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Jenny Odell and the Quest to Log Off

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One condition of being logged on is to submit yourself to a confusing line of questioning: How do we know you’re real? Can you account for your sentience? Are you able to find the three matching stoplights in this grid of grainy images? Fulfilling these requests has become so routine that we barely reckon with the underlying question: Are you even a human?

The Internet’s persistent and growing sense of fakeness is nothing new. In 2013, after noticing the potential for site traffic to be dominated by bots, engineers at YouTube coined a term for the moment when they would no longer be able to distinguish human from nonhuman activity: “the Inversion.” Maybe we’ve already reached that threshold, and maybe we don’t care that much. Every day we are faced with a mirage of fast-moving feeds, and the constant effort to make money off the Internet’s users (us) has only amplified the confusion as an increasing number of stakeholders attempt to capture and define our wants, creating more and more automated activities and algorithmic interactions. It has also produced a ton of crap—in our minds, on the Web, and in our world.

Jenny Odell, a visual artist, writer, and Stanford design lecturer, is a spelunker of this massive, ever-growing dump. Her projects, ranging from investigative journalism to performance art, are driven by what she calls her “strange fascination with the utter garbage of the internet.” For example, her 2017 photo essay “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch” examines the strange junk and scams that proliferate in social-media marketplaces, following the clues left behind, from North America to Asia, by an Instagram ad offering a free luxury timepiece. We find ourselves traversing vast spaces, real and imagined: retail websites stitched together from pilfered images, factories in China supplying a legion of wristwatch peddlers, direct-message threads with unrepentant Instagram hustlers. Fake brands, identities, and products are in constant gestation. The watch, Odell tells us, is just a “physical witness” to all the machinations and “shifting winds” of the various economic interests in pursuit of our eyeballs and wallets. These snake-oil salesmen are as real and integral to the global economy today as the people who make money in more traditional ways.

Odell’s new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, describes itself as a “field guide” for navigating this spiderweb of digital commerce. But it is also about finding a way to escape from it, to create more meaningful forms of work, relationships, and selves in the face of such an onslaught of fabrication. The book expands on a talk she gave at the art and technology conference Eyeo; in it, she weaves stories about her family, her love of bird-watching, Gilles Deleuze’s idea of the “right to say nothing,” and the importance of public space into lessons about how to live “in a world where our value is determined by our productivity.” Tying all these ideas together is Odell’s notion that in the face of capitalist optimization, “doing nothing” is “an act of political resistance.” Through our inactivity, she insists, we will be able to recover a more humane world in an accelerating age of commodification.

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