Meet The Artist Who Thinks Time Is Ruining Our Lives

Jenny Odell, the artist who thinks time is ruining our lives, said that clock time is all about productivity, money, and economic growth, but it’s really a fantasy.

Jenny Odell, the artist and writer, appears on my screen. She’s 35 years old, with long dark hair, a fringe, and big glasses with dark frames. She’s in her kitchen in Oakland, California. She loves nature and for a while she taught art and design at Stanford. In her art she finds objects and images, often on the internet, and arranges them into beautiful shapes. She likes looking at random things and thinking deeply about them. Four years ago she published a book called How To Do Nothing, where she explains that the internet, by being such a useful servant to us, has managed to turn itself into our master; the result is that we no longer pay attention to what’s really important.

Get off all those apps, she says, and start looking at the real world, which actually does need our attention. Barack Obama said How To Do Nothing was one of his books of the year.

Now Odell has written a new book, Saving Time, in which she says that our woes are even deeper and more pernicious than she’d thought. We have a worse problem than the attention economy, she explains – our understanding of time itself.

It’s 10.30 on a sunny California morning for Odell and 5.30 on a dark British evening for me. This is “clock time”, the type of time, Odell believes, that has taken over our brains, as opposed to all the other sorts of time – sundial time, tidal time, time as represented by the circadian rhythms of trees, birds, insects, reptiles and mammals, including us. There are many more types of time, too: geological time, seasonal time and, of urgent concern, climate time. There are lifespans and health spans. There is time that seems to stand still. And then there is time that comes to an end, when you die. But it’s clock time our society is focused on, clock time that harms us, divides us, steals from us and makes us destroy the planet. Clock time is all about productivity, money and economic growth. But clock time is really a fantasy.

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‘I like to pay really close attention to the things in front of me’: Jenny Odell in Piedmont Park, California.
‘I like to pay really close attention to the things in front of me’: Jenny Odell in Piedmont Park, California. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer/The Observer

Given the circumstances, I can’t quite greet Odell with either “Good morning” or “Good evening”, because neither would exactly be true. In our conversation, it is both 10.30am and 5.30pm. Clock time is already messing with us. “Time,” I say, “must be just about the hardest thing to think about.” Odell is silent for a while. “Yes,” she says.

Looking back in time, she tells me she grew up in Cupertino, California, “in a neighbourhood that is now extremely unaffordable as it’s really close to Apple”. Her American father was an electrical engineer; her mother, from the Philippines, worked for Hewlett-Packard. Odell is an only child. Her mother noticed “that I was happier if I was outside. I liked to pay really close attention to the things that were in front of me. I feel like there’s a deep assumption in me that whatever is in front of you, there’s something interesting about it. I trust that there’s something there to see.”

Mayor Eric Adams revealed on Monday at an event for the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice that NYC will track the carbon footprint of residents’ food purchases.

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