dietz  

I don’t know.

Jason Bradford  

Okay. But, no. What’s the point of having these special minds if we just ruin them? You know?

Asher Miller  

It is a funny irony. Funny, like, not really funny. But that fossil fuels and modern technology freed us from toil – Many of us, not all of us – many of us from hard toil labor. And what are we doing with it? 

Rob Dietz  

Yeah. Well, I put in some hard labor on that treefrog over there. But yeah, it’s kind of amazing that we have so many choices and we choose what we do choose. I look at myself and get kind of like, what did I just spend that hour on? I do think though, this has been an issue in the past where – maybe this is a bit of a paradox. But you know, people have always come up with creative ideas. I mean, you know, even people that are watching cat videos today have good ideas. But like, Jason, when you were working the fields, let’s say you were doing this a few 100 years ago, I think you would have been thinking about big things. You would have been considering, whatever, planetary motion, or something. You could have come up with some great ideas. 

Jason Bradford  

Oh, my god. You’re right. I mean, somebody could have. But you’re out there doing physical labor. And your mind is actually free in many ways. It’s almost like like doing the dishes. Okay, for people who aren’t working, just you’re doing like chores, you’re vacuuming, you’re doing dishes, you can think about all kinds of things. Because it’s not a highly cognitive tasking activity, right? So I think you’re right. Just because you’re working physically all day long doesn’t mean you aren’t thinking about interesting things.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, yeah. And I mean, one of the kind of, I guess, advantages of the internet age is you can share that widely, without a lot of cost to you as an individual. I…

Asher Miller  

I think that you can share wisely. But you when you enter into it, there are all of these temptations that keep you from, from spending your time even coming up with those ideas in the first place. You know, it’s very much a double edged sword. 

Jason Bradford  

We all think about the fact that the energy that is underpinning this modern lifestyle we have. The high energy modernity, as we’ve talked about before in our show. That’s waning, and this is all energy hogging zettabytes. And maybe people are going to need to have to spend more time actually thinking about taking care of their basics. And that doesn’t mean they can’t think and have great ideas and share them. But you just wonder, are we gonna get weaned off of this sort of supernormal stimuli? What’s that going to be like for us I wonder? Are we going to go through some kind of withdrawal symptoms as a culture?

Rob Dietz  

You could name this the age of the waning and the weaning?

Jason Bradford  

Hashtag that baby.

Asher Miller  

Stay tuned for our George Costanza Memorial Do the Opposite Segment where we discuss things we can do to get the hell out of Crazy Town.

Jason Bradford  

You don’t have to just listen to the three of us blather on anymore.

Rob Dietz  

We’ve actually invited someone intelligent on the program to provide inspiration. Hey, Jason, Asher, we’ve got a really good review this week I want to share with you. This is off of iTunes from Thunderzilla. That’s a listener of ours, a real name. Thunderzilla. 

Jason Bradford  

I’m glad we’re on their good side.

Rob Dietz  

You don’t wanna join me on the bad side of Thunderzilla. So, Thunderzilla says, “I’ve learned so much while simultaneously laughing and crying. So often I feel like I’m the one who’s crazy. But these three confirm I’m not the crazy one. It’s everyone else in their fossil fuel guzzling climate change denying behaviors that are crazy.”

Asher Miller  

So for a second there I thought they were gonna say, I’m not the one that’s crazy, these guys are crazy, right? I’m very relieved to hear that. It’s a, uh yeah, it’s the rest of the world. 

Jason Bradford  

Well, I’m glad we could feed into their confirmation bias.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, I like that they say that we confirm this for them. Yeah, it’s a total confirmation bias. So anyone else looking to have your biases confirmed? Come listen to us. And please, in a moment of sincerity, do go out and rate and review us. We’d really appreciate that, and maybe we’ll read your review on a forthcoming episode.

George Costanza  

Every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.

Jerry Seinfeld

If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

Asher Miller  

Okay, guys, so what should we recommend to our listeners as a do the opposite?

Jason Bradford  

Well, this is clear and easy. And this is the most important thing is . . .  immediately everybody, cancel subscriptions to all podcasts except ours. 

Rob Dietz  

Right, right. Yeah, maybe maybe just cancel everything? 

Asher Miller

No, no. Keep ours. You can keep listening to us. No, I was thinking that there are techniques to limit interruptions. If you really, and I struggle with this myself, but if you focus on creating sort of containers and boundaries for yourself. So limit, how often you check your email at certain times a day. Really scheduling your time and think about blocking out for things and then turning off distractions when you’re trying to especially do things that require sort of a higher level of critical thinking, that require more concentration.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah. And I hate to go the tech-route. But sometimes there are apps that can help you. I remember when I was working on writing a book, and I needed to stay away from the internet for a while, I had this app that I could set a timer where it would not allow me to get on the internet until that time expired. It was really useful.

Asher Miller  

I think we should up it  a little bit and create an app that actually gives people like a shock, right?

Jason Bradford  

Yeah.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, just comes right out of the keyboard. No, I think that’s pretty, pretty cool. Although sort of hard to do. I like the idea of sort of a container for email, but I just tried to think in a workday how hard that might be for some people.

Asher Miller  

Yeah, it’s obviously depends on what your situation is. But yeah, but I find for myself, and like I said, I’m not very good at this. But I am much more productive when I actually turn my email off for certain periods of time. Because I see those notifications pop up and find it very difficult not to get sucked in. Especially when it seems like oh, this might be timely. That’s why I didn’t actually respond to your email about your car on the Saturday.

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, well at least the tow truck did. So you know . . .  

Rob Dietz  

Well, I think another do the opposite. And this should be a healthy thing for everybody – Is to put down the phone, put down the video, put the screen away, whatever, and get out in nature, spend time in the outdoors. 

Jason Bradford  

Forest bathing.

Asher Miller 

It’s true. Actually, studies have shown that being in nature actually provides restoration to cognitive functions that has an actual impact on people’s brains, you know, and their ability to do higher level cognitive functions once they’ve been in nature even or looked at nature.

Jason Bradford  

I think it’s something about, there’s stimulation in nature, but it tends not to be of the kind that’s overstimulating. So it’s almost like a Goldilocks level of experiences you get.

Rob Dietz  

Unless you get attacked by an alligator, or something.

Asher Miller  

Or a bear if we’re talking about Goldilocks.

Rob Dietz  

Right, right. I guess that was the obvious. I need to go spend some time in nature so I can think more clearly.

Jason Bradford  

But I think the artificialness of our lives, like we live in these houses, or these offices, when we used to go to offices, or whatever. These these sort of phony environments where you’re not feeling the wind you’re not feeling the temperature extremes, you’re not feeling the sun directly on you, you’re not getting senses of smell, you’re not seeing the complex patterns of foliage. It’s like, there’s not the right normal amount of stimulation. And then what we do is we put ourselves in front of screens or listen with our earphones where we’re getting supernormal stimuli. So it’s this weird thing for our brain where I think we evolved in nature, and I think it provides kind of this like balanced stimulation. 

Rob Dietz  

It’s especially bad when I’m watching YouTube and snorting pixie sticks. That’s really bad. 

Asher Miller

On the nature front, not only is it restorative for people. They’ve actually done studies looking at group dynamics and abilities for groups to find consensus or to come up with creative solutions. And they’ve studied groups in an artificial environment and groups in nature, like just sitting around together outside. And they found that actually being outside in nature as a group, making decisions or discussing issues, is more productive.

Rob Dietz  

That’s why those biosphere projects failed. They were not really in nature. They were in the bubble. Well, I think we should lay down a little bit of a challenge, rather than just say, go out in nature. How about for every hour, or any amount of time that you spend on the screen for, say, just entertainment or frivolous pursuit, you have to spend an equal amount of time in nature?

Jason Bradford  

So you take the 153 minutes you spend on social media, and then the two and a half hours you spend like watching videos, and you add that together. That’s about five hours.

Asher Miller  

So you’re telling me I have to be out outside from 9pm to 4am every night? 

Rob Dietz  

Yes, this is what we need to do.

Jason Bradford  

Oh, crap.

Asher Miller  

Alright, I’ll do it if you guys do. 

Rob Dietz  

I’m in.

Jason Bradford  

Alright, I’ll see you tonight.

Rob Dietz  

See ya at the creek.

Asher Miller  

Jenny Odell is an artist, a writer and an educator whose multidisciplinary work often stems from close observation, and explores how attention or the lack of it leads to real shifts in everyday perceptions. In 2019, she wrote “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” which is a wonderfully written and helpful resource for those of us struggling with a question how to spend our time meaningfully. And helpfully, her work can be found at JennyOdell.com. Jenny, thanks for joining us in Crazy Town.

Jenny Odell  

Thanks so much for having me.

Asher Miller  

So on this season of the podcast, we’re talking about hidden drivers that are moving us to the precipice of environmental and social breakdown, or keeping us from acting collectively in ways that actually help. In this episode, Rob, Jason, and I talked about some of the higher level and kind of the collective role that exponential growth in demands for our attention are having on where we’ve landed, which we like to call Crazy Town. And in our do the opposite segment, we encourage listeners to use tools to better manage their time, to spend more time in nature, which is I know, something that you feel strongly about yourself and do in your own life. And we even challenge them to spend an hour in nature for every hour that they sort of wasted away in social media or online entertainment, which may be too steep a hill to climb, I don’t know. But I just wanted to start, for listeners who aren’t already familiar with your book, if you could just talk a little bit about what you mean by “do nothing.” And and why it’s so important.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah, so I always have to specify that I don’t literally mean doing nothing, like lying on the floor in your home. Although that’s interesting, but –

Asher Miller  

Interesting, maybe for a little while.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah, basically it’s nothing from the point of view of what we typically think of as doing something. So like, having something to show for your time, accruing some sort of value to yourself, or your sort of personal brand. You know, working like this kind of traditional notion of productivity. Doing nothing is basically anything that doesn’t very easily or at all fall into that category. So, like, the easiest example I can give is like going for a walk versus trying to walk somewhere very quickly. Because you just need to get there. And  one of the reasons it’s so hard to define is that I think you can do a lot of the same things in either mindset, and you might not actually be able to tell which one you’re doing. So like, you can do any activity in a really strivy way. Or you can do it in a really kind of enjoyable, contemplative way. I mean, people make their hobbies stressful all the time. So, it’s like, that’s one of the reasons it’s kind of a subtle distinction, but I think it has to do with a sort of a feeling of like, curiosity wandering goalessness. 

Asher Miller  

Yeah. When I mentioned this, to my wife, she’s like, I don’t like to think of that as doing nothing. I think of that as like doing the most important something.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah. And she’s right. I mean, that’s sort of my argument, right? But I think that there’s some use in embracing that in a sort of tongue in cheek way. Like embracing that framing of it. Because it’s just making me think of this – I know this artist who told me that she, I think like every Wednesday or something, she just kind of walks around town, she doesn’t really do anything else, and that she loves it. And it’s very important to her. And that she ran into a friend on one of these walks, and she told her, “Oh, every Wednesday I do this thing.” And her friend has this sort of quasi like disdainful reaction, which was like, “Oh, you must have so much time. You’re wasting time.” And like, so that’s kind of what I’m trying to imagine just being like, yeah, okay, I am, quote- unquote, wasting time, from your perspective. And then trying to imagine a situation where that doesn’t bother you. 

Asher Miller  

Yeah, there’s an intentionality to it. Right? It’s sort of saying, I’m going to have this experience. Maybe I have this experience all the time. But I’m going to do it in a way where there’s intentionally, not an expectation or something on that.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah, I think so. And I mean, there’s also intentionality and setting. I mean, assuming you have the privilege and the ability to do so – like setting aside that time, or even just like making that decision for yourself.

Asher Miller  

Yeah. You’ve talked about what you like to do with your time. I mean, you’re an avid birdwatcher, and I’ve heard you talk about what you even get to experience in terms of nature in an urban environment that you live in, right. But yeah, I guess I’m curious, because for me, the default is thinking about going out into nature. And it’s something that we actually advocate a lot on the show. Because our disconnection from nature is something that we think has profound impact on us as human beings. But not everyone has that luxury, right? So what do you say to people are like, “I can’t experience nature, I’m in this huge urban jungle,” or something like that. How have you dealt with that?

Jenny Odell  

I mean, there’s like a couple of different things to say. I mean, I think that there are a lot of reasons why someone would be not having access, like there are plenty of reasons that someone might not feel comfortable in the outdoors. I have been doing a lot of reading lately about national parks are very white spaces, for example. And so someone might not feel comfortable there. There’s all that kind of thing, right? I feel like in “How to do Nothing” I was a little bit blind about, you know, “the park is a free space,” but there’s a lot of things, like structuring, that limit that. But I would say, I haven’t been to a ton of cities. But I do feel like in many cities  there are sort of signs of life that you can find if you’re looking for them that are super interesting. I’m just thinking of like peregrine falcons, for example, are birds that enjoy cliff areas, and they sort of interpret skyscrapers as cliffs. And so you could be, you know, in San Francisco, downtown, and you might see like a peregrine falcon like hunting. Which is just like insane. You know, they’re like, so fast and just really amazing birds. And even, you know, I read David Sibley, his new book last year, “What it’s Like to be a Bird” I think it’s called. And pigeons are super fascinating. Like, they’re way more fascinating, way smarter than I realized. And even just kind of thinking about and learning about, like, why all of these cave preferring birds are now what we’re used to because that’s how cities are. It’s just really interesting. So I think like even taking the issue of being in a city, and there are the animals that there are there. And like taking that as like a point of interest rather than like, “Oh, it’s so sad that I can’t see, quote-unquote, unadulterated nature” is kind of one way to go about it.

Asher Miller  

And maybe it’s not just nature. It sounds like a lot of this is just being open to observation. and curiosity.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah, and whatever it is that happens to be there. I mean, one thing I feel really strongly about is, I love going to these sort of like really, you know, grandiose places as much as anyone else. Like Yosemite, or, you know, like Kings Canyon. It’s very spectacular, and it’s very memorable. But I think that there’s a risk that people sort of draw a hard line between that and kind of everything else, and particularly their own neighborhoods as these kind of like degraded spaces that are not worthy of your attention. And there’s like nature, and then there’s somehow like, not nature or something. And I actually just wrote an essay recently about just learning about the geology of my neighborhood. And the fact that I live on a hill because there is an underground creek down the street from me. And so the entire shape of my hill is determined by this water that I can’t see because it’s buried. But just knowing that and just doing a little bit of extra work to find out why things are the way they are around you, even if, you know unfortunately, they’re buried or they’re hard to access.

Asher Miller  

Yeah, I think this is probably the toughest thing to do in like suburban America or new development America where there isn’t much history and there’s so much kind of boring, prescriptive urban design that’s been put on place. But in in older cities, I mean, you talked about the typography of where you are, you can peel back layers of why things were built in the way that they were, you know what I mean? And I lived in Amsterdam for a while. And one of the things that that we love to do, and what a lot of people did is just walk around on the streets, and you look in people’s windows. And people had a window – it was kind of like their display window – and it was their way of expressing their personality. And they would do it for people. And there was always something new to discover because people were expressing themselves. We humans are nature too, right? So there’s a lot just to be able to observe in terms of human nature.

Jenny Odell  

Totally. Yeah.

Asher Miller  

So I guess I have two other questions. One is, what are your thoughts about boredom? You know, what would you say about boredom as a valuable thing to experience or not a valuable thing to experience? And how do you cultivate boredom?

Jenny Odell  

Yeah, this is like one of those areas where it’s like, I want to be so careful not to instrumentalize, this idea of doing nothing, right? Which, when I wrote the book, I was like, “I know people are gonna try to turn this into a productivity hack.” So I had to be very careful about this idea, which is that, but I do feel that in my experience, especially as an artist that like boredom is a sensation that comes before something really interesting. Just thinking about a moment of boredom is almost like you don’t know, it’s not obvious what you should be paying attention to. Like nothing is sort of grabbing your attention. Which if you think about it, like that’s an incredibly interesting and like generative state to be in because it means that your attention could kind of go somewhere unexpected. So I think I have, there’s an epigraph in my book, the John Cage quote, “If you try doing something that’s boring . . .” I’m going to totally butcher this quote. Basically, like try to do it two times, then try to do it four times, and try to do it eight times. And then like, eventually, you’ll find that it’s not boring at all. And so I think that, yeah, again, like I don’t want to like put value on it as boredom is like the instrument by which you get somewhere interesting. But I do think that it is an underrated state of being. And that’s very kind of rare now because there’s always things to entertain yourself with.

Asher Miller  

Yeah, I think we’re scared of being bored. Yeah, I think there’s an anxiety that people have.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah. Well, because I think you know, it has to do with right now, there’s always the potential for everything. It’s like, everything could be everything. That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately is like, I’ve been telling myself, like, everything doesn’t have to be everything. And so if you know that you could be doing one on a list of a million things at any particular moment, the idea of not doing any of them, or just wasting time, being bored, was probably always a bit of a –  you know, I don’t know how people felt about boredom in the past. But now I feel like it’s tied up with this anxiety of like, all of the things that you could or should be doing. And I think that in terms of cultivating boredom, I think like cultivating boredom and actually a lot of the other things that I talk about in the book just have to do with like observing yourself and knowing yourself well enough, that you know what kind of conditions and time is required for that. And then you just make sure to try to keep that in your life. It’s easier said than done. And I think it’s really hard during the pandemic because for a lot of people work and non work are all on the computer and maybe in the same room. So now it feels extra arbitrary, but you know, maybe it is a bit easier when that is not the case.

Asher Miller  

I think a lot of it’s just about balance. We can romanticize boredom because it seems like it’s something that few people give themselves anymore. But it does feel like we’re largely imbalances as adults. I think a lot of people feel like they can’t give themselves permission to be bored. You’re talking about the fear of missing out or something, you know? Or what I should be doing. I think for kids, you know, I’ve got two kids and feel like they don’t, they just simply don’t know how to deal with being bored. Because there are devices, there are other things that they could be doing. And I remember – I’m gonna sound like an old crotchety man – But I remember just being out, away from the house for hours and hours, just having to go entertain myself, you know, and the things that gained from that, that I worry that a lot of kids don’t get.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah, one thing in that vein that I get sort of worried about is that is this like capacity to find something interesting about the supposedly boring. I mean, that’s kind of my whole artistic practice is that. And there’s this cartoon by an artist, Ad Reinhardt. It’s like, I think it’s from the 60s. 50s or 60s? And he’s like, pointing out an abstract painting and he says anything like, “Haha, what does this represent?” And then the painting points at him and says like, “What do you represent?” And he like falls over dead because he’s so shocked. And I always show that to my students. And I tell them like, this is how I want you to approach things in this class, but also kind of like how I want them to approach life, which is like, you have to meet it in the middle. You can’t just be like, sitting there waiting to be entertained, like not that that’s what they’re doing. But I think that there is a mindset of, I need to immediately grasp what the point of this thing is, I need to immediately grasp why it’s interesting, or why I should be paying attention to it instead of . . . and if I’m bored, then I will just swipe to the next thing. Instead of like, if I’m bored, maybe I’m not asking the right questions. Or like, if I’m bored, maybe I don’t have the right lens on this. I need to spend like two more minutes interrogating this thing. And you know, maybe the abstract painting isn’t stupid. Maybe I just need to look a little bit more. And so like, I think that’s like one thing I’m really trying to encourage in the book. Just like developing that capacity to ask like a few more questions from a couple of weirder angles. And I think that that’s what to me often comes right after boredom, or right after the potential for boredom.

Asher Miller  

I think there’s another element to this that I’ll give the context of the issues that we work on climate change and other kind of existential threats that we face. I think that I’ve seen a lot and I have this experience myself, which is, there’s either a tendency to completely obsess over those things, and to occupy our attention that way. Or, to look for distractions because we can’t look at it or deal with it. We don’t know how to process it. And so creating space to like, sort of try to do neither of those things is scary because it might have to open us up to really maybe feeling what we feel about those things, or living in a space of not having answers to them. And being not necessarily okay with not having answers, but  some somewhat accepting that this is not controllable completely. Climate change, for example, we can’t control it as individuals ourselves. And I do wonder, you know, part of what we talked about was, with our collective attention being spent on kind of the most sensationalist things, you know, the things that get our dopamine up, and whatever it is, hijack our attention. It keeps us from focusing collectively on the things that really matter, like protecting nature, for example. But maybe the way that we’re engaging with information even, about these issues, keeps us from really being in a place where we can think more creatively, or come to a place where we’re thinking about doing things differently. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah, totally. I think so. I mean, I think it’s like something I’m thinking about a lot with the book I’m working on currently. Which is like in a time of such urgency, it can feel really counterintuitive to try to create and maintain spaces of like playfulness. Like it seems almost perverse, right? Given everything that’s going on. And yet like those are the kinds of situations in which like experimentation flourishes. And like, yeah, as you said, different ways of thinking, different ways of approaching the problem. And then I would also add just like some kind of like emotional processing. Like I recently went on a trip by myself, it was just for a couple days, and it wasn’t kind of looking at the news or anything like that, or social media. And I went birdwatching. This is in Pescadero. And I saw like a couple of dead shorebirds, unexpectedly. And like, I know that that’s happening. I’ve read about it. I have never sort of wandered around and sort of come upon that though. And it was different. I was alone. The feeling of it was very different than when I read a headline that’s upsetting. It was saddening, but it was also saddening in like a whole sort of like whole body, whole person kind of way. Where I just really had to sit there for a while and just have that feeling. And feel like somewhat comforted by like the ocean being right there. And just trying to think about scales of time and what I had just seen. So that to me, I kind of put that in the same category where it’s like, also, there’s just like mourning that needs to be done. And these bigger and more complex kinds of like emotions that to me feel very different than kind of like, quote unquote, doom scrolling feeling,

Asher Miller  

Yeah, I think maybe if there’s a theme that’s common to all of this is just about creating the space, you know. Creating the space to be bored, creating the space to observe things that we may because we’re so busy, we don’t see creating the space to maybe feel things we’re not allowing yourselves to feel. And it does seem like there’s this sort of reinforcing loop where the more these realities are knocking on our door, the harder they are to process, the more compelling it is to look for distractions. And there are people out there, there are cogs in the machine that are actually creating those big systemic risks for us. That are seeking to capture our attention, for profit, you know, that just keeps feeding itself. So somehow we have to break that loop. And I really appreciate the invitation that you  put out to people to step back. And I also really appreciate the focus on doing it in a more practical or everyday level than just a theoretical way of thinking about it.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah, yeah. You know, at the same time that I definitely have to acknowledge that time scarcity is very different for each person. And that’s something I’m kind of, again, trying to work more on in the current book. I do think that there is often at least a little bit of latitude that you have, personally to decide to pay attention to something or not. I think you can admit both. There are these like external circumstances. And also like, the attention economy is quite formidable in terms of like how it’s designed. There are very smart people who are working together for a lot of money to win this chess game against you and your mind. So you can admit all of those things. But you can also – I think that there’s like something really lovely and kind of like simple about that little space where you’re like, “Oh, I actually have a choice there that I didn’t think that I had. And I’m going to exercise that.” And then sometimes it’s the case that you use that as kind of wedge to like pry open this little space, then you have a little bit more, and then you use the wedge some more, and then you have a little bit more, and then maybe you can try to create it for others, and so on.

Asher Miller  

Yeah, I like that. I like that a lot. It’s kind of a rebellious act.

Jenny Odell  

Yeah. In a very small and quiet way sometimes. Yeah.

Asher Miller  

Well, Jenny, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And again, when I encourage people to check out your work at jennyodell.com. Thanks so much.

Jenny Odell  

Thank you.

Jason Bradford  

Thanks for listening to this episode of Crazy Town. 

Asher Miller  

Yeah, if by some miracle, you actually got something out of it, please take a minute and give us a positive rating or leave a review at preferred podcast app.

Rob Dietz  

And thanks to all our listeners, supporters and volunteers, and special thanks to our producer, Melody Travers.

Jason Bradford  

Well, you know, we had a show about attention spans and supernormal stimuli and just how crazy it is nowadays, to just not get drawn in, but there is help. And we got a product this week we’re really proud of: Smart Cones. And I know, Rob, you’ve been –

Asher Miller 

Wait, smartphones?

Jason Bradford  

No, Smart Cones. And I know, Rob, you’ve been trying it. So what’s your experience? Has it helped you? 

Rob Dietz  

Oh, well, help is kind of a big word to use. Let me just describe what happened. So I got them in the mail. I unboxed them. I was filming it just in case to upload it to my YouTube page. And so I get this thing. I get them out of the box. They’re these like little – they almost look like little lampshades – and you set them down on your your table, and the directions say, “slide your hands into these”. And when I did it kind of locked on to my wrist. 

Jason Bradford  

Right.  

Rob Dietz  

And it said, “Speak your time.” And I said, “an hour?”

Jason Bradford  

Oh you said an hour? 

Rob Dietz  

And so these things locked on to my wrist for an hour. And  it was like the cone you put on your dog after it has surgery. I couldn’t type. I couldn’t browse the internet. 

Asher Miller  

Oh my god.

Rob Dietz  

I couldn’t work a mouse or my phone for an hour until these smart cones let go. So I guess they helped in that sense.

Jason Bradford  

Like you go take a walk or something? What did you do for that hour?

Rob Dietz  

I just cried. I cried.

Asher Miller  

The problem is that he actually needed to go the bathroom.

Jason Bradford  

Yeah, how do you wipe? 

Rob Dietz

Oh, I didn’t stop me. I just went. Always comes back to that, doesn’t it? You guys had to take it to where I soiled myself.

Jason Bradford  

That’s their motto. “Smart Cones: Go to the potty first.”

Rob Dietz  

Worst ad read of all time.