"That’s right … we’re not a library"
November 27, 2018 3:06 PM   Subscribe

Jump down a rabbit hole and keep scrolling in Jenny Odell's [previously] A Business With No End (NYT), a dive into a world of mysterious packages, Amazon sellers, Newsweek, an indicted Christian university, a department store, and a confusing bookstore as it becomes impossible to "distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere."
posted by zachlipton (25 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
So this was pretty holy shit for me until I got to the "Stevens Books" section and then I almost fell out of my chair. I have been to that bookstore! I may have even purchased a book there. I have chatted with that dude, right after they opened! He was nice.

So weird.
posted by feckless at 4:30 PM on November 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I feel like I need some Queasy Pops now.
posted by queensissy at 5:35 PM on November 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't know what the heck that all adds up to but I suspect it involves a lot of well laundred money.
posted by GuyZero at 5:44 PM on November 27, 2018 [16 favorites]

3 employees for a bookstore that size?? I worked in bookstores for 20 years, and by the end, I would have KILLED for 3 employees.

Also, that comment about "did you want to check those out?" sounds weird, but it's not really. Cashiers often call it the checkout line, and say "I can check you out over here." It was odder that the author said, "No, I want to buy them." Come on. You knew what they meant. The library comment seemed to be a gracious cover by the cashier, taking the blame instead of saying "Right. That's what I meant. Duh."
posted by greermahoney at 5:56 PM on November 27, 2018 [8 favorites]

It surprises me how many people I see retweeting Newsweek apparently unaware that it was taken over by a cult and operating under Federal criminal indictments.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:58 PM on November 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

is there any list aggregating these tales of explorations into the fringe surreal/horrifying depths of late capitalism? I would like to read more.
posted by scose at 6:15 PM on November 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

I hate when people write these sorts of wanky "oooh, mysterious" stories as if they forgot they're writing about the real world and not telling some spooky Halloween tale. Can somebody just spoil the ending for me and explain what this article is actually about?
posted by hyperbolic at 6:22 PM on November 27, 2018 [7 favorites]

It is about nothing. It is about a vast network of odd linkages setting up scammy reseller websites. It is interesting in its odd details. The author of the article is coming out with a book called "How to do nothing". It is in the Style section of the NYT. Not any news section. Draw your own conclusions. In a weird way I am glad I read it all the way through and so regret it too.
posted by AugustWest at 6:26 PM on November 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

I've worked in 235 Montgomery Since 2011. Whenever I get into the elevator I try to guess who's going to get off at the third floor. Something about the 3rd floor folks seemed dreary and I always imagined there was a big toiling call center up to something nefarious and mundane. I wasn't too far off.
posted by chizzledizzle at 6:41 PM on November 27, 2018 [11 favorites]

Truly, the internet of shit.
posted by snwod at 7:07 PM on November 27, 2018

Okay I guess we are feeling kind of lassaiz-faire about the weird business dealings but this Christian-flavored cult apparently kidnapped a bunch of Chinese people under false pretenses and working them like slaves in these terrible content and product mines.
posted by bleep at 8:40 PM on November 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

is there any list aggregating these tales of explorations into the fringe surreal/horrifying depths of late capitalism?

This article reminds me of the algorithmic nightmare that is Kids' YouTube.
posted by carsonb at 8:56 PM on November 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Well, that was a very tall, steaming pile of "So what?"

Near as I can tell, the only piece of news we get is that the writer's partner was an editor at Newsweek, and they got fired. Therefore, shenanigans.
posted by aurelian at 9:23 PM on November 27, 2018

This is like a game of three-card monte, only there are more like 47 cards and about half of them are Uno cards. When I came to the part about their having real estate in Manhattan and SF dedicated to "selling" a bunch of random worthless shit, that's when I decided that, yep, it must be laundering money, somehow. Those places ain't cheap.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:45 PM on November 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I didn't make it very far: it reads like an imitation of Sarah Koenig's meandering dialog in Serial season 1, the text is crammed in a narrow column all the way to the right, and then the text started shifting up and down every twenty seconds or so in Firefox.
posted by doctorfrog at 12:26 AM on November 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Umm.... I did read it... Is this its own style of New York Times clickbait? From the article:

After all, what is the experience of clickbait other than realizing we have vastly overpaid, even if only with our attention?

posted by haemanu at 12:35 AM on November 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

I love this, and enjoy Jenny Odell's work in general - to my reading, it's kind of an art project about following the rabbithole from those shady-seeming internet things we see when we don't have time to dig in further. (Similarly, her free watches piece.) She's very adept at following supply chains and business registrations, and the results totally fascinate and satisfy me.
posted by carbide at 1:49 AM on November 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

OK, it's actually quite cool, from the last comment's link (she's talking about cheap free watches that are actually not free):

Maybe this explains what’s so galling to people about the Folsom & Co. not-really-scam: It simply lays bare the categorical deception at the heart of all branding and retail.

posted by haemanu at 2:57 AM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

So a group of people (connected to a shady Christian university under criminal investigation) buy out struggling businesses like small furniture manufacturers and bookshops, hollow them out and keep them going as some sort of DeepMind-esque facsimile of a business, replacing their stock with random remaindered items from other businesses and dropshipped AliBaba crapgadgets, all priced uncompetitively? Do they break even from the occasional sucker who overspends on something, or is it a front for money laundering or something similar, and thus not expected to not lose money?
posted by acb at 6:24 AM on November 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

I get that if you click for news but end up with literature, it is baffling, but this was so weird and fascinating. It indeed felt dreamlike. I would like answers, though, to how they make money, or what the purpose of this web of emptiness is.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 6:51 AM on November 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I loved this. It's doing what good journalism is supposed to do - peeling away layers trying to figure out why things are the way they are. Sometimes you don't get to a clear answer. But this article and the clickbait fraud story and just about everything we've learned about Facebook and Twitter bots all point to how much of what we want to believe about the internet is a complete delusion.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 7:12 AM on November 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

> keep them going as some sort of DeepMind-esque facsimile of a business

I read the piece, and this is kinda where I ended up.

What if the computer networks that run our world accidentally birthed a true Artificial Intelligence, a godhead with an infant's wide-eyed naivete, but also access to the entire Internet?

And - stay with me here - the AI doesn't really "understand" anything, but has some deep-seated drive to create businesses that sell things? Like, maybe it digests an entire corpus of business management texts, and then gets to work. Would the end result look that much different?

Could we tell it apart from Bropastures Inc., Dreamlish Inc., Ipple Store and GiGling EyE?
posted by RedOrGreen at 7:48 AM on November 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

It's strange that the article itself makes no mention of the motives behind this bizarre Rube Goldberg contraption masquerading as a set of unrelated businesses, but that most people I've seen talking about the story mark it as a clear case of money laundering. I mean, it's probably money laundering; it SOUNDS like money laundering, though I think my understanding of money laundering is pretty vague. But what an utterly byzantine and complex way to do it if so. Who conceived of this? Does the New York Times not bother to dig deeper because they're covering Olivet elsewhere in the paper (example) or are preparing a more comprehensive story on what this all means? The latter seems unlikely because why reveal your hand in a style section article like this, but hey who knows.

None of this is intended to take away from the piece itself, which I found engrossing and unnerving in the same way as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
posted by chrominance at 7:53 AM on November 28, 2018

I mean, it's probably money laundering; it SOUNDS like money laundering, though I think my understanding of money laundering is pretty vague.

So the general idea is you have a lot of money you made illegally. You'd like to deposit it into the banking system, but they're gonna report large deposits to the federal government, mostly for income tax purposes, but also for finding money made illegally.

So instead, you buy a company. Maybe you found one, maybe you buy a struggling one from someone you can trust. Now, you walk into the store you own as though you were a customer, buy a bunch of product, and now you company has a bunch of cash to deposit at the banks. Or at least, that's what the paperwork says happened. And if the auditors come along, it'd be a good idea to actually have a business front, and in 2018, an online business front. Also some inventory, but not anything people actually would walk in and buy; maybe something durable but low tarriff from alibaba, and durable. But don't actually sell it for cheap, or even any price that would actually move that product. After all, you're not here to make money -- you already have it, and more customers means more attention.

Of course, you're also gonna need some invoices to show you're buying all those Queasy Pops you're selling. So maybe you set up two or three companies. Or a whole network of them. Each sale then doubles as income washing for one company, and inventory acquisition for the other. And each company, looked at individually, seems strangely on the up and up; they have a small sum of startup capital, an initial buy of inventory, and buyers paying a healthy margin to pay out to owners with.

So now you can deposit all your mob money in bank accounts, pay out to the owners who can deposit that money, and then spend and pay taxes on it without going to jail. In theory. In practice, the feds figure it out when one of your many sources of illicit income is uncovered and linked to you. Or when that trusted struggling businessman finds a conscious and reports a case of fraud about their new owner. Or when someone actually buys a thing you listed on Amazon, and your returns process is not well rehearsed and leads somewhere it shouldn't have.

So that's my guess as to why this is so complicated.
posted by pwnguin at 10:26 AM on November 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

my brain hurts
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:34 PM on November 28, 2018

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