Jenny Odell and the Quest to Log Off

Box of Wonders

Jenny Odell and the quest to log off.


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.

Grounding her argument in the environment, Odell sidesteps the familiar advice, “Just turn your smartphone off.” She doesn’t want us to escape from the world of sociability but rather make new communities or at least restore old ones. For her, it’s not about abandoning communication and technology but about using it for our own ends. Despite such bold prescriptions, she doesn’t tell us exactly how we might go about doing this so much as offer up a meditation on why we should. Unlike her art, How to Do Nothing is less a work of social criticism than of personal discovery. It succeeds in detailing how one can willingly become addicted to the Internet’s attention economy and calls on us to move away from it, but it doesn’t fully confront those structures and forms of domination—24/7 surveillance, Big Tech’s grip on basic services, the proliferation of monopolies—that hinder so many of us from doing just that.

Odell grew up in Cupertino, California, a Bay Area suburb that’s home to dozens of tech companies, the largest of which is Apple. She has, from an early age, been able to observe Silicon Valley’s changing fortunes, from the dot-com bubble to the start-up explosion. At the University of California, Berkeley, she studied literature and art and wrote her thesis on Emily Dickinson’s fascicles, the hand-sewn booklets in which the poet kept her work. After graduation, Odell entered an MFA program in design at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she started to develop her investigative-art style, which she compares to gathering “open source intelligence,” or the sleuthing that one can do using the archives of publicly available information.

One of Odell’s earlier projects, Satellite Landscapes, mined the archives of Google Maps’ satellite images. Using photographs of power plants and waste-processing sites, she captured how the infrastructure necessary to meet human needs can seem monstrous and inhumane, even as its operations sustain life. As an artist in residence at the San Francisco dump, she continued to hone her Internet sleuthing skills in an epic dumpster dive, resulting in a collection of salvaged items that showed how even the most disparate pieces of trash are linked. In her 2014 Pipe Dream, she mined Google Maps once again; this time, she used its street views to illustrate how a crude-oil pipeline connected Portland, Maine, with Montreal.

One of Odell’s most recent projects, Excavating Calabazas Creek, used public records obtained from Valley Water, Silicon Valley’s water-management agency, to examine how the modifications to a creek in Cupertino explained her hometown’s evolving history, from farm town to sleepy suburb to tech incubator. As she puts it in her new book, “The creek is a reminder that we do not live in a simulation—a streamlined world of products, results, experiences, reviews—but rather on a giant rock” that is full of “a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages, of a million crawling things, of spores and lacy fungal filaments.”

Lately, Odell has also turned her sleuthing skills to reporting, including her 2018 New York Times feature “A Business With No End.” In it, she tries to solve a mystery that one of her students at Stanford brought to her: Unwanted packages from a company called Valley Fountain keep arriving at his parents’ doorstep in Palo Alto. Odell traces the origin of this mail to a building in downtown San Francisco that turns out to be home to 140 other companies (with names like Bropastures and Your Friend Bart) connected to Amazon storefronts that peddle an amazing variety of items—“fake facial wounds,” lamps, makeup, hemorrhoid creams—at a high markup.

At first, Odell thinks the whole scheme can be chalked up to drop shippers, online retailers advertising items on social media that, if purchased, can be bought cheaply from a warehouse and then shipped to the customer. But she soon learns that many of these drop shippers are people employed by a network of companies affiliated with Olivet University, a religious school operated by the Korean pastor David Jang. The leader of an international Christian group known as the Community, Jang reportedly has a close financial relationship with religious publications like Christian Today and secular ones like the International Business Times and Newsweek.

Following a bread-crumb trail of LLCs, Odell manages to link the strange packages to this network of companies, describing a dizzying series of events that culminates with investigators from the Manhattan district attorney’s office raiding the offices of Newsweek as well as a planned satellite campus that Olivet was building on the site of an abandoned psychiatric hospital. “Trying to map the connections between all these entities opens a gaping wormhole,” Odell writes. “I couldn’t get over the idea that a church might be behind a network of used business books, hair straighteners, and suspiciously priced compression stockings—sold on Amazon…all while running a once-venerable American news publication into the ground.”

While the reporting in the piece is breathtaking, the experience of scrolling through “A Business With No End”—with its uncanny article design (made in collaboration with the artist Tracy Ma) filled with screenshots from weird websites and frenetic animations that pop off the screen—has its own power, mimicking the hallucinatory feeling of Odell discovering and yet not fully pinning down all of these connections. “At some point I began to feel like I was in a dream. Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real,” she writes. The same is true for anyone who reads it. “A Business With No End” leaves its readers, purposefully, with more questions than answers.

Odell cites Frederic Jameson as an inspiration, and as she explained to me in an interview, she’s trying to do something that Jameson knew was almost futile: to tell the story of objects caught in the often confounding space of “the great global multinational and decentered communications network.” She hopes to dispel, if only for a moment, the confusion that comes from this space or at least to re-create its discombobulating feeling so that we, too, are forced to ask ourselves if we are indeed human.

How to Do Nothing marks an important turn in Odell’s work: the attempt to find some peace and quiet in the midst of the Internet’s chaos by imagining a new mind-set and new ways of living.

As with her art and reporting, Odell finds herself covering a lot of terrain in that attempt. She jumps from the lessons we can learn from the 19th-century struggle for an eight-hour workday to an analysis of the 1960s commune movement, explaining that its apolitical nature led to failure but that its basic principle of retreat is integral to any resistance to today’s attention economy. She also offers several tours of the locales in which her book was written and where she finds peace herself, bringing readers from the Rose Gardens of Oakland to the hills and hidden creeks that cut across the Bay Area.

While none of these things have much to do with the tech world or the Internet, Odell gathers them into a larger theory about how we might detach ourselves from the compulsive sense of productivity demanded by digitization. This is not to say that she doesn’t devote plenty of space to withering criticism of Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, tech libertarianism, or Silicon Valley’s design fetish; she does, and all of it is sharply composed, including an illuminating lesson on “persuasive design”—the constantly evolving strategies that tech companies use to grab our attention. Despite these moments of critical insight, Odell often proves to be more interested in the solution than in the problems that face us today: By “doing nothing,” she insists, we can replant ourselves in a “public, physical realm.”

Odell focuses on two ways to achieve this. The first is by reorienting more of our lives around bioregionalism. We need a better understanding of how human activity is part of a “complex web of relationships” among the many life-forms in a given community. She also urges us to recognize the importance of the nonhuman perspectives that coexist in this web. Drawing from the environmentalist writings of Peter Berg, she argues that knowing the details of a particular bioregion creates the conditions of mutual respect among the creatures—some human, many not—that live there. Through a better sense of our immediate homes, we can also create more geographically bounded social networks, free of regulated interactions and the involvement of large corporations. We can also understand the ways in which animals live alongside us, which for Odell leads to bird-watching but could be any form of interaction with another species. The crows of her neighborhood, she tells us, “don’t see progress—they just see recurrence, day after day, week after week.” Borrowing from Donna Haraway and Martin Buber, she urges that we need to focus on where we are now, to meet the world as it currently stands, not impose our will and subjectivity on it.

While Odell’s work has always been interested in how technology rewires our conception of the built environment, the belief in the natural world she espouses in How to Do Nothing illustrates a shift in her interests. Junk and ephemera—the Internet’s trash—were a route to understanding the bizarre mechanics of the digital economy. They revealed the larger and often unseen structures of capitalism, mostly facilitated by social media, as it transformed individuals into consumers. How to Do Nothing is aware of these imposing structures, but Odell imagines we can cope with their deleterious effects by denying them our attention and retraining our focus. As a result, her book is less concerned with confronting these structures head-on.

One sympathizes with the impulse. Shutting off is a form of resistance, and refusing to allow the shadowy structures that define almost all of our everyday digital interactions to define our lives as well is a political act. Yet the vested interest of social-media platforms in constant user engagement and data is not simply going to vanish if we embark on an “I and Thou” relationship with nature and spend more of our time outside. As Odell’s art and multimedia investigations have shown, tech’s push for optimization and growth can easily be molded to new human desires. They may currently proceed “from a false view of life as atomized,” one that “fails to recognize the ecosystem as a living whole that in fact needs all of its parts to function,” but what would stop an Amazon or Apple from trying to colonize those human desires that proceed from a truer, more collective view of life? Odell writes about her concern that unfettered capitalism “turn[ed] what was once a dense and thriving landscape of individual and communal thought into a Monsanto farm whose ‘production’ slowly destroys the soil until nothing more can grow.” But without challenging these institutions directly, can we really resist what they’re feeding us?

Odell’s critique that commercial social media is destroying our shared mental ecosystem leads to a compelling, if somewhat predictable, argument: If you hate your job and really hate how Twitter makes you feel, nature is just waiting for you to discover and care for it. But her recommendations for making our way back to nature can feel a touch too mystical. Pauline Oliveros’s idea of “deep listening”—the almost meditative practice of appreciating particular sounds in the immediate environment—may help develop a respect for our shared space, but can it really power collective action? Citing Cicero, William James, and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Odell also argues that we can find a “third space” of social interaction in which to employ the tactics of “refusal, boycott, and sabotage” against the “cycle[s] where both financially driven platforms and overall precarity close down the space of attention.” But again, it’s easy to wonder: What will prevent these acts of resistance from themselves becoming another monetizable sector?

Odell knows that we can’t escape the Internet, no matter how much we may want to, but she does ask us to direct our attention and energies elsewhere. The problem is that, in today’s world, we might need to direct more time and attention toward the Internet if we are to liberate ourselves from its exploitation and excesses.

Many are beginning to realize this. Google workers have marched out of their offices around the world in response to sexual misconduct at the company; Amazon employees are demanding fair wages and insisting that it refuse to work with oil companies. Consumers, too, have begun to boycott companies like Amazon and Uber for their abusive workplace practices. Odell acknowledges that “doing nothing” is a provisionary concept, a “way station” to practical organizing. (She looks at the history of the 1934 San Francisco general strike in her section on a “third space.”) But the kernel of truth it’s founded on is that the economic system as we know it does more harm than good, and thus we need to create new terms of engagement that lead us not toward individual acts of resistance but toward collective action.

How to Do Nothing accomplishes something that neither the recent wave of Internet histories (Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants) nor the popular self-help books on digital detox have achieved. Odell helps readers discover ways of living outside the Web that are still richly alive. They are her particular ways of living outside the Web, but they are nonetheless imaginative and restorative. A marvelous box of wonders, How to Do Nothing is worth reading on these terms alone. Odell dives into the archives; she makes familiar landscapes seem rare and exhilarating; she extracts from familiar phrases new pearls of wisdom. Her encyclopedic impulse—she cites a wide range of thinkers, from Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt to Franco Berardi, Rebecca Solnit, and Jedediah Purdy—can make the book feel stitched together at times, but her profusion of quotes also often works. The jumps and connections can feel like a staggering, surprisingly hyperlinked Web page. Her book is also worth reading for the ways in which it follows one person’s path toward liberation: As a deeply connected subject of the Internet, she shows us how she has found some peace.

Whereas Odell’s visual and multimedia work drills down into the weirdness of networked life, illustrating for its viewers or readers what they weren’t seeing before, How to Do Nothing invests its energy in mindfulness and argues that directing attention away from the network could lead to a better life. She is well aware of all the structural, economic, material, and emotional conflicts that the Internet has generated: the “profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction” that social media keep us in, and “the cult of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and affect the way we think about our offline selves and the places where we actually live.” But her idea of what resistance entails—sharpened focus, a more caring outlook, taking our time—makes it seem more like an individual choice rather than something that requires organized, concerted effort with others.

Even so, Odell’s wide-ranging intelligence and curiosity make reading this book an escape of its own. One moment she’s learning about the phenomenon of atmospheric rivers, which allows her to trace its trail of rain to the Philippines; the next she’s ruminating on her biracial identity as a Filipina American. Following her along these trains of thought can be invigorating, even if the results can sometimes be unfocused. Odell might not offer answers to some of the larger questions that loom over her book, but she does provide us with a captivating portrait of someone struggling to formulate them on her own, and perhaps that is all she is after. Through her thinking and questioning, she helps us see how one might begin to reconnect with the world. If you do more of nothing, you might find time to indulge everything—in nature, in deep listening, in the communities already around you.

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