The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning
March 25, 2022
I often worry that the internet is an informational cesspool that divides us rather than connects us. Justin Smith's new book both confirms and, ultimately, dispels that notion.
The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning by Justin E. H. Smith, Princeton University Press
I picked up Justin Smith’s new book because I don’t want the internet to be what I sometimes worry it is—which is nearly irredeemable. In the struggle between Leibnizian optimism versus Luddite pessimism, I’ve increasingly been falling into the latter camp. I am hoping to be convinced otherwise, so I’ve been turning to books on the topic.
The history and philosophy Smith provides of the internet is deep and broad, and quite unlike any I’ve encountered before. Many books about artificial intelligence and the intellectual building blocks that led to the internet bring in antecedents like Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (present here, as well), but there is a whole cast of characters I had not met in other books. Some of their ideas seem far-fetched, such as using the moon as a natural satellite that can be used as a listening device to hear any conversation taking place on earth (not so far-fetched anymore, in light of our many artificial satellites that can do the same thing). Some are downright fraudulent, like the idea that two snails who have copulated form a bond that can be used as a wireless transmission device spanning great distances, even across continents. But they all point to the fact that telecommunication is not a new concept. Beginning with flag semaphore, and moving through the telegraph and telephony, it is not even entirely new in practice. We forget how transformative those technologies were.
The difference is that the internet and artificial intelligence are—as many, including Smith, argue—ushering in a new age on par with the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. And, as of now:
There is no sign that anyone has a clear plan, or the necessary power, to abate the chaos these technologies have unleashed. We are living in a crisis moment of history, in the true sense of “crisis”: things might get better eventually, but they will never be the same.
Before zooming out, Smith explains what has gone so terribly wrong so far. The first thing is the new form of exploitation we find ourselves contending with on the internet today:
[H]uman beings are not only exploited in the use of their labor for extraction of natural resources; rather, their lives are themselves the resources, and they are exploited in its extraction.
If an overproduction of material goods is a hallmark and legacy of the Industrial Revolution—one that continues unabated to this day—he contends that this new revolution is leading to an overproduction of cultural goods. And, as Smith sees it:
Just as the overproduction of material goods is best understood in terms of its ecological consequences, the new crisis of attention is best understood in similarly ecological terms: as a crisis affecting a particular kind of natural being in a particular sort of informational landscape, one replete with human-made power and dangers.
This second new problem—this crisis of attention—arises from the first, in that the extractive economy only works if the companies that profit from our data are able to attract our attention.
And that brings us to a third new problem: the fact that so much of our lives have now coalesced around and been condensed into a single, universal device, that “nearly all that we do through a single technological portal” makes paying attention to that device compulsory, addictive, and detrimental to our mental faculty of attention.
We pay our bills the same way we play games, shop the same way we talk to our loved ones, work in the same way we relax, argue about politics in the same way we find a mate or a life partner. It is all happening in a commercialized and advertising-laden environment, and not only is it nearly impossible to determine what is an advertisement, we are enticed to become an advertisement—a brand—for our real selves online. The following quote appears earlier in the book, but still reinforces the overall argument:
The charge here is that the internet contributes to the limitation of freedom in all these respects. As such, the internet is anti-human.
The “charge here” isn’t necessarily against the internet writ large, but against the internet as most of us experience it—through social media.
Social media is the gateway to the internet for most people, and in this case, the gateway drug is the most debilitating drug. Tech robber barons push products that rob us of our attention, which “is not only a mental faculty, but also, irreducibly, a moral state.” Not everyone is going to want to delve into the definition and nature of attention Smith offers, its moral aspects, and the academic and philosophical works about it, but it brings a depth that is helpful and serves as an antidote to the surface-level nature that most of our interactions on the internet entail.
Smith admits what he sees as the moral failing of his own Twitter use, but also explains how it has taught him more about the nature of such platforms. Put simply: “Social media … are not enhancements of communication.”
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are, in the end, video games, and so is LinkedIn, and so is ResearchGate. … Twitter is a video game in which you start as a mere “reply guy,” and the goal is to work your way up to the rank of at least a “microinfluencer” by developing strategies to unlock rewards that result in increased engagement with your posts, thereby accruing to you more “points” in the form of followers.
Meanwhile, video games like Fortnite, he says, have simultaneously become social media platforms where people are forming “bonds and enmities … no more nor less real that those forged between adults arguing about politics on a microblogging site.”
And, as Gal Beckerman noted in his recent book, The Quiet Before, some of the platforms designed for gamers to communicate (while they have been used by some of the more terrifying elements of our society to organize things like the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and the January 6th attack on the United Stated capitol) may be better suited for forming real community and real-world organizing. As they are currently constructed, the larger platforms don’t offer such space:
It is difficult to know, yet, what a site for the exchange of ideas would look like that did not rely on algorithms designed in the interest of profit-seeking. But such a thing is of course possible, and what we are seeing now is a sort of perversion of collective deliberation, as people, some of them with sincere good will, seek to use what is essentially a privately owned point-scoring video game as if it were the public sphere. This has led to an absurd predicament for good-faith actors and a luscious opportunity for bad-faith ones. As the pseudonymous Twitter user known only as “Alice from Queens” sharply observes, Twitter is a place where “socialists show contempt for hierarchy, meritocracy and neoliberal competition by competing for status in a game designed by a Silicon Valley overlord.”
We tend to think of the internet, as it exists, as an inevitability. By presenting a history of the ideas that led to it, Smith suggests that while the internet itself may have been inevitable, the economic model it currently operates on is not. Yes, social media companies have turned our experience of it into a video game:
But, again, there does not seem to be anything about the technology itself that would explain this failure. Rather, it is much more likely that the failure can be explained by consideration of the economic model that drives online engagement: a model that, again, maximizes solicitations upon a user’s attention and ensures that the attention is never focused in one place for long. […] Under such conditions, while the extraction of attention remains the basis of the new internet economy, the cultivation of individual attention amounts to a form of resistance against this economy.
Even something as deeply personal to us as our aesthetic sensibilities are being outsourced to algorithms that suggest music and books “you may also like.” Smith writes about a partnership between Spotify and Ancestry that suggests music based upon your DNA that is disturbing on multiple levels.
And yet, near the end of the book, he does reveal his penchant for clicking on links while perusing Wikipedia pages, finding in that a serendipity and exploration that actually holds and extends his attention, and points to the possibility of the internet opening a larger window onto our world (and, indeed, universe) rather than narrowing our focus and annihilating our attention. Wikipedia is the one example he offers of a socially constructed media that has remained unblemished by the business model of the attention and surveillance economy.
Of course, Wikipedia is a nonprofit that relies on volunteer labor, and unless we restructure our economy and society to offer both the education and the leisure time to pursue such interests and create many more projects like it, we will need to find alternate business models.
It is also true that Twitter has become a part of most of our business models. As our company’s marketing director, the idea of not having a presence on Twitter—where we connect with so many authors, publishers, customers, and readers—is unthinkable. And I’ve been not only pleased, but proud of the way our social media managers have used the platform over the years, engaging with people in our community and pointing people to the product we’re pushing—namely books—which hopefully helps negate some of the attentional deficits of being on the platform in the first place. (I like to think of it as a kind of carbon offset for attention.)
When it comes down to it, I would love Twitter to have a different business model and better moderation. Hell, I‘d love for it to be a giant user-owned cooperative that sells only the data we’d wish to give up to fund is continuing existence, where we are able to decide who it is sold to and how they use it, but I’m not sure that would make it any less of a distraction machine. And while I’ve never had a personal an account myself, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I immediately found a thread of experts on and individuals from the region and have been refreshing it constantly throughout the day for a month now. It has decreased my attention to other things and increased my anxiety, but it has also led me to other, more in-depth history, research, analysis, and long-form writing that I am glad to have found.
But let us get back to the book, its critique of the current situation, and why it is important to look at the larger picture in addition to listing the current impediments being erected. As Smith writes:
[L]et us not suppose that zooming out can hold no practical lessons for the present day. Such an assumption is in part how we got into this whole mess in the first place. By treating the internet as a short-term problem-solver, we created for ourselves some new, very big problems; by allowing the internet to compel us to attend to a constant stream of different, trivial things, we have become unable to focus on the monolithically important thing that it is.
And the internet is a monolithically important thing. Smith wants us to see it from both a historical perspective and an ecological perspective, to see how it is “rhizoidal” in nature, similar to what plant scientists have come to call the “wood wide web” of bacteria and fungi that tree groves use to maintain health and communicate with one another across great distances.
It reminds me of how Flynn Coleman suggests in her book, A Human Algorithm, that human intelligence may not be the best model (if we can truly model it at all) for artificial intelligence—that we can and should look at other forms of intelligence, whether we believe them to be conscious or not, as an example. I find this line of thinking compelling and full of hope, with echoes of the connections Richard Powers makes in The Overstory.
Not as hopeful, perhaps, but just as compelling is Caleb Scharf's The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Genes, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithm, which asks, as I put it in a review of the book last year: “Is the dataome a byproduct of us trying to understand our own existence, or is our own existence merely a byproduct of the universe’s inexorable march toward entropy and its desire for energy dispersion?” Even if that purpose would be existentially disheartening, it is still a purpose, and it gives the internet a similarly ecological imperative.
What I appreciate about Smith’s perspective is that it is fundamentally life affirming.
It will help … to understand the internet in its broad ecological context, against the background of the long history of life on earth.
And could it be, correlatively, that the internet is not best seen as a lifeless artifact, contraption, gadget, or mere tool, but as a living system, or as a natural product of the activity of a living system?
Smith dismisses the now-popular hypothesis that we are living in a simulation as “old wine in a new skin,” akin to medieval angelology and celestial intelligence without any of the potential metaphysical truths or upside behind it. As he sees it, “the singularity” of intelligent machines isn’t so near—or as much of a threat to human thriving—as the rise of artificial stupidity that impedes such thriving. For instance:
When a subway turnstile “refuses” to let you through with your suitcase because some motion-detection technology “reads” the latter object as another person, this, one might say, is already the dawn of a sort of robot resistance, even though no one would claim that the turnstile has even incipient consciousness. … It is not artificial intelligence but artificial stupidity, in the original sense of this latter insulting term: dull, inane, lifeless, resistant for no good reason.
It helps that, alongside its academic rigor and tone, the book can also be fun—even playful. Smith clearly relishes a good debate. In dismissing the notion that our entire existence is a video-game simulation, he ponders why such a seemingly absurd idea has gained traction. Is it, in part, an outgrowth of the gamification of our lives on the internet?
If so, it is instructive to remember the internet need not be a game, that it is an anti-human business model—based on surveillance and attention capture—that has made it so.
It is maybe even more instructive to consider the deeper history and potential of ideas that led to the creation of the internet rather than the business model that has addicted us to the gateways into it. If we can remove—or at least move past—those gateways, we might find a window:
One might dare to say, and I am in fact saying, that we always knew the internet was possible. Its appearance in the most recent era is only the latest twist in a much longer history of reflection on the connectedness and unity of all things.
That may sound a little esoteric, but it is grounded in greater science and reason—in our very real existence and ideas up until this point—than the notion that our entire existence is a simulation constructed by an artificial intelligence we have not proven can exist.
At the end of the book, Smith turns to the importance of analogy and metaphor for our understanding of the world, why it is “meaningful and true” to point out the analogous structures of, say, gastropods and galaxies. There is something informative in those analogous structures, something that may point to answers about our existence, or at least better questions and deeper meaning.
If the internet is akin to the rhizoidal network of life that groves of trees communicate through to maintain the health of their ecosystem, perhaps we should focus on promoting and nurturing the health of the similar structures that make up the internet. Perhaps we can turn the focus to how it connects us instead of giving into the ways in which it currently divides us. Pushing back against the idea that we are living in a simulation and focusing instead on the ecology of the internet seems to me a good way to do that.
“The ecology of the internet,” Smith writes, “is only one more recent layer of the ecology of the planet as a whole.”
Smith ends the book pondering where in the body our soul resides. (That might seem like an odd ending reading this now, but it won’t be by the time you reach the end of the book.)
I’ve long believed the soul resides not in the body, but in our breath—that this is what connects us to a living, breathing planet. But when Smith ends up wondering if his soul resides, perhaps, in his fingertips, I understand. Not only do his fingertips connect him to the keyboard that connects him to the internet that gives him a window on a wider world and universe, but they also typed out the text of this book.
I am not sure what beliefs he had about an individual's soul, but the late A. David Schwartz, who owned the bookshops our company evolved out of, believed in the soul of the book. I do, too.
And if it’s in the book, then why not the internet?
If nothing else, Smith has poured some of his soul into this book, and for that I’m grateful. It has reminded me that the internet is us, or at least a part of us, and I don’t believe that we are irredeemable.