Doing Something by Doing Nothing

October 5, 2022 #Jenny Odell #Alexis Petridis #Nilay Patel #Algorithms #Spotify #Curation

It has occurred to me that lately, most of my posts here have been musings on terms that I’ve found online, words that describe a sentiment, a phenomenon, a vibe (!) I was previously unable to put my finger on. Writing has become a way of making sense of the presence, and yesterday it struck me that I’ve been building a repository of terms: From Political Capital to Context Collapse, from the Over-Real to the Off-Modern, from Brainfeel to AirSpace. What’s it all for? Why am I doing it?

I read Jenny Odell‘s How to do Nothing two summers ago, across several sittings at a café across the street from my office. My memory of the book is somewhat impressionistic, tinged by heat and caffeine, but of course I remember the way Odell defines doing nothing: Acting in a way that creates value, without that value necessarily being economic. On the internet, where all our user-generated content is effectively just a foundation for ads, doing nothing means opting out of the socially-networked content rat race. It means cherishing the acts we do for our own sake, for their own sake, and expressively not for pleasing an online algorithm or recommendation engine.

What makes it worthwhile is that all that doing nothing eventually amounts to doing something: To a more deliberate way of using the networked technology that we’re so immersed in. Dare I say that this is a more originalist vision of using the internet? Something that’s fast, clutter-free, accessible, and a repository of information, without the creepy tracking mechanisms and dark patterns you see everywhere?

The Guardian is currently running a special on how people discover music. In an article, Alexis Petridis asks Has streaming made it harder to discover new music? and criticizes the algorithmically-driven recommendations that drive music discovery:

Perhaps that’s because streaming encourages a kind of decontextualised discovery. It’s a world where albums are less important than single tracks, where you’re encouraged to focus not on the artist, but the song; where music is served up with any accompanying visuals relegated to a tiny corner of the screen; where historical context, image, subcultural capital — all the other stuff that was once part of the package — no longer really matters.

I sense a notion that monetization has lead to the development of algorithms to encourage discovery” and, by extension, more consumption. In turn, this has led to a heavily personalized internet experience where we get what we want but effectively all marinating in our own sauces, forever being served more of the same and hardly anything that challenges our tastes.

In the face of pervasive algorithms, perhaps the simplicity of a blog and human curation is exactly the nothing that we need to regain some agency. It might be too early to tell, but perhaps, just perhaps, we’ve waited long enough for blogs to make their comeback—a little bit like podcasts and newsletters saw a resurgence after a few years of stagnation and being deemed too simple.

When The Verge redesigned last month, they reintroduced a blog-like feed on their homepage. Niemann Labs quoted editor-in-chief Nilay Patel as having briefing designers that We just want to be able to tweet onto our own website.” Patel wanted to move away from the big platforms, back to something they owned, something human an devoid of algorithmic creation. Here’s hoping that he’s on to something.