Jenny Odell on the Relationship Between Time and Power
This Week on the Talk Easy Podcast with Sam Fragoso
Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
In this episode, we’re joined by writer and artist Jenny Odell! At the top, we discuss the recent legislation regulating social media in Utah (4:02), how these platforms affect our perception of daily life (5:20), and the relationship between time and power Odell unpacks in her first book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (6:41). Then, we talk about “productivity bros” (13:05), our culture of self-optimization (16:35), and the social inequities that shape our relationships to time (20:31).
On the back-half, we walk through Odell’s tools to help experience time (34:47), a historic picture of today’s home office (38:22), the systemic reform she hopes to see in the US (42:15), and to close, the ways she’s grown since completing her new book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock (49:30).
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Sam Fragoso: You’ve said, “Time was on my mind even before I wrote How to Do Nothing, but it became more pressing afterward, when one of the most common responses I heard from readers was, I would love to do nothing, but what if I don’t have time? This question led me to the relationship of time to power.” So, in 2023, where we have a precarious economy, rising inflation, and stagnant wages, how are you thinking about that relationship of time to power in this moment?
Jenny Odell: It’s important to recognize that when people say something like, “I don’t have enough time,” which sounds quantitative, like “I don’t have enough hours in the day,” that often what that actually means is “I don’t have power.” I don’t have power over my circumstances, I don’t have power with regard to my boss, or to other people in a hierarchy.
That feeling is inextricable from wages and salary—and whose time is literally, numerically worth what. But also more subtle shades of that, like whose time is considered more disposable. What kinds of jobs involve people having to speed up or slow down to line up with other people. If we’re talking about giving more people more time, it would have to be something more collective and structural.
Sam Fragoso: That question readers had around your first book, about how to do less, when they don’t have time to do so, in many ways, the conditions that created that question have only been exacerbated by the last few years, which, as you write, “rendered time strange for so many people by upending its usual social and economic contours.” You continue by writing, “If anything good can come out of this experience, perhaps it is an expansion upon doubt. Simply as a gap in the known, doubt can be the emergency exit that leads somewhere else.” What do you mean by that, exactly?
Jenny Odell: I’m talking about an interruption, which we’re all familiar with both on the small scale or the large. I remember years ago, I was on my laptop reading something I didn’t even want to be reading.
Sam Fragoso: Is that common for you?
Jenny Odell: [Laughs] Not so much anymore. For some reason my laptop shut off; I don’t know what happened. I remember just sitting there and becoming suddenly very aware of the rest of my room and the fact that I didn’t want to be looking at what I was looking at.
That’s a very small example, but on the larger end, people will often have stories in their lives like, “I was at this job, I wasn’t happy, and then something happened.” Sometimes it’s really tragic—you experience loss, or you experience something really unexpected. It creates this break where you sort of look around, you’re like, “I don’t want to be here,” or “there’s something about this I’ve been taking for granted that I don’t want to take for granted.” It changes your relationship to the situation. You can see the contours of it, instead of just being in it.
Jenny Odell is a multidisciplinary artist and author. Her first book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy was the New York Times bestseller. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Sierra magazine, and other publications. She lives in Oakland, California.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.