On my flight back from Croatia at the weekend, I managed to read the entirety of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin E.H. Smith. To be honest, the book itself is not what you think it is, as Sam Kriss notes in his (equally good) review.
I have a background in Philosophy which might have helped with this book, as it delves into the history of ideas quite a bit. Although he outlines four ‘charges’ against the internet, the main thesis that I understand Smith as postulating is that the internet, and in particular the culture around it, shouldn’t be seen as a revolutionary break with what has gone before.
To my mind, Smith makes some good arguments, although he gets too bogged-down with Leibniz for my liking. But in general, I like the book and gave it 4.5 stars out of five on Literal.club. What follows are some of my favourite sections of the book, which I’d encourage you to read.
As the quotations I’m using are fairly lengthy, I’ll introduce each one. In this first one, Smith talks about his phenomenological approach which focuses on actual usage of terms.
It seems reasonable terminologically to follow actual usage, and it seems conceptually justified to focus on the small corner of the internet that is phenomenologically most salient to human life, just as when we speak of “life on earth” we often have humans and animals foremost in mind, even though all the plant life on earth weighs over two hundred times more than all the animals combined, in terms of total biomass. Animals are a tiny sliver of life on earth, yet they are preeminently what we mean when we talk about life on earth; social media are a tiny sliver of the internet, yet they are what we mean when we speak of the internet, as they are where the life is on the internet. (Thus, “internet” serves as a sort of reverse synecdoche, the larger containing term standing for the smaller contained term. The reason for adopting this terminology is that it seems to agree with actual usage among current English speakers; on Twitter, for example, you will often see users declaring exasperatedly that their antagonists need to “get off the internet” and “touch grass.” Here, they don’t really mean the whole internet; they mean Twitter. (p.17)
The four charges that Smith makes are that the internet is addictive, that it shapes human life algorithmically, that there is no democratic oversight of social media, and that it works as a universal surveillance device.
The principal charges against the internet, deserving of our attention here, instead have to do with the ways in which it has limited our potential and our capacity for thriving, the ways in which it has distorted our nature and fettered us. Let us enumerate them. First, the internet is addictive and is thus incompatible with our freedom, conceived as the power to cultivate meaningful lives and future-oriented projects in which our long-term, higher-order desires guide our actions, rather than our short-term, first-order desires. Second, the internet runs on algorithms, and shapes human lives algorithmically, and human lives under the pressure of algorithms are not enhanced, but rather warped and impoverished. To the extent that we are made to conform to them, we experience a curtailment of our freedom. Third, there is little or no democratic oversight regarding how social media work, even though their function in society has developed into something far more like a public utility, such as running water, than like a typical private service, such as dry cleaning. Private companies have thus moved in to take care of basic functions necessary for civil society, but without assuming any real responsibility to society. This, too, is a diminution of the political freedom of citizens of democracy, understood as the power to contribute to decisions concerning our social life and collective well-being. What Michael Walzer said of socialism might be said of democracy too: that “what touches all should be decided by all.” And on this reckoning, the internet is aggressively undemocratic. Fourth, the internet is now a universal surveillance device, and for this reason as well it is incompatible with the preservation of our political freedom. (p.18-19)
Smith goes on to explain the impact of each of these and starts to talk about how the problems interact with one another.
This then is the first thing that is truly new about the present era: a new sort of exploitation, in which human beings are not only exploited in the use of their labor for extraction of natural resources; rather, their lives are themselves the resource, and they are exploited in its extraction.
This then is the second new problem of the internet era: the way in which the emerging extractive economy threatens our ability to use our mental faculty of attention in a way that is conducive to human thriving. Both the first and second problems are aggravated significantly with the rise of the mobile internet, and what Citton astutely labels “affective condensation.” Most of our passions and frustrations, personal bonds and enmities, responsibilities and addictions, are now concentrated into our digital screens, along with our mundane work and daily errands, our bill-paying and our income tax spreadsheets. It is not just that we have a device that is capable of doing several things, but that this device has largely swallowed up many of the things we used to do and transformed these things into various instances of that device’s universal imposition of itself: utility has crossed over into compulsoriness.
This then is the third feature of our current reality that constitutes a genuine break with the past: the condensation of so much of our lives into a single device, the passage of nearly all that we do through a single technological portal. This consolidation, of course, helps and intensifies the first two novelties of our era that we identified, namely, the extraction of attention from human subjects as a sort of natural resource, and the critical challenge this new extractive economy poses to our mental faculty of attention.
If we all find it difficult to distinguish between advertisement and not-advertisement, this is in part because, today, all is advertisement. Or, to put this somewhat more cautiously, there is no part of our most important technology products and services that is kept cordoned off as a safe space from the commercial interests of the companies that own them.
This then is the fourth genuine novelty of the present era: in the rise of an economy focused on extracting information from human beings, these human beings are increasingly perceived and understood as sets of data points; and eventually it is inevitable that this perception cycles back and becomes the self-perception of human subjects, so that those individuals will thrive most, or believe themselves to thrive most, in this new system who are able convincingly to present themselves not as subjects at all, but as attention-grabbing sets of data points. (p.24-28)
Smith uses the example of a partnership between Ancestry and Spotify to be able to ‘play the music that fits with your heritage’. It was a cynical marketing ploy, but he uses it to illustrate a wider point about the role of algorithms in society. His point is a nuanced and important one about how we serve algorithms, rather than having them serve us.
We are not, yet, accustomed to seeing these different trends—the corporate opportunism of Ancestry and Spotify; the sinister right-wing populism of the aforementioned leaders; and the identitarian campaigns for cultural purity driven mostly by young self-styled “progressives” on social media—as inflections of the same broad historical phenomenon. But perhaps their commonality may become clearer when we consider all of them as symptoms of an underlying and much vaster historical shift: the shift to ubiquitous algorithmic management of society, which lends advantage to the expression of opinions unambigous enough (i.e., dogmatic or extremist enough) for AI to detect their meaning and to process them accordingly, and which also removes from the individual subject any deep existential imperative or moral duty to cultivate self-understanding, instead allowing the sort of vectors of identity that even AI can pick up and process to substitute for any real idea of who an individual is or might yet hope to be. (p.56)
In 2011 there was a lot written about how the internet, and social media in particular, was bringing about a new positive world order. There was talk of a ‘deliberative democracy’, but actually (Smith points out) that never materialised.
What we have in fact obtained in place of this is a farcical imitation of deliberation, in which algorithms are designed by the companies that provide the platforms for discussion in order to maximize engagement, a purpose that is self-evidently at odds with the goal of conflict resolution or consensus-building. Social media are in this respect engines of perpetual disagreement, which sharpen opposing views into stark dichotomies and preclude the possibility of either exploring partial common ground or finding agreement in a dialectical fashion in some higher-order synthesis of what at the first order appear as contradictory positions. (p.59-60)
Chapter 2 is the pivotal chapter, as Smith outlines what I consider to be his main thesis that historical human interactions pre-empted internet culture.
The internet is still not what you think it is.
For one thing, it is not nearly as newfangled as the previous chapter made it appear. It does not represent a radical rupture with everything that came before, either in human history or in the vastly longer history of nature that precedes the first appearance of our species. It is, rather, only the most recent permutation of a complex of behaviors that is as deeply rooted in who we are as a species as anything else we do: our storytelling, our fashions, our friendships; our evolution as beings that inhabit a universe dense with symbols. (p.64)
He continues some pages later on the same theme.
Anthropogenic alterations of the natural environment are often too subtle to detect, even when they profoundly transform it, as for example in efforts to distinguish controlled-burning events from naturally occurring fires in human prehistory, or perhaps in the particular quality of Amazonian biodiversity today. If we were not so attached to the idea that human creations are of an ontologically different character than everything else in nature—that, in other words, human creations are not really in nature at all, but extracted out of nature and then set apart from it—we might be in a better position to see human artifice, including both the mass-scale architecture of our cities and the fine and intricate assembly of our technologies, as a properly natural outgrowth of our species-specific activity. It is not that there are cities and smartphones wherever there are human beings, but cities and smartphones themselves are only the concretions of a certain kind of natural activity in which human beings have been engaging all along. (p.89)
As a philosopher, Smith draws on a rich history of ideas and can weave together quite the rich picture of how the internet fits in with that history.
I am not, here, going quite so far as to say that the internet proves the truth of the theory of the world soul as it descends from Greek antiquity to the present day. I am too responsible to say that. Rather, I will carefully venture, as I began to do in the previous chapters, to note that it will help us to understand the nature and significance of the internet to consider it as only the most recent chapter in a much longer, and much deeper, history. (p.130)
From here, there’s a fascinating discussion of metaphor and what counts as ‘simulation’. There’s also a great section on AI. So I’d encourage you to read it!