shirley yin

Short book reviews no. 2

August 28, 2019

I avoid writing book reviews because I often don’t have well-formed opinions on books right after I finish them and think that I’ll wait until I have developed thoughts and ideas to write about. As the way these things go, that time never comes because who can have stable and unchanging thoughts about anything? So I’ve written some tentative and unorganized thoughts on these books.

How to Do Nothing – Jenny Odell


It is difficult to form a main thought or opinion of this book because it is difficult for me to articulate what this book is even about. It is not, as the title suggests, a self-help book on social media and the attention economy.

There are long passages about Odell taking walks and gradually being aware of nature, in terms of learning to notice and learn the names of specific plants and birds. This reminds me of The Overstory, of people living their lives without ever “looking” at a tree. I downloaded the iNaturalist app she mentioned because I also don’t know how to be aware of nature in any finer level of detail than “oh, a bird.”

There is, inevitably, a discussion about social media and identity. I’ve vaguely heard of danah boyd’s concept of “context collapse,” in which nuances in how you communicate to different people in different situations all flatten into one context (globally public social media). The idea is that you either express yourself in a way that is inappropriate for some of audience (i.e. you wouldn’t talk to a close friend in the same way or about the same topics as you would with your boss at work), or you filter yourself down to the blandest-common-denominator so that no one could possibly find it offensive. I often think about my own “online identity”, and my eschewal (mainly out of discomfort) of “mainstream” social media like Facebook or Instagram or LinkedIn. But what about my Twitter or my blog, where I am currently writing about my undeveloped and unformed opinions?

The last topic I wanted to bring up was the idea of utopian spaces viewed through the lens of colonialism. Odell writes about Peter Thiel’s misguided underwater colony project and compares it to B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel Walden Two, and writes:

Preemptively calling it a "peaceful project" avoids the fact that regardless of how high-tech your society might be, "peace" is an endless negotiation among free-acting agents whose wills cannot be engineered. Politics necessarily exist between even two individuals with free will; any attempt to reduce politics to design [...] is also an attempt to reduce people to machines or mechanical beings.
(p. 52)

I enjoyed reading this book and found it generally interesting, but it left me kind of unsettled and unsure of how to think and what to do next. But perhaps that’s in keeping with the spirit of How to Do Nothing.

Bullshit Jobs – David Graeber


I read this a while ago but Current Affairs recently reviewed it and now I am too.

The first few chapters get a bit repetitive (he includes many anecdotes of people at their jobs) but the second half of the book delves into economic history and the historical culture surrounding the concept of work which is really interesting.

The later sections of the book are more interesting, where Graeber tackles the history of work and labour and presents some useful definitions for thinking about work. He discusses the meaning of labour – why and when is it necessary? is it necessary? – as well as different categorizations of labour. For example, he makes a distinction between “productive” labour, defined as producing value or profits that can be extracted by capitalists, and “reproductive” labour (such as housework or education) that takes care of workers so that they can do the “real” productive labour.

To think of labor as valuable primarily because it is "productive," and productive labor as typified by the factory worker, effecting that magic transformation by which cars of teabags or pharmaceutical products are "produced" out of factories through the same painful but ultimately mysterious "labor" by which women are seem to produce babies, allows one to make all this disappear. It also makes it maximally easy for the factor owner to insist that no, actually, workers are really no different from the machines they operate.
(p. 237)

He also mentions “caring labour”, both in terms of it being a dominant part of a job as well as the caring aspects of other jobs, and how it is often written out of discussions about economics.

The key to caring labor as a commodity is not that some people care but that others don't; that those paying for "services" (note how the old feudal term is still retained) feel no need to engage in interpretive labor themselves. This is even true of a bricklayer, if that bricklayer is working for someone else. Underlings have to constantly monitor what the boss is thinking; the boss doesn't have to care. That, in turn, is one reason, I believe, why psychological studies regularly find that people of working-class background are more accurate at reading other people's feelings, and more empathetic and caring, than those of middle-class, let alone wealthy, backgrounds. To some degree, the skill at reading others' emotions is just an effect of what working-class work actually consists of: rich people don't need to learn how to do interpretive labor nearly as well because they can hire other people to do it for them.
(p. 237)

Another interesting set of definitions Graeber proposes is “value” and “values”, where value is defined as economic value and values are “priceless” ideals such as artistic beauty or altruism.

I originally picked up the book because I enjoyed Graeber’s article and thought the book continuation would make for light and irreverent reading, but found it interesting and worthwhile.