TALKING SPONGES, spelling snails, dogs whose howls can be triggered from 1,000 miles away – these are but a few of the many historical examples upon which Justin EH Smith draws to illustrate the persistence of the telecommunicative imaginary throughout human history. Working in the same vein of scholarship as Ian Hacking’s “historical ontology,” Smith presents a view of technology in his new book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning, that is the exact antithesis of much fashionable continental theorizing. Unlike a Kittler or Virilio – who see the technological object as forming the human subject who comes in contact with it, teaching him or her how to use it, its operation and value not explicitly designed but latent within its form, waiting to be discovered – Smith sees technology as a prosthesis, designed to meet stable desires: “[N]otwithstanding the enormous changes in the size, speed, and organization of the devices we use from one decade or century to the next, what these devices are, and how they shape our world, has been substantially the same throughout the course of human history. ” In Smith’s view, the technological object is not “a discursive product forever trapped within the confines of a single epoch’s epistēmē,” but rather a continued striving toward what he presents as the dominant end of human technological innovation: the facilitation of communication.
A genealogy of this striving takes up a sizable portion of this book, with recurring references to the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whom Smith identifies as one of the most prominent prefigurers of the internet, both in his designs of never-realized machines (such as the succinctly named “An Arithmetical Machine in which Not Only Addition and Subtraction But Also Multiplication and Division Are Carried Out with Virtually No Effort of the Mind”) and in his philosophy, which serves as a utopian theorization of the ur-internet , as well as a necessary corrective to the technophilic algorithm worship of Silicon Valley. Inveighing against Elon Musk and all those other victims of the Californian Ideology who insist that we live in a simulation constitutes a substantial part of the book. While this section seems tangential at first, Smith demonstrates that their error is indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding not only about the internet but also, and perhaps more tellingly, about cognition and what it means to be a thinking being. In Smith’s compelling account, the simulation theorists have fallen victim to a mystification whereby either the human brain becomes an inert mechanical thing (a view Smith considers discredited by Leibniz’s Mill argument, which states that even if we could enlarge the mind to the size of a mill, so that we could freely move inside it and examine it, “we will never find anything to explain a perception”) or else our view of machines regresses to an “understanding of human artifice that ultimately belongs to the pre-scientific era: one that takes our probing into nature, and our channeling of the forces of nature to our own purposes, as something that is ultimately magical, an unleashing of mysterious forces. ”
These techno-mystics – be they game theorists, adherents of simulation theory, or tech moguls – are the source of many of the problems Smith lays out in the book, and so they are, in a way, his ideal audience. In his final chapter, discussing the opportunities provided by the internet during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith makes it clear that his critique is not of the internet as such; telecommunication, after all, is not some unnatural thing but rather a component of our species-being. Moreover, the internet – and Wikipedia specifically, that “infinite book wheel” and “cosmic window,” with the opportunities it offers for a stroll through the archive of human knowledge – is its own small utopia. The problem, as Smith argues in his first chapter, is social media – which, though it represents only a small fraction of the unwieldy, unindexed, gesamt internet, is the segment the majority of us use. Social media, he writes, “are where life is on the internet.”
This “life” is a hell of bots and humans indistinguishable therefrom, replete with corrupted attention and misread intention. We have witnessed, in the ascendency of Facebook, Twitter, and their epigones, the consummation of an extractive economy that rivals the oil industry in terms of its built-in misanthropy. While the perils of the internet do not equal the destructiveness of climate change, we can at least say of the oil economy that its environmental damage, and consequent destruction of the human world, is only an epiphenomenon, whereas for the internet, the destruction of the human is itself the source of value. “If we could put [the internet] on trial, ”Smith writes in his introduction,“ its crime would be a crime against humanity. ” The first chapter then offers four principal antihuman transformations wrought by social media: first, “a new sort of exploitation, in which human […] lives are themselves the resource ”; second, a resultant constraint on “human thriving” through the steady impoverishment of our ability to pay attention, to attend to things (for Smith, a philosophically privileged activity); third, “the condensation of so much of our lives into a single device,” an intensification of the first two changes; and finally, the reduction of human beings to data points. This fourth change is perhaps most fundamental – not only are we reduced by the gaze of the extractive machine, but the internalization of this algorithmic logic reduces our own self-conception as well:
[I]t 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.
This is not an intrinsic fault of the internet, Smith asserts, nor of telecommunication technologies more generally, which actually encode an admirable dream of human interconnectedness. “[T]here does not seem to be anything about the technology itself that would explain this failure, ”he writes. What does explain the failure of this dream is predictable, yet no less true for that: capitalism. Many critics have argued that social media, and the so-called platform capitalism they express, are essentially antihuman. That they are degrading and destroying our ability to attend to things is, at this point, beyond doubt. I have yet to find anyone who demonstrates the validity of this critique as succinctly as Smith does here. To disagree with this account of the baleful effects of our contemporary internet seems to be possible only if you disagree with Smith’s philosophical axioms: that focused attention is important and that humans have an innate potential it would be a shame to squander.
If I have a quibble with The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, it is not with Smith’s condemnation of social media and its extractive logics, nor is it with his method of “zooming out,” a sort of historiographic pointillism that, admittedly, can at times produce a somewhat vertiginous effect. (I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that, while reading about a fanciful 17th-century report detailing the use of talking sponges by residents of South Seas islands to communicate over distances, I wondered how, exactly, this relates to the problems of social media.) My quibble, rather, is with what seems to be a failure to address the key issue of technology itself. The web of the spider, the click of the whale, the tropism of fungi are all adduced as examples of Smith’s salutary de-anthropocentric view of telecommunication technologies. Yet to equate these disparate activities seems to elide the central conundrum of our species, which is itself perhaps the condition of possibility of the crisis Smith is addressing: technology, and specifically the internet, is Frome us but not of us. Whales click by means of flap valves, spiders spin by means of their spinnerets, but we tweet by means of our phones. These things may resemble each other insofar as they are all technologies in a capacious sense, but there is a clear, essential difference. The phone is not of us in the way the spinneret is of a spider, and while it may be true that the urge to tweet is natural, the capacity to tweet is not.
I do not mean by this to “refute” Smith’s argument; I think situating human telecommunication in its ecological context is useful and necessary. The internet, in many senses, is not a rupture from the human and natural history that preceded it: we have always wanted to communicate, and we are not the only beings that can. Smith wonders:
Isn’t it possible that the most recent outgrowths of our own species-specific telecommunicative activity […] are in fact something more like an outgrowth latent from the beginning in what we have always done, an ecologically unsurprising and predictable expression of something that was already there?
This may be true, and The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is provides a compelling case. This, however, does not eliminate the question of technology, a mechanism that is separate from us rather than an inherent component of our corporeal being. The internet is akin to a global prosthesis, allowing access to vast reserves of knowledge and near-perfect planetary communication. But it is also ruining us. Justin EH Smith has told us in great detail how it got this way; someone else will have to tell us how to fix it.
Joshua Judd Porter is a writer currently living in Brooklyn, New York.