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Why everyone should learn how to code: creating a non-commercial, non-instrumental tech ecosystem

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Jan 4, 2022Last updated Jan 20, 202218 min read

I finished Jenny Odell's How to do Nothing two nights ago. It's the favorite book I've read in the past year.

The details are hazy right now and it definitely deserves many re-reads, but right now I want to scratch some thoughts down that excitedly came to mind in conversation with Vivien, who first recommended me the book.

What's the book about?

The book's full title is How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. The first half of the title evokes that of banal self-help books. The second half does as well, but hints at deeper political economy themes.

To me, the book is two things. First, it's a broad analysis and critique of techno-capitalism, focusing on the hegemonic pressure it creates for people's attention be used productively and instrumentally, i.e. either for one's own or someone else's profit, at all times. This is the titular "attention economy". Second, it's a positive counter-assertion of how to take ownership of your attention and use it intentionally to lead a more meaningful life. And not intentional in the basic, individual sense of meditation and mindfulness for the sake of being productive: rather, intentional in a political sense, recognizing and rejecting the hegemonic life-metric that attention is only valuable if it's ultimately productive. This is the titular "how to do nothing", this kind of attention only being "nothing" in the attention economy framework.[^individualism]

Odell draws on a huge variety of sources to shape her arguments, including the writing of Peter Thiel and Hannah Arendt, the ideas of Anciet Greek philosophers Epicurus and Diogenes, the compositions of John Cage, and her own experiences taking on a bioregional view of her surroundings. There are a treasure trove of insightful connections Odell draws between political philosophy, tech ideology, attention-examining art, ecology, and more, all coalescing into a powerful critique of the attention economy and alternative vision of sustainable community and individual life.

There are other new ideas that grabbed my attention, but for now there's one argument from the book I want to focus on. In the penultimate chapter, "Restoring the Grounds for Thought," Odell criticizes the "context collapse" and consequent loss of democracy-enabling "space of appearance" that results from commercial online social media. Though Odell puts it in more nuanced and compelling framings, the argument is familiar: thoughtless, angry social media messages are terrible for real-world democracy, but represent a "bounteous uptick in engagement" for the company and are thus encouraged by the platform's design and policies.

Immature technologists

It's easy to think about this as an abstract problem. More interesting is to think about the individual actions and complicity that brought about and endlessly reinforce the attention economy. Odell includes a chilling quote from Loren Brichter, an engineer who worked on the original iPhone and invented the pull-to-refresh mechanism: "Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about."

In sharp juxtaposition to the relation between their creations and their users, technologists often end up as the ones in material conditions to carve non-instrumental time and attention into their lives, Odell notes. Brichter took time off to build a house in New Jersey and the Facebook engineer who invented the like button had an assistant disable certain features on his phone, but "without personal assistants to commandeer our phones, the rest of us keep on pulling to refresh, while overworked single parents juggling work and sanity find it necessary to stick iPads in front of their kids’ faces."

These examples caught my attention pat because my founder friends and I have fit them perfectly. A shining illustration of Odell's "gated communities of attention," I organized a co-living house in San Francisco last summer, or rather the peaceful Mill Valley hills north of it. A friend in the house was the founder of a consumer social app that helped students spontaneously plan events. I remember him excitedly showing me a mockup for a new "stories" design in his room: instead of the colorful rings around profile pictures merely indicating read status, he had them shrink away over time, creating even more urgency for users to view them before they faded away. In the same room the next morning, he would do his morning meditation and swear by principles of grounded mindfulness in his own life.

When I saw a table of persuasive design techniques presented in Chapter 4, at which Odell describes being "shocked and angry" when first uncovering, I was surprised and somewhat proud to see that I had already implemented many of them in my own social platform, Updately. The ones I hadn't implemented provided inspiration for future features to develop. Like my friend, I celebrated the mindfulness of my own lifestyle while rejoicing at friends and users on the platform getting distracted by the feeds, likes, and comment systems I had crafted, instrumentalizing their procrastination for the benefit of my platform. When Updately users began to drop off after posting a half-dozen or so times, I thought about improving retention by implementing email notifications and scheduled reminders to post, aspiring to put yet another attention-sucking flywheel into the world. As a designer and builder I even feel like I've been a failure until I've understood how to build such a flywheel; if the main benefit of software is to impact people at scale, surely I needed to know how to scale things to be a good software-oriented technologist.

But if such mindsets reflect immaturity, as Brichter recognized of his own earlier work, what's the alternative? Was I just to let Updately users keep churning, and the project that I truly believe has brought meaningful community and joy into the world die?

Manifest dismantling

Odell has a big-picture answer to this question, a concept she calls "manifest dismantling", a play on "manifest destiny". To manifest dismantling is to reject the idea of progress as the conquest of nature by man and instead embrace new, sustainable modes of productivity.

She gives the San Clemente dam's de-construction as an example of such a project. When a nearly century-old dam was threatening to break and cause severe downstream damage, California's government opted not to give it a $49M repair and maintain the status quo, but rather to spend $84M tearing down the dam and restoring the natural flow of the Carmel River. In doing so they played a crucial role in saving an endangered species of steelhead trout and reduced larger infrastructure-threatening erosion effects. Odell points to the rhetoric surrounding the dam, historically and in de-construction. Its initial "construction", traditionally viewed as positive "progress", was actually destructive to the natural ecosystems and ultimately human communities around it. Its "de-construction", traditionally viewed in the negative, was actually a hugely constructive contribution to the environment around it. Thus "manifest dismantling" becomes a positive alternative to the destructive false-positivism of instrumental progress.

"Manifest dismantling" fits into larger strains of social critique, of course: the feminization of "maintenance" work as opposed to masculine "productivity", the striving towards value beyond instrumentalization that OpenAI researcher Jasmine Wang wrote about in . It's this fundamentally this ideology that How to do Nothing is a self-described "activist book" and "political manifesto" for.

Concretely, I'm reminded of other big ideas like the circular economy, a vision for an economic system that maintains itself or grows without producing net waste. There's certainly momentum behind such ideas. Elon Musk poured $100M into a carbon capture XPRIZE, for example; I have some friends who are working on their own projects against fast fashion or eliminating waste from industrial processes.

Non-commercial social media

Regarding software though, and specifically social media platforms, I struggled to parse Odell's vision on first read. Odell pins the blame for the destructive qualities of social media on their commercial nature, as discussed earlier.

In opposition to this, she describes the experimental decentralized network Scuttlebutt. "Decentralization" here refers to the same idea of p2p data exchange without the use of centralized servers that characterize blockchain tech the word primarily evokes today: on Scuttlebutt information by default is exchanged purely through computers on the same local network. That is, if you follow a friend and your friend posts something, you will have to wait until either their computer runs on the same network as you for your local Scuttlebutt databases to sync and for you to see their post, or for a chain of mutuals to sync-carry that data to you. If this is too inconvenient, you can opt-in to centralized servers called "pubs" that will sync included users' data in real-time like normal social networks.

I find this idea fascinating; Scuttlebutt's own website (with a cute explanatory video!), software, and dev community seem excellent, and I excitedly downloaded the client and set up my profile.

But at the end of the day, Scuttlebutt comes across as an intriguing big-picture idea that's overly convoluted in practice. Unless my friends are all 1) CS nerds and 2) have heavily bought into the vision of decentralized non-commercial social media, I don't see them all getting on Scuttlebutt and thus I don't see myself using it either. If a non-commercial social platform has no incentive and therefore no design to grow, how is it ever supposed to, and be useful to anyone?

Build tools around workflows, not workflows around tools

Talking to Vivien this morning, the idea of non-commercial, convoluted, growth-less software rang a bell. Specifically, it reminded me of a software-building philosophy I attribute to Linus Lee and I hold as my own operating principle: "build tools around workflows, not workflows around tools."

The upshot of this philosophy is that, even if there's a tool that already does 80% of what you need, if you can you might as well build your own tool that does 100% of what you need. The long-term advantage is that you have ownership over this tool, and can extend and change it to continually strive towards the changing "100%" of your needs, while other platforms will inevitably bend towards or away from your needs over time. Following this philosophy Linus has built his own Twitter client, productivity suite (think notes, calendars, and todo lists), personal search engine, and even programming language.

Collective instrumental efficiency wise, this approach makes no sense. In the time that it takes to develop a suite of personal apps for yourself, you could have validated a hypothesis for a tool that would benefit thousands; with the effort of continually tweaking apps for your own use, you could similarly tweak a startup's software product to reach millions.

Yet this non-instrumentalism has a deeply attractive, human quality to it. Personally I felt liberated when I gave up on running Postulate as a startup and reverted it to a side project. In the former, you're a monkey chasing business validation, investment, and product-market fit. You think you're in control, but in fact you're deeply beholden to the instrumentalism of the market.[^business] In the latter, you become a craftsman, an artist, free to shape your project however best aligned with your values and desires.

De-instrumentalizing tech by democratizing it

As soon as I wrote that sentence alarm bells went off in my head: "that's a cop-out mentality," the instrumentalist voice says. "If you were really competent you would spread those values through market success rather than individual pet projects."

But Odell precisely recognizes the limited perspective of this voice, and the power of resisting it: personal projects only lack value, i.e. constitute "doing nothing", if you treat the attention economy as a given and don't value the freedom to explore perspectives outside of and challenging it.

To my earlier conundrum of, as I texted Vivien, "wtf how [are non-commercial social platforms] possible, whos gonna put in the time to create and maintain that" --

then I realized, me

To embrace Updately as a platform localized to the communities I interact with rather than growing virally; being okay with people joining, posting a few updates, finding unexpected connections, and the churning away to enjoy those connections in real life; these can be intentional, celebrated, and sustainable decisions. To create and maintain such technology habitually can be a radically constructive commitment rather than indicator of failure.

Of course, my individual commitment to such building won't change much. But when I wrote "me" in my text to Vivien I didn't just mean me personally, I meant people like me, and all the people that can become like me.

Deviating from or perhaps simply extending Odell's perspective, my vision for a scaled-up non-commercial ecosystem is one that is decentralized not in the way that Scuttlebutt is through its infrastructure, but rather how Linus and myself have our own pockets of tooling for our and our friends' use and every college campus seemingly has its own suite of course planning and review tools. These examples highlight niche, exclusive communities, but imagine if not just educated engineers and college students but everyday people had the ability to create apps and social platforms for their communities: services like Doordash, Instacart, even Facebook could be replaced by more human localized alternatives, monetized in sustainable but not expansionary ways by community owners.

Historical precedents for the de-instrumentalization of media technology

Is such a decentralized tech ecosystem even possible? Silicon Valley today would have you believe that bigger companies would be able to provide faster and cheaper service, and market competition will thus inevitably drive smaller competitors out.

To date this seems to have generally been the case, but there's historical precedent for alternative ways that the relationship between market forces, non-instrumental values, and technology have played out.

Take literal written language, for example. Books, blogs, and journalism have been commercialized nearly to death, many would claim, but there remains a strong public conviction in the non-instrumental value of writing. Newspapers, in principle and still largely in practice, are seen as pillars for democracy; millions of readership-less blogs and newsletters function as personal creative outlets; funding for non-instrumental art and academic work continues to flow, evidenced by the success of Odell's book if nothing else.

The foundation for such non-instrumental tendencies is widespread literacy. We don't learn to read and write because we can make money with it: we do so to participate in society, to connect with other human beings, to leave behind a legacy. In our imagination the production and consumption of words is closer to a natural experience of humanity than economic engagement with the market.

A more recent example, if you'll indulge a quick dip into my media studies reading this past semester, is that of visual mass media. Adorno and Horkheimer famously wrote in 1944 about the "culture industry", an analysis of mass media as the conquest of human nature by humanity, by which attention, entertainment, and willpower itself have been tied up in the market through the industrial production of culture. This is the very idea of the attention economy, expressed three-quarters of a century before Odell wrote her book.

The outlook of Adorno and Horkheimer's piece is dismal: with the very possibility for discontent stifled, revolution becomes impossible and the powers that be will reproduce their own dominance without resistance. In other words, we will be stuck in a fascist late capitalist society until we go extinct.

Media studies scholarship since then has pushed back against the severity of Adorno and Horkheimer's conclusion. Mass media doesn't just control a passive public without resistance. Rather, the public can challenge dominant messages encoded in the media they consume by coming up with alternative readings, producing their own fan discourse and media (think examples as recent as Tumblr analysis essays or k-pop Twitter campaigns), and a variety of other forms of active engagement.

The basis for such engagement is, once again, widespread literacy. As scholar Sut Jhally puts it, the battle against the destructive power of visual mass media requires "demystifying the images that parade before our lives" through high school "visual literacy" and production courses. If not through high school classes, the advent of easy-to-use image and video manipulation tools has achieved this very kind of popular visual literacy and productive power, and thus the threat of an unopposed hegemonic visual landscape is neutralized by oceans of individual, non-instrumental visual production. Ads and films lose their controlling power when most people understood how they are made, and a significant portion of people can make parodies or counter-media of the same quality.

Interestingly, it's instrumental technology itself that has brought about the de-instrumentalizing democratization of previous instrumental technologies. With modern software it seems it's yet again time to instill widespread literacy so that we may fight against the iron grip of the attention economy and preserve what we value as humans and communities.

Conclusion

What I've said in the above 3000 words has, in broad strokes, mostly been said before. "Citizens of democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy," Jhally quotes Noam Chomsky writing in Necessary Illusions.

But sitting at home during break churning out equal parts code and writing, it's striking how powerfully the ideas I've been exposed to in the past few months have come together to guide my work. If Thiel's Zero to One is a holy text for the ideology of progress through technological innovation and business monopolies, Odell's How to do Nothing and accompanying literature about contemporary and historical media technology alike create the framework for how to be a mindful technologist and reclaim techno-optimism that I've long been seeking.

The concrete implications are twofold.

First, I now have "manifest dismantling" as an ideological foundation for my own work. There are endless more nuances and implications of this foundation to explore, of course, but it's deeply energizing to have the beginnings of a coherent value system beyond instrumentalist techno-capitalism to inform the webapps that I build, the writing I publish, the companies I work for, and my other material contributions to the world, as well as more intangible and personal aspects of my life like the relationships and communities I take part in.

Second, as obviously foreshadowed, this ideology pushes for certain kinds of political and activist work in regards to technology. CS education programs take on a new light in my eyes, and I'll be paying more attention to how I, as a representative of tech in many non-tech (and reflexively in tech) spaces, represent the industry/technology/practice (or whatever the nebulous construction of "tech" means) and how I advocate for how others should relate to it. Specifically, I'll view the demystification of tech and popularization of its production as targets to continuously aspire towards.

I'll continue exploring the implications of these ideas in further reading, writing, classes, conversation, and projects. You know where to find me if you want to chat or follow along 😄

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[^individualism]: Words like "mindset" and "framework" evoke the idea that, if one only strengthens one's individual rationality with internal thought systems, one can overcome external thought systems imposed by culture and politics. The larger idea there is that the best and chief response to undesirable societal influences is to elevate oneself from it by one's own discipline and intellect. Odell is advocating for just this in terms of individual action against the attention economy, but further asserts that this action should be made with not just personal but rather political intent, a desire to challenge the entire overarching standard through your behavior.

[^business]: (To be fair, many enjoy this dynamic, and if you're successful enough the relationship flips and you now hold the reins of some major chunk of the market.

On Media and Journalism

Thoughts on news media, new media, and institutional journalism's relationship with society