Two breakout books of 2019, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion are lessons in what the internet generation was promised, what it got, and where to go from here
Two things were true of my friends in the eighth standard: almost everyone was on Facebook by then, and almost everyone was using a third-party application called Status Shuffle. The app provided a near-infinite number of suggestions for your Facebook status depending on the category you chose (‘sarcasm’, ‘pissed off’, ‘karma’, ‘coffee’). The catch was that the bright pink icon at the bottom of your witty post was a dead giveaway. Considering myself cleverer than most, I found a way around this. Instead of posting directly from the app, I’d copy and paste the text into a fresh post. One status from 2011 reads: ‘Always forgive ur enemies…nothing annoys them so much!’ This was lifted directly from Status Shuffle and was undoubtedly a dig at whatever trivial drama had taken place at school on that particular day. But what I distinctly remember is changing the ‘your’ to ‘ur’— which was more in line with the way I typed on the internet at the time — thus putting in just enough effort to seem effortless. Status Shuffle was, for many of us, the first time we manufactured authenticity on the internet.
During an Instagram-organised summit on November 8th this year, Eva Chen, director of fashion partnerships at the company, wrote on her story, ‘Instagram used to be where you just shared photos…now it’s where you share YOURSELF!’ She was addressing a room of influencers, exhorting them to reveal more of who they really are, to their followers. The goalposts for who we are ‘supposed’ to be on the internet are constantly shifting, but Chen’s appeal is in line with a history of being told to ‘be yourself’ online. Jacob Silverman, in his 2014 book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, points to a worrying reason for this pattern. ‘The push for authenticity is really a campaign to have every user be immediately identifiable, not only for who they are, but where they live, what they do, what they like, their whole data self immediately visible to the social network controlling it and selling it back to them in the form of advertising, coupons, and gifts,’ he writes. Authenticity on the internet, by its very design, is also an unreachable goal. In real life, we wouldn’t share the same things with a stranger as we did with our friends or co-workers, for instance.
In contrast, some platforms have thrived on their users being largely unidentifiable. On Tumblr, for instance, it was possible to create an incognito online persona, without feeling the pressure to make it marketable. Anonymity is a powerful weapon to undercut what journalist Jia Tolentino calls ‘the “I” in the internet’ in her book of essays, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. For years, my favourite form of social media was the anonymous Twitter account that I maintained. It afforded me the freedom to wilfully exist on the periphery, absorbing everything without the need to make my presence felt — as one would do on the sidelines of a spectacle in real life (although Twitter is more like a series of addresses taking place simultaneously in the same room as the speakers heckle each other into oblivion). Tolentino notes that one of the unique pathologies of the internet is that ‘it has become common for people, especially women, to interact with themselves as if they were famous all the time’. Her singling out of women isn’t without good reason; before her, the late critic John Berger described how women are socialised to surveil our every move. He wrote, ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.’ Operating under the cloak of anonymity online frees us from any concerns about staying true to a ‘personal brand’, however subconscious these concerns may be. Is it any wonder, then, that the users most active on Tumblr are teen girls?
But whether through the promise of a verified handle or talks to link Twitter with Aadhar in India, the authenticity conundrum is becoming an inescapable part of existing online, and tech companies are cashing in on it. In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, the artist and writer Jenny Odell offers an alternative to the mad rush to monetise our most precious resource (and the only one left to exploit), time. Odell pushes us to look beyond ourselves by looking beyond our screens. That doesn’t mean deleting our accounts and retreating from society (as tempting as that may be). Even if we were to ignore the internet entirely, we’d still exist in a world shaped by it. If anything, heavily influenced by her belief in bioregionalism, she wants us to become more invested in our surroundings.
Bioregionalism is an understanding of the world in terms of its original inhabitants, both human and non-human. Odell draws a parallel between the plundering of ecosystems and the exploitation of our attention by an economic system ‘where those components that are seen as “not useful” and which cannot be appropriated (by loggers or by Facebook) are the first to go’. In the Hindi-Marathi song The Warli Revolt, hip-hop group Swadesi features Prakash Bhoir, the Adivasi chieftain of Aarey, and they sing:
Me kisaan ugavu anaaj aur har
prani mere parivaar saman
Khud pe karo tum bas ek ehsaan bachalo
apni ye sone ki khan
Gaav shejari padik raana. Pikavala
adivashyana. Gaav gunda
haramkhorana tyachi keli Aadul daana
Jar ka guna kela punha. Tyala Titech gadaycha’
(I am a farmer and I grow my own food.
Every animal here is part of my brood.
Now do yourself a favour, save your
own treasure, it’s yours too!
Now we tribals created life from what
was once barren ground
But evil goons from villages near by
destroyed everything around.
If anyone dare repeat this crime again,
they will be buried right then and there!)
Bioregionalism seeks to emulate this protective instinct that indigenous peoples harbour for the natural world. Consider the possibility of a future without the internet — or even just social media. Already, a 2018 National Geographic article has found that ‘huge sections of important [internet] infrastructure are [sic] in the places likely to be underwater within 15 years’. The night before a deadline, my e-book reader abruptly rebooted just as I was trying to transfer the notes I had taken on How to Do Nothing to my computer. More than a week’s worth of thoughts, impressions, questions — time — lost to the whims of one tiny, inanimate device. I had to wonder, is this what we’re setting ourselves up for? A day in the future, when years, even decades worth of the selves we’ve been carefully curating online, are lost to corporations or a climate catastrophe? Seen in this light, Odell’s call to increasingly train our attention on our physical realities began to make more sense. She explains: ‘As I disengaged the map of my attention from the destructive news cycle and rhetoric of productivity, I began to build another one based on that of the more-than-human community, simply through patterns of noticing…. As a simplistic example, my attention now “renders” to me a world more full of birds than before I was an avid bird-watcher’.
In the book, Odell often takes her cues from birds — night herons, Western tanagers, crows. I don’t remember the exact reason I started hating crows, but it may have something to do with the fact that the ones that visit my house are notorious for picking the exact moment in the afternoon when I’m about to fall asleep to start cawing loudly at my window. For the most part, my reaction to animals oscillates between fleeting interest (never enough to pet them), fear and irritation. But crows invoke a special kind of wrath. Seeing them through Odell’s sensitive eyes as the intelligent creatures they are, reminded me of a neighbour I knew growing up. We called her Neha Didi, and at the time she couldn’t have been older than I am now. Everyone knew of Neha Didi’s friendship with a crow. I would watch from the window of our old house as it would perch on her windowsill at the same time every day. She would feed it exactly one slice of cheese, tearing it out of the plastic wrapper piece by piece.
The memory comforted me and planted a curiosity about birds that I took back to the internet. I had inadvertently discovered a rare corner of the hellscape that is Facebook. There was no self-deprecating humour, no indignant opinions, no thinly-veiled propaganda — none of the usual markers of the internet I had become accustomed to. This was a space that was disarmingly real, one that would fit just as well into my feed as it would on my grandparents’ Facebook pages (which, owing to our diametrically opposed politics, is always a good reminder of how polarised the social network really is). I joined two groups, the Mumbai Birdwatchers Club (MBC) and Indian Women for Nature & Wildlife (IWNW). A good part of my notifications are now just bird sightings, but I’m not complaining. I hope to see some of them in person soon and, as Odell advises, protect more of my space and time, ‘for non-instrumental, non-commercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for care, for conviviality’. Yesterday at work, I noticed parrots outside my window.