Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears. Here’s an example. In the first year that I really got into bird-watching, I used The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. The book has a checklist in the back where you mark the different species you’ve seen. That many birding books have such a list tells you a lot about how people tend to approach this activity; in its most annoying form, bird-watching potentially resembles something like Pokémon GO. But this was somewhat inevitable for me as a beginner, learning to pick out discrete, individual birds. After all, when you learn a new language, you start with the nouns.
Over the years, my continued attention began to dissolve the edges of the checklist approach. I noticed that certain birds were in my neighborhood during only part of the year, like cedar waxwings and white-crowned sparrows. In the winter, my crows came by less often. Even if they stay in the same place, birds can look different not only throughout their life but during different seasons, so much so that many pages of the Sibley guide have to show different ages, as well as breeding and nonbreeding versions, of the same bird. So, there were not only birds, but there was bird time.
Then there was bird space. Magpies abounded near my parents’ house an hour south, but never here. There were mockingbirds in West Oakland but not in Grand Lake. Song sparrows had different songs in different places. The blue of scrub jays got duller as you went inland. Crows sounded different in Minneapolis. The dark-eyed juncos I saw at Stanford had brown bodies and black heads (the Oregon subgroup), but had I traveled east, I would have seen variations.
Inevitably, my recognition of certain species became bound up with the environments where I knew I would find them. Ravens perched high up in redwoods and pines; towhees liked to scurry under parked cars. If I saw a bare tree half submerged in a pond, I looked for night herons. Wrentits were so consistently in brambly shrubs that their high-pitched buzzing came to seem like the voice of the shrub itself. There was no wrentit, only wrentit-shrub. I started paying more attention to the berries that cedar waxwings love (and sometimes get drunk on!) and even came to appreciate bugs, since the gnats I constantly swatted away on the local trails now looked to me like bird food.
At some point, the impossibility of paying attention to the discrete category “birds” became apparent. There were simply too many relationships determining what I was seeing—verb conjugations instead of nouns. Birds, trees, bugs, and everything else were impossible to extricate from one another not only physically but conceptually. Sometimes I would learn about a relationship that involved many different kinds of organisms that I would never think were associated. For example, a 2016 study showed that woodpeckers’ holes helped disperse fungi throughout the trees, which in turn softened the wood and made it easier for other animals to find homes within the trees.
This context, of course, also included me. I remember going for a walk near my parents’ house once and hearing a scrub jay shrieking in a valley oak. It was such a good example of a scrub jay shriek that I was about to get out my phone and record it, when I realized that it was shrieking at me (to go away). As Pauline Oliveros writes in Deep Listening, “When you enter an environment where there are birds, insects or animals, they are listening to you completely. You are received. Your presence may be the difference between life and death for the creatures of the environment. Listening is survival!”
It’s pretty intuitive that truly understanding something requires attention to its context. The way this process happened for me with birds was spatial and temporal; the relationships and processes I observed were things adjacent in space and time. Things like habitat and season helped me make sense of the species I saw, why I was seeing them, what they were doing and why. Surprisingly, it was this experience, and not a study on how Facebook makes us depressed, that helped me put my finger on what bothers me so much about social media. The information I encounter there lacks context, both spatially and temporally. For example, let’s take a look at my Twitter feed right now. I see the following:
• An article on Al Jazeera by a woman whose cousin was killed at school by ISIL
• An article about the Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar last year
• An announcement that @dasharez0ne (a joke account) is selling new T-shirts
• Someone wishing happy birthday to former NASA worker Katherine Johnson
• A video of NBC announcing the death of Senator McCain and shortly afterward cutting to people dressed as dolphins appearing to masturbate onstage
• Photos of Yogi Bear mascot statues dumped in a forest
• A job alert for director of the landscape architecture program at Morgan State University
• A photo of a yet another fire erupting, this time in the Santa Ana Mountains
• Someone’s data visualization of his daughter’s sleeping habits during her first year
• A plug for someone’s upcoming book about the anarchist scene in Chicago
• An Apple ad for Music Lab, starring Florence Welch
Spatial and temporal context both have to do with the neighboring entities around something that help define it. Context also helps establish the order of events. Obviously, the bits of information we’re assailed with on Twitter and Facebook feeds are missing both of these kinds of context. Scrolling through the feed, I can’t help but wonder: What am I supposed to think of all this? How am I supposed to think of all this? I imagine different parts of my brain lighting up in a pattern that doesn’t make sense, that forecloses any possible understanding. Many things in there seem important, but the sum total is nonsense, and it produces not understanding but a dull and stupefying dread.
This new lack of context can be felt most acutely in the waves of hating, shaming, and vindictive public opinion that roll unchecked through platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Though I believe the problem is built into the platforms themselves, and people throughout the political spectrum are implicated, it’s a favorite tool of far-right propagandists to dig through someone’s old tweets and re-present the ones that look the most offensive out of context. Lately, journalists and other public figures have been a favorite target. What I find most upsetting about this is not how conniving these propagandists are but how quickly and dutifully everyone else has piled on. If the alt-right is betting on inattention and a knee-jerk reaction that spreads like wildfire, they’ve won that bet several times. Even when victims of this tactic try to lay out the missing context in idiot-proof language, it’s often too little too late.
People read a tweet or a headline, react, and click a button—thousands and millions of times over in a matter of days. I can’t help but liken the angry collective tweet storms to watching a flood erode a landscape with no ground-cover plants to slow it down. The natural processes of context and attention are lost. But from the point of view of Twitter’s financial model, the storm is nothing but a bounteous uptick in engagement.
Jenny Odell is an artist and writer who teaches at Stanford, has been an artist in residence at places like the San Francisco dump, Facebook, the Internet Archive, and the San Francisco Planning Department, and has exhibited her art all over the world. She lives in Oakland, California.
Excerpted from How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell, published by Melville House.