Many have diagnosed these symptoms and proposed policy solutions, but few have done the hard work of rummaging around in the internet’s history to find the roots of the problems — and almost none have taken a truly long view. In The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, Justin E. H. Smith, a philosopher and historian of science, argues that we’ve been much too narrow-minded in our understanding of the internet. In presenting a longue durée history, he challenges our assumptions about what the internet is and what we’re doing when we’re on it. Only by understanding the internet’s long history — by understanding the circumstances in which the internet’s many parts were conceived — can we, he claims, take back control of our lives and shape the internet in a way more conducive to human flourishing.
JULIEN CROCKETT: You credit the birth of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is with a melancholic piece you wrote in 2018–’19, “It’s All Over.” Can you tell us about that piece and why it inspired you to write about the internet and ultimately this book?
JUSTIN E. H. SMITH: In the end, the book turned out to be something very different, both with respect to tone and argument from the 2018–’19 piece that I wrote as a “rant.” The book has some serious scholarly philosophical theses to defend, so it tones down the polemics. That said, “It’s All Over” inspired me to start trying to hone and articulate an argument about why the internet functions in society the way it does, and what the harms both seen and unseen about this function might be. But also, as I started working on the book, it started to align with some of my long-standing, non-polemical scholarly interests in the history and philosophy of science, and particularly in the history of reflection on what counts as a system or as an organized being. So, coming at the philosophical questions from a point of view that extends well beyond the history of technology, and into reflections on things like ecology and natural systems as well.
In “It’s All Over,” you focus a lot of your critique on algorithms, a critique you expand in your book as one of multiple explanations for our “crisis moment.” Can you tell us what you mean by “crisis moment” and how “algorithms” contribute to it?
Algorithms in themselves are neither good nor bad. And they can be implemented even where you don’t have any technology to implement them. That is to say, you can run an algorithm on paper, and people have been doing this for many centuries. It can be an effective way of solving problems. So the “crisis moment” comes when the intrinsically neither-good-nor-bad algorithm comes to be applied for the resolution of problems, for logistical solutions, and so on in many new domains of human social life, and jumps the fence that contained it as focusing on relatively narrow questions to now structuring our social life together as a whole. That’s when the crisis starts.
But the crisis really heats up when the algorithm’s structuring power bends back upon us and constrains us into thinking of ourselves as if we were algorithmic systems. And therefore, to accept the dictates of algorithms in deciding what, for example, the next song we should listen to on Spotify is, accepting that it will be an algorithm that dictates this because we no longer recognize our non-algorithmic nature and we take ourselves to be the same sort of beings that don’t make spontaneous irreducible decisions about what song to listen to next, but simply outsource the duty for this sort of thing, once governed by inspiration now to a machine that is not capable of inspiration.
You identify as another contributing factor to our crisis moment the internet’s addictive nature. How do algorithms play a role in addiction?
We use the term algorithm in a lot of ways. On social media, for example, people use the ironic and diminutive “algo” — and not in a particularly technical sense. What it usually means there is “that which structures social media based on a principle,” which is somewhat the opposite of what we used to call the “fire hose.” The fire hose was like in early Facebook days, when you saw the posts of everyone who was in your network in the order in which they were posted and that was the end of the story. I remember first starting to become clued in to the fact that that wasn’t the way it was working anymore, circa 2011, when I was seeing a lot more stupid stuff, and a lot more stuff that was clearly nudging me in one direction or another, rather than giving me an autonomous view of the landscape of information out there. And it’s only gotten worse, again, for reasons that we somewhat loosely attribute to the algorithms. And the reason why they abandoned the fire hose and started nudging us this way or that is because the social media companies are private for-profit companies, and the more they can nudge us to watch or to keep looking, to keep refreshing, the more money they’re going to make. So that’s not a philosophical problem. It’s just a massively concerted effort to streamline and maximize our screen time. And, of course, they’re going to use all of the information available to make that happen, which is to say to maximize addictiveness.
And one product of this is that a lot of today’s cultural products invite only fleeting rather than sustained attention, right? We are constantly being nudged to move on to the next thing, which, as you argue, is not conducive to human flourishing or to leading a meaningful life.
This is why it’s so important at the outset to resist the kind of facile accusation of Ludditism. Critiquing the internet, and social media in particular, as it currently functions can only be a kind of a call to return to some sort of anarcho-primitivist pre-computer reality, which obviously, I mean, I wouldn’t say nobody is calling for that, but there are other options in between the two extremes of saying everything’s great on the one hand, and anarcho-primitivism on the other. So this isn’t Luddite-ism but instead an attempt to recognize the ways in which in its current usage the internet — and I use the internet as a kind of general term for what I sometimes call the phenomenological or the salient internet, the part that we are glued to for most hours of our waking lives — hinders the exercise of attention, which, indeed, in the book I try to argue is crucial to a thriving human life.
Now, obviously, if you look at a comparable and more deeply rooted history of technology, such as cinema, for example, in 1895, the longest cinematic presentations were under a minute and within 70 years, you had things like the Andy Warhol Empire that lasted more than eight hours, and whether or not that’s a masterpiece of world cinema, which can be debated, it is at least an incitement to engage in a marathon exercise of attention. And so far, the internet does not seem to be yielding such insights. On the contrary, everything seems to be geared toward harnessing attention and exploiting attention on the designers’ parts, rather than in cultivating attention on the user’s part.
Is the internet affecting more the behavior of creators or consumers? From your answers, it seems like it affects both rather equally.
One problem is that the line is getting blurry, right? Because users are also volunteers, unremunerated creators. And the companies rely on that as their business model. But there’s certainly some kind of arc whereby the habits are bending together, except that one difference is that many of the people who were initially involved in design, like the person who developed the down swipe, scrolling, and the person who first developed the like button and so on, had much more time and technical knowledge, enabling them to really understand what powers they were unleashing, unlike many of us, who are — ultimately I would say this of myself — not naturally tech-oriented in our way of thinking. I let these things into my life, like a Trojan horse. I did not have a designer’s point of view. When I first used them, I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of neat.”
While it may not be possible to define the internet without diving into its history, I wanted to at least try to define it first. In your book, you distinguish what the internet is from a technical perspective — a global network that connects devices — with understanding it metaphorically. Can you tell us why relying on metaphors is helpful? And, in the internet’s case, why use ecological metaphors?
My understanding of the internet comes from a long background of thinking, writing, and teaching about animal minds and what you might broadly think of as the philosophy of living and complex systems, which, for a while in the mid-20th century was called the science of cybernetics. So I’ve been thinking mostly about animal communication systems, but also plant communications, the systems of exchange of pheromones and communication at the molecular level via cameo receptors and insects. All of these things interest me because I take it that throughout nature there is widespread tendency for members of the same kind to develop ways of staying in touch and staying in touch intimately across distances. This might be seen as some kind of norm in the development of species and one that human beings until the past few centuries were not fully living up to.
I also talk about the phenomenological internet. And this is something that, if you are, say, driving through a state park, and you look at your phone, and it says no service on it, you immediately feel like you’re in a different zone of reality. Like you’ve moved into a different dimension. Like there is a force that is missing in that zone, without which the world is not complete. It’s like suspending gravity or something. And this is interesting, because I’m old enough to remember a time when that force was not there and not taken for granted. But even then, we had transistor radios and an awareness of say, waves moving through the ether, in virtue of which we were all in some way connected. And in fact, there is a certain respect in which such a force has always been presupposed, even if it’s only in the past 150 years or so that we really started both understanding and taking advantage of this force (or these forces, if you want to talk about, say, telegraphy, telephony, radio, fiber optic cables all together). It’s only been a century and a half or so that we’ve really taken advantage of this force, even if we’ve always in various ways felt that it had to be there. And we’ve used various supernatural ways of accounting for it, like appeals to what we would today think of as magical forces. But I argue in the book that the internet is a confirmation of a general outlook on the world that takes it for granted that there are more or less simultaneous or instantaneous connections between all things in the world, potentially all things in the universe. So, broadly speaking, you could say that the internet, as I’m describing it, is the experience of tapping into this force of instantaneous connection.
You have a fascinating section in your book called “Do We See Through the Internet” where you explore what it is that we’re actually doing when we’re online. Can you talk about that section?
The phrase “do we see through the internet” is a reference — and historians of science will recognize the reference — to the wonderful philosopher and HPS scholar Ian Hacking, who has an article from 1983 called “Do We See Through a Microscope,” a classic philosophy of science reflection on the way instruments mediate even what we take to be direct observation, and have done so for a long time. I tried to show that much of our experience of the internet is a form of real experience that is mediated through an instrument, but not made less real for that.
So there are obviously different circumstances in which we use the internet and different explanations will apply in different circumstances. But, for example, one of the things that I often do on the internet is access digital collections of scanned manuscripts. And when I access the BnF or open a scan of a manuscript of Mersenne, it’s safe to say that I am literally doing archival research, not a simulation of archival research. That’s just what archival research is. And the other example that I like to give is extending this to mediation as a visual tool, like a microscope or a telescope. If I’m a NASA employee, I can go down to the observatory if I want, and look at the screens at the observatory. But it’s also quite likely that I can access those same screens from home with a password and look at cosmic background radiation on the margins of the observable universe. So both of these are just looking at screens. Why should I have to drive to the hilltop observatory in order for it to count as seeing the cause?
There’s confusion, I think. Because of the noxious and exploitative traps through which much of our experiences of the internet are mediated — like social media in particular — we tend to think of that as the paradigm of internet usage. You could also ask, however, of social media — just like you could ask at the BnF website, whether you’re really doing research, or with the NASA website, whether you’re really observing the universe — are you really conversing? Are you really debating? And I think the answer is, almost always, no. What’s happening on social media is rather a simulation of discussion and debate. Or, as I like to put it, Twitter is a debate-themed video game, in the same way that, say, Grand Theft Auto is a stolen-car-chase-themed video game. So in brief, there are some things you can actually do on the internet: you can observe galaxies, you can presumably get married, you can submit a prayer to God, any number of things are just as real on the internet as doing them in flesh and blood. But the great exception to that, I would argue, is social media, where it’s more like a false suffocation or a perversion of the thing it pretends to be.
Is the difference there the economic model that’s driving engagement?
That’s what it all comes back to and that’s why in the end philosophy isn’t the most interesting register with which to engage some of these questions. My philosophy of why social media are so terrible is just basic economics. And I’m not sure that counts as philosophy — though there is lively debate about that. And so it’s the economics that underlies the addiction, and the addiction that results from nothing more than gamification. In the end, “likes” are points, “likes” are the same as getting free guides, or whatever, even if you’ve moved on to the kind of video game that is less focused on hand-eye coordination, and more focused on, say, slow strategic maneuvering. It’s still “debate-themed” rather than debate. And this is a real problem because there’s no other game in town. At this point, if you have any lingering hope for the prospects of deliberative democracy, the idea that you need to find a neutral public space to pursue it in, it’s just so obvious that the only possible setting is online. I mean, you can go print pamphlets in your basement if you want but that’s not going to get your movement very far. So we only have one choice as a public space, and it’s a spurious one. It’s one that can’t be a public space because its raison d’être is something quite different.
Bringing it back to the history portion, is an accurate summary of your book that what you set out to do is provide a history of the internet, looking at the best and worst motivations of those creating it, in order to understand the internet and perhaps imagine a new and better way forward?
Yeah, that’s a good summary. Some people, prima facie, will be disinclined to read a book that’s supposed to be about the internet, but then goes on for many pages about characters like Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon — two different Bacons — and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and all sorts of figures who lived out their entire lives long before the internet came into existence. Why should we dwell on those people? Well, I am of the conviction — and I kind of have to be as a historian and philosopher of science — that looking at these kind of longue durée dynamics of the history of something is a way of really getting on top of it, and figuring out how not to be dominated by these things. By learning about the circumstances in which they were first conceived by freely reflecting human minds, we are then better able to return to a position where we can say, well, these are very impressive technological innovations, but no technological innovation will ever be so worthy as to justify letting it take control of our lives in the way they have. That’s the point of the longue durée history. I don’t know whether it’s going to convince everyone. But it’s my general approach.
If I were to try to write something about, say, the philosophy of cinema, which now sounds like a very antiquated effort, I would spend considerable time looking at 19th-century social realist novels and shadow plays and Impressionist painting and other technologies and creative movements that preceded the coming together of the prerequisites for a new art of cinema. Similarly for the internet, one finds it worthwhile to ask what were all those things that people were previously doing that, sometime around the end of the 20th century, were able to come together in the form of something that does not seem to have existed previously. So, again, the long-term history shows us that the internet doesn’t come out of nowhere, even if it took a while for all the right gears to be in place for it to start working as the internet.
Why is the 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz such a central figure in your history of the internet?
I’ve been working on Leibniz for years and years. I wrote my dissertation on him. And I’ve always been kind of a Leibnizian. And for years, I thought I would like to get away from him. But one of the problems is he’s the ultimate early modern polymath, someone who wrote on absolutely everything there was to know. So, you know, you change your interests, and he’s still around the corner waiting for you. He’s incredible in that way. So, at some point, I stopped trying to get away from him, and just started using him as the takeoff point for any number of inquiries that I myself might want to make. And sometimes, of course, I worry whether I’m exaggerating his significance. But in this case, I really don’t think I am.
By the mid-1670s, Leibniz was no more than about 30 years old. He had a working prototype for what he called a “reckoning engine,” which is a kind of gear-and-wheel-driven calculator. And he was also aware of and indeed an inventor of the binary calculus, recognizing that all information can be encoded in zeros and ones. So, given that, even if his reckoning engine was just for arithmetic, potentially something similar with information translated into zeros and ones could do more than number crunching: it could also do concept crunching. That’s where you have something that looks like a computer in our sense. Arguably, the first real successful innovations on that front are with Babbage and Lovelace in the 1830s. But what Leibniz does with his reckoning engine and his binary calculus together is envision a near future in which we will be able to outsource a considerable amount of our reasoning to external prosthesis, to machines. Leibniz envisions a world of outsourced reason and thinks that this is going to be an improvement, in part because machines aren’t swayed by the passions. He really believes that once we have a rigorous formal language that enables us to enter information into machines, we will be able to just say, “calculemus,” or “let us calculate” for the resolution of any problem, any disagreement, theological or political. Two empires about to go to war can just input their positions, and the machine will tell you who is right. And this is the key to lasting peace for Leibniz.
Now, what I argue is that the arc of that particular utopian dream about technology is very long. In fact, it goes from the mid-1670s to precisely the mid-2010s, by which point it became painfully obvious that such outsourcing of reason was actually causing problems even as it was solving old problems. It was certainly not the path to world peace and stability that one might have hoped for in an earlier generation.
How was Leibniz’s utopian dream received in his era? Did people think that he was naïve?
No. He had many visions for how society might be improved upon by, for example, reckoning engines or automated street lights that go on at evening or a shuttle that would move between Amsterdam and Hanover in six hours (not quite clear what was going to power it). He was churning out projects because that was his job. And he was by no means the only person in the Republic of Letters who functioned that way, although he was a particularly ingenious one. But you know, a lot of people were busy with the same kinds of projects. By the 18th century, famously, people are already mocking Leibniz for being too optimistic. That’s the whole conceit of Voltaire’s Candide from the late 18th century, the idea of this as the best of all possible worlds comes to be a simplified caricature and misunderstood. The story that I’m relating about Leibniz and his role in the history of computing has not typically been seen as grounds for mockery. There have been people who have criticized this tech utopianism, but seldom trace it back to Leibniz as the founder.
And as you mentioned, he understood that there were limits to what we should outsource to machines.
Yes. Any student who’s told they’re not allowed to use a calculator on a test and should show their algebra can quote from Leibniz who effectively says: “We are rational spirits created in God’s image, why should we waste our time on long division?” So he absolutely thinks that basic mathematics, which many philosophers, including in some respects Leibniz himself, think is the paradigmatic expression of reason, should be outsourced so that we can think about more interesting things like morality and metaphysics.
But one thing that he didn’t anticipate was that we would start seeing ourselves in the machines that were only meant to serve as prostheses, right?
Right. And this is the next level of crisis when the algorithmic image is reflected back to the human subject and human beings interpret their own life and fate as an algorithmic process. This is something we see increasingly if you look at the literal algorithmicization or gamification of many domains of human life. Take for example, the innovation of companies like Uber to use video-game-like point accumulation as the kind of intrinsic motor of work. This fundamentally changes what we think work is or can be understood to be. You can extend this same kind of algorithmic self-image to such things as intimate relationships and daily mundane routine habits like the number of minutes you spend sitting versus standing. When you have all the information on display, it’s all gamified. And there’s nothing left that you could properly call the life of the human subject. Under these circumstances, I argue, the Oracle’s command to know thyself is misinterpreted. Knowing your blood sugar at regular intervals or knowing your average heart rate over the course of the workday creates a real danger that that knowledge will exhaust what we take the task of self-knowledge to be.
Now for the million-dollar question: How should we shape the internet to make it more conducive to human flourishing? And how does looking back toward Leibniz help us do that?
The zoomed-out view enables us to see some of our hopes for the internet that have failed to materialize. And when we do that, we’re in a better position to begin diagnosing the obstacles that prevented them from materializing. Why did so many of the high hopes that we had from the 1670s to the 2010s fail to come about? Is this because of something intrinsically in us as users? I argue, absolutely not. And this is the devil’s ultimate trick, to convince us, individually, that the whole problem is that we’re too weak in character, and too prone to doom scrolling, or just, you know, too lazy and ambitionless to solve the problem at an individual level. I think that’s a cop out. I think something this big and this transformative at a global scale is not the sort of thing that’s going to be solved by focusing on individual behavior, even if individual behavior is often revelatory of what the problem is.
I’m mostly a “via negativa” thinker. I don’t have policy solutions. If I did, it would be a very different kind of book. The opposite extreme from what we have right now, which is for-profit companies structuring our lives through algorithms, is a government seizure of social media and recognition of their status as a public utility, or something like that. That, too, would be terrible for reasons I don’t find it hard to anticipate. In different government/enterprise meshes in different systems throughout the world, including the United States, but also significantly, China, we’re seeing one and the same thing slowly emerge, again, under very different legal systems in very different cultures with different historical legacies. And that is, namely, a system in which algorithms constrain and define and limit our identities rather than enabling us to cultivate our freedoms.
One thing that surprised me with your book is that you end on an optimistic note. Quoting your last paragraph: “I type the phrase ‘Kuiper Belt’ as quickly as I can think it, as quickly as I can perceive the desire to absorb the facts of it, and no less quickly do the facts come pouring in from my screen. It is a dream come true, this cosmic window I am perched up against, this microcosmic sliver of all things.”
I threw that final chapter in as a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s the most personal of all the chapters, and it describes my actual usage habits of the internet, but of Wikipedia in particular, which, after more than a decade of constantly consulting it, I take as a kind of cognitive prosthesis of my own. Do I know what the Kuiper Belt is? Or what a quasar is? Well, I know that, at any moment, I could access this electronic prosthesis of my mind and tell you what a quasar is. Twenty years ago, if I were walking down the street and I had a sudden thought, like, “Hmm, what is a quasar?” I probably would have just thought, “Ah, I’ll learn someday.” And I would have dropped it. Now, if I wonder what a quasar is, I’m on Wikipedia within seconds. So that has changed me cognitively. For better or worse, it has displaced older, more ingrained cognitive habits, and made me extremely reliant on this prosthesis. On the other hand, I really do think I am now more encyclopedic, even when momentarily cut off from my prosthesis, than I would have been had this technology not emerged. I just take it for granted that I should know what quasars are, I should know what proteins make up milk, stuff like this. I should just know all this in a way that is, I think, imposing quite a high standard that has everything to do with the state of technology in my lifetime, rather than with any kind of absolute standard of what one should know.
So I was thinking about this a lot as I was writing that final chapter, because I wrote it in the first two months of the pandemic, trapped in lockdown in a very small apartment in Brooklyn, because I had a fellowship in New York in 2019–’20. I was all of a sudden cut off from the New York Public Library where I had my office, and this still vestigial adoration of physical books was very much part of the culture of the common center — we were there to create new books after all. And so the fact that books are very much on their way out was a fact that we did our best not to acknowledge in that setting. But then when I was stuck at home under lockdown in these rather scary circumstances, I was put in mind in particular of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which he wrote in exile in Istanbul during World War II, without his library. So the work itself is a meditation on what it’s like to be cut off from your books, even as it’s also about books. My point is not to claim any real similarity to Auerbach’s project, but to say that this writing is a product of a sudden cutting off of a certain form of engagement with knowledge that has predominated over the past several centuries. But being cut off in that way also forces a reflection on what that several-centuries-long history was all about, and on what’s changing cognitively and culturally in the present moment. Talking about that personal experience of looking to Wikipedia as a solace in the absence of books in a transformed world when one is trapped at home is I wouldn’t say so much optimistic as bittersweet, maybe. Looking for some kind of hope in this new cognitive technological conjuncture.
What makes Wikipedia different, in your perspective, from other aspects of the internet?
There are minor structural components that keep it from being totally rotten, which is, you know, what you should naturally expect of any well-known website: that it veers toward rottenness. Wikipedia has not veered in that way because of a few simple obstacles to low-effort vandalism and conspiracy theories, and so on. And so, over time it’s been pushed to this remarkable level of encyclopedic detail by what is a rather small cohort of goodwilled editors. For me, it expresses a kind of Leibnizian conception of knowledge — just details within details within details. That is the nature of the hyperlink. And it corresponds to a certain encyclopedic hunger that I admit I share with Leibniz.
Julien Crockett is the Science and Law Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.