Net Loss

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning by Justin E. H. Smith. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 208 pages. $25.
The cover of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning

The first four nodes of ARPANET—the Department of Defense’s primeval internet—were connected in 1969, the very year that Theodor W. Adorno died. In retrospect, it seems a cruel coincidence; it is difficult to imagine a cultural technology more deserving of Adorno’s truculent analysis than the internet, or to locate a comparable living thinker able to explain why a worldwide network that was supposed to unite everyone and improve everything tremors with feelings of disconnection and debasement.

The beginning of Justin E. H. Smith’s new book reads as if it might deliver this lost critique, given his previous, excellent entry, Irrationality, which was consciously indebted to Adorno and Max Horkheimer. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is begins by attributing our online despondency to familiar effects: the dopaminergic designs of online features and the resulting “crisis of attention” experienced by users; the superannuation of traditional “journalism, music, film, higher education, publishing”; the unaccountability of social-media firms whose platforms have become “universal surveillance device[s]” and vehicles of misinformation; and the reduction of political discourse, career advancement, and much else to a “point-scoring video game.”

Yet this book could not be summarized as a jeremiad against cyberspace, because it, like most of Smith’s essays and scholarship, rarifies its subject through its author’s talent for synthesizing seemingly disparate ideas and endeavors. In building an alternative model of the internet, Smith transports his reader between discussions of Proust and 1940s hunting gadgetry; the signaling of sperm whales and the metaphysics of methyl jasmonate; Melanesian ritual masks and the Kuiper Belt; Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics and Grand Theft Auto; the nascent industry of “teledildonics” and the rueful poetics of railways; Kant’s epistemology and the pablum of Mark Zuckerberg. In a book that meditates upon networks, webs, and connections, Smith’s astounding range becomes something of a method for revealing the interconnectedness of everything between stars and modems.

Accessing such a mystic vision first requires a deeper accounting of the shittiness of online experience. Smith is a historian of science, and so he appreciates how human understanding of nature is often constrained by era-defining technology. Not accidentally did the profusion of mechanical inventions of seventeenth-century Europe correspond with the prevalence of the “mechanical philosophy,” which conceived of living creatures as automata and the universe as grandfather clockwork. The persistent human dream that every object under the sun is simply a natural version of our own handiwork is powerfully seductive, as it allows us to believe that we might know nature and ourselves as intimately as we know our favorite contraptions (thereby attaining what Francis Bacon called “maker’s knowledge”).

Smith easily demonstrates that the internet is no exception to this historic tendency. Over the past four decades we have been busy reconceptualizing nearly everything about ourselves, including our vision of nature, in terms of the ancillary technologies of the internet: computers, networks, programs, and algorithms. But this has proved to be an impressive exercise in self-deception. Instead of deepening our knowledge of humanity and the universe, we have merely denatured ourselves and developed a monstrous resemblance with the technologies we know so well.

Smith sees this transmogrification at work in online vernaculars, by which we refer to those who spend too much time on social media as “data cows,” or to our ideological opponents as “bots,” implying “that their opinion is so crude that it may as well have been automatically generated.” These and many other idioms express a wider confusion of mind for computer, behavior for subroutine—which, implausibly, is now found in both popular culture and academia, where you are equally likely to learn that the human brain is nothing more than wet circuitry. Even spiritual considerations have been similarly updated. We learn from the technicist cults of Silicon Valley that our cosmic destiny is yet a small step in the runaway progression toward a godlike superintelligence, or that the universe itself is a simulation, one quite similar, if more advanced, to the kind dreamed up in Palo Alto. Imagine that.

The exaggeration of the ways in which we and our world resemble computer programs would seem like nothing more than techie hubris, if it had not been so thoroughly systematized in life online. We know that sites like Facebook, Amazon, and YouTube are governed by underlying algorithms that personalize their presentation to us. But prolonged engagement with the business end of these algorithms invites them into our psyche. Suddenly we are buying things we didn’t know we wanted, or castigating our enemies on Twitter because it will garner the attention that the platform trades in. Through this dynamic, we are encouraged to think of our preferences, thoughts, and behaviors as products of these algorithms. Smith, however, reminds us that our confusion goes both ways, such that we often lend subjectivity, volition, and thought to programs and algorithms. As we have discovered (or imagined) robotic qualities in ourselves, artificial intelligences appear increasingly human.

This popular conceit helps account for the demotic appeal of academics like Nick Bostrom, whose theories of superintelligence rely on the similarity of artificial intelligence to the human variety, which, Bostrom warns, could be surpassed by the very machines it designs. But Smith would remind those like Bostrom that the comparison between mind and computer has always been a metaphor:

Artificial intelligence is only intelligence in a metaphorical sense, where a term is being carried over from one domain into another in which it does not naturally belong, in order, so we think, to help us make sense of what we are observing there. What we are really doing, of course, is seeking to make sense of one thing that is poorly understood in terms carried over from something that is even more poorly understood.

The philosopher of science Theodore L. Brown usefully described the function of metaphor as emphasizing similarities by obscuring differences. This is to say that metaphors, however helpless we are to use them, always hide their exceptions and distortions; a metaphor such as “the mind is a computer seems” so effortless and obvious because it necessarily forecloses all other equations. The real surprise of Smith’s venture is his rejection of our predominant metaphors for internet technologies. Though it requires him to forgo the critical demolition to which one yearns to see the internet subjected, this choice ultimately allows Smith to recast his subject into something a thinker like Adorno could never envision: a naturalized internet worthy of our reverence and habitation.

The internet for Smith cannot merely be the product of private technical savvy or government largesse. Rather, Smith argues that what we call the “internet” is the latest iteration of an artifact that has appeared throughout human history because its animating impulse—to connect, communicate and synthesize—is embedded in the greater imperium of life to which we belong.

Consider slime mold. Smith details experiments in which the Physarum polycephalum mold is introduced to nodes of oatmeal that are arranged exactly like “different towns around Tokyo.” By seeking its food, the slime mold will soon replicate “with surprising precision the existent Tokyo suburban train network,” suggesting that the capacity for optimal interconnection is not unique to our species. Smith also relays the work of plant scientists who have characterized “the internet-like qualities of underground systems of exchange, facilitated by bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi that are realized along the roots of trees.” This “complex and collaborative structure” over which organisms “exchange vital information with one another at long distances” has been irritatingly but appropriately called the “wood wide web.”

The networking displayed by our moldy and woody kin naturally manifests in us, the junior species. Smith analyzes a variety of inventions, seemingly hokey to the modern eye, such as the “Infinite Book Wheel,” designed by Agostino Ramelli in sixteenth-century Italy. A sort of oversized rolodex for gouty scholars, the device held open books along a large spinnable wheel, allowing its user to consult many tomes without locomotion. Smith writes, “We might imagine loading it with one particularly difficult text whose concepts and vocabulary have not all been mastered by the reader, and then also with other reference works, open to pages that explicate these concepts and vocabulary.” Smith then cleverly invites the reader to consider the difference between Ramelli’s wheel and hyperlinks (which perform digitally what the book wheel did physically).

Exploration of the internet through ecological metaphors leads Smith to Wikipedia, the vast and ever-changing ecosystem of human knowledge, which he rightly sees as a glimmering exception to the “dystopian turn” of the internet. This concluding section is disappointingly scant, mostly because the book’s revisory structure implies what Smith states at the outset: that the crises fomented by the internet are not “so bleak as to be unimprovable by historical investigation into its origins and development.”

The project of naturalizing the internet cannot tell us how to make such an improvement; nature cannot decide any more than an algorithm does. So it might have helped for Smith to have more fully explored how models like the online encyclopedia could redeem an otherwise dehumanizing technology we must learn to live with and within (after all, he knows that “there is no going back”).

Smith understands that the primary innovation of the internet was not the storage or rapid accessibility of all the world’s discrete bits of knowledge, but rather was in bringing those bits closer together so that the singular human imagination might begin composing them. In the digital age, the world is at your fingertips, but it is also in pieces. The alternative internet that Smith only sketches would seem to be a venue where we could experience the “connectedness and unity of all things” in a manner that is so rare IRL. If I must spend my life wired into some kind of network, I would rather it be there.

Trevor Quirk is a writer living in Asheville, NC. He is presently researching a book about nihilism in American culture.