Tag: review

Highlights from ‘The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is’

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.

Book cover for 'The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is'

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!

Friday fawnings

On this week’s rollercoaster journey, I came across these nuggets:

  • Renata Ávila: “The Internet of creation disappeared. Now we have the Internet of surveillance and control” (CCCB Lab) — “This lawyer and activist talks with a global perspective about the movements that the power of “digital colonialism” is weaving. Her arguments are essential for preventing ourselves from being crushed by the technological world, from being carried away by the current of ephemeral divertemento. For being fully aware that, as individuals, our battle is not lost, but that we can control the use of our data, refuse to give away our facial recognition or demand that the privacy laws that protect us are obeyed.”
  • Everything Is Private Equity Now (Bloomberg) — “The basic idea is a little like house flipping: Take over a company that’s relatively cheap and spruce it up to make it more attractive to other buyers so you can sell it at a profit in a few years. The target might be a struggling public company or a small private business that can be combined—or “rolled up”—with others in the same industry.”
  • Forget STEM, We Need MESH (Our Human Family) — “I would suggest a renewed focus on MESH education, which stands for Media Literacy, Ethics, Sociology, and History. Because if these are not given equal attention, we could end up with incredibly bright and technically proficient people who lack all capacity for democratic citizenship.”
  • Connecting the curious (Harold Jarche) — “If we want to change the world, be curious. If we want to make the world a better place, promote curiosity in all aspects of learning and work. There are still a good number of curious people of all ages working in creative spaces or building communities around common interests. We need to connect them.”
  • Twitter: No, really, we’re very sorry we sold your security info for a boatload of cash (The Register) — “The social networking giant on Tuesday admitted to an “error” that let advertisers have access to the private information customers had given Twitter in order to place additional security protections on their accounts.”
  • Digital tools interrupt workers 14 times a day (CIO Dive) — “The constant chime of digital workplace tools including email, instant messaging or collaboration software interrupts knowledge workers 13.9 times on an average day, according to a survey of 3,750 global workers from Workfront.”
  • Book review – Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine (TES) — “Despite the hope that the book is a cure for our educational malaise, Curriculum is a morbid symptom of the current political and intellectual climate in English education.”
  • Fight for the planet: Building an open platform and open culture at Greenpeace (Opensource.com) — “Being as open as we can, pushing the boundaries of what it means to work openly, doesn’t just impact our work. It impacts our identity.”
  • Psychodata (Code Acts in Education) — “Social-emotional learning sounds like a progressive, child-centred agenda, but behind the scenes it’s primarily concerned with new forms of child measurement.”

Image via xkcd

Even in their sleep men are at work

For today’s title I’ve used Marcus Aurelius’ more concise, if unfortunately gendered, paraphrasing of a slightly longer quotation from Heraclitus. It’s particularly relevant to me at the moment, as recently I’ve been sleepwalking. This isn’t a new thing; I’ve been doing it all my life when something’s been bothering me.

When I tell people about this, they imagine something similar to the cartoon above. The reality is somewhat more banal, with me waking up almost as soon as I get out of bed and then getting back into it.

Sometimes I’m not entirely sure what’s bothering me. Other times I do, but it’s a combintion of things. In an article for Inc. Amy Morin gives some advice, explains there’s an important difference between ‘ruminating’ and ‘problem-solving’:

If you’re behind on your bills, thinking about how to get caught up can be helpful. But imagining yourself homeless or thinking about how unfair it is that you got behind isn’t productive.

So ask yourself, “Am I ruminating or problem-solving?”
If you’re dwelling on the problem, you’re ruminating. If you’re actively looking for solutions, you’re problem-solving.

Amy Morin

Morin goes on to talk about ‘changing the channel’ which can be a very difficult thing to do. One thing that helps me is reading the work of Stoic philosophers such as The Enchiridion by Epictetus, which begins with some of the best advice I’ve ever read:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.


Donald Robertson, founder of Modern Stoicism, is an author and psychotherapist. Robertson was interviewed by Knowledge@Wharton for their podcast, which they’ve also transcribed. He makes a similar point to Epictetus, based on the writings of Marcus Aurelius:

Ultimately, the only thing that’s really under our control is our own will, our own actions. Things happen to us, but what we can really control is the way that we respond to those things. Stoicism wants us to take also greater responsibility, greater ownership for the things that we can actually do, both in terms of our thoughts and our actions, and respond to the situations that we face.

Donald Robertson

Robertson talks in the interview about how Stoicism has helped him personally:

It’s helped me to cope with a lot of things, even relatively trivial things. The last time I went to the dentist, I’m sure I was using Stoic pain management techniques. It becomes a habitual thing. Coping with some of the stress that therapists have when they’re dealing with clients who sometimes describe very traumatic problems, and the stress of working with other people who have their difficulties and stresses. [I moved] to Canada a few years ago, and that was a big upheaval for me. As for many people, a life-changing event like that can require a lot to deal with. Learning to think about things like a Stoic has helped me to negotiate all of these things in life.

Donald Robertson

Although I haven’t done it since August 2010(!) I used to do something which I referred to as “calling myself into the office”. The idea was that I’d set myself three to five goals, and then review them at the end of the month. I’d also set myself some new goals.

The value of doing this is that you can see that you’re making progress. It’s something that I should definitely start doing again. I was reminded of this approach after reading an article at Career Contessa about weekly self-evaluations. The suggested steps are:

  1. Celebrate your wins
  2. Address your losses or weaknesses
  3. Note your “coulda, woulda, shoulda” tasks
  4. Create goals for next week
  5. Summarise it all in one sentence

While Career Contessa suggests this will all take only five minutes, I think that if you did it properly it might take more like 20 minutes to half an hour. Whether you do it weekly or monthly probably depends on the size of the goals you’re trying to achieve. Either way, it’s a valuable exercise.

We all need to cut ourselves some slack, to go easy on ourselves. The chances are that the thing we’re worrying about isn’t such a big deal in the scheme of things, and the world won’t end if we don’t get that thing done right now. Perhaps regular self-examination, whether through Stoicism or weekly/monthly reviews, can help more of us with that?

Also check out:

  • Trying (Snakes and Ladders) — “I realized that one of the reasons I like doing the newsletter so much is that I have (quite unconsciously) understood it as a place not to do analysis or critique but to share things that give me delight.”
  • 43 — All in & with the flow (Buster Benson) — “It’s tempting to always rationalize why our current position is optimal, but as I get older it’s a lot easier to see how things move in cycles, and the cycles themselves are what we should pay attention to more than where we happen to be in them at the moment.
  • Four Ways to Figure Out What You Really Want to Do with Your Life (Lifehacker) — “In the end, figuring out your passion, your career path, your life purpose—whatever you want to call it—isn’t an easy process and no magic bullet exists for doing it.”