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The Sophist Network

Justin E.H. Smith’s recent book is a prime example of how a certain realm of philosophical thinking misunderstands the material impact of the Internet.

There is a feverish search, conducted in books, to find ways to place the Internet within the daily texture of lived experience. Some critics diagnose this condition in psychological terms: as a problem of addiction (to screens and feeds), a problem of overload (of information and content), a problem of fragmentation (of self, community, or a once cohesive social body), or a problem of loss (of authenticity, immediacy, or mental faculties). Others frame life online using the language of political economy: The pervasive capture of personal data by Big Tech monopolies annihilates previous standards of privacy, introduces pernicious mechanisms of surveillance, and may even constitute a whole new model of capital accumulation itself. Each contribution to this literature, however narrow its focus, constitutes an effort to conceptually map a supposedly novel kind of social universe; the very heterogeneity of the strategies testifies to that effort’s insuperable difficulties.

These two approaches, while not exhausting this space by any means, appear often enough to warrant special mention. This is especially true when faced with accounts in which they are mutually dependent: The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning, by Justin E.H. Smith, is one recent attempt to synthesize both these routes. One might think—or hope, rather—that the author of a book boasting such a ham-fisted title would unify these two modes of analysis with bold assertions: locating a bridge from our private experience of the Internet to the impersonal macrostructures propelling society as a whole. Unfortunately, Smith’s core arguments—if they can even be called that—are never articulated as confidently as the title suggests. A professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, Smith has written several books spanning topics from the life sciences to early modern philosophy, and it is through this lens that he seeks to assess the riddle of the Internet. Armed with a bibliography full of Leibniz—whom he nominates as philosophical history’s representative of the longing for rational human governance through technology—as well as a grab bag of eclectic anecdotes (punctuated by trendy epigraphs and tweet-like truisms), Smith seeks to uncover the Internet’s origins in the natural world and in philosophical thought, with the aim of “figuring out what went wrong.”

But we are informed at the outset that the project will not match the challenge it targets, because the challenge is insufficiently identified to begin with. In the book’s introduction, Smith circumscribes his inquiry, stating explicitly (and myopically) that the Internet, for him, is Facebook and Twitter, as “they are what we mean when we speak of the internet.” This is a troublesome assumption indeed. There are innumerable other facets named or suggested in discussions of the Internet, and their effects are at least as consequential: e-commerce and its logistical requirements; digital transactions and data collection practices; cloud-computing server farms and their electricity needs; search algorithms and the ranking, ordering, and indexing of information; platform business arrangements including food delivery, rideshare, domestic labor, and consumer-to-consumer marketplaces—to say nothing of the gargantuan amount of human labor required to maintain, operate, and coordinate it all. If Smith’s assumption—that colloquially the term “Internet” is synonymous with social media—is truly correct, then given the title of the book, shouldn’t that very misnomer be the object of his critique?

By mystifying what deserves to be demystified, Smith affirms and reinforces a mere surface appearance of what the Internet encompasses, obscuring the manifold, inconspicuous, and labyrinthine ways it mediates contemporary life. Rather than reconciling two critical methods, his book flaccidly rehearses, in the affected air of its title, persistent problems in theorizing the Internet.

By way of self-justification for his expansive historical-philosophical survey, Smith first takes stock of the Internet’s damages, outlining our current “crisis moment of history”—which can, apparently, be illustrated entirely with reference to the uses and effects of social media. According to Smith’s narrative, 10 to 15 years ago, many of us (it is not clear exactly who) enthusiastically welcomed social media into our everyday lives, believing it to unequivocally herald “a new era of democracy and egalitarianism throughout the world.” That this utopian dream did not play out is substantiated by way of some fatuous moral hand-wringing, as Smith bemoans the elevation of a “disreputable internet troll” to the presidency of the United States as well as the cancel culture promoted by “online rage addicts.” These are, ostensibly, phenomena attributable solely to the online realm, with no seeming causal affinities with social and economic trends in the offline world. There is no society, only social media.

Though, Smith says, the long arc of technological promise—what he calls the “Leibnizian spirit of the internet”—predates Facebook’s “proof of concept” by centuries. Smith gives this arc precise birth and death dates: from 1678, the putative beginning of the Internet’s guiding ideal of rational universalism, grounded in Leibniz’s desire to outsource decision-making to technology, to 2011, when that ideal was decisively killed and buried. Within this interval, a long line of technological pessimism in Western philosophy is presumably unremarkable—that of Oswald Spengler, José Ortega y Gasset, Martin Heidegger, Lewis Mumford, and Jacques Ellul, or early Internet and computer-age critics like Neil Postman, Clifford Stoll, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Thomas Landauer, all of whom extensively questioned the ability of modern technology to enhance the well-being of humanity. While acknowledging this tradition, which would seem to poke holes in his sweeping periodization, Smith doubles down, insisting that only in 2011 did the dream die.

But how did the utopian Internet perish? For an explanation, Smith turns to what he refers to as a new “economic model” that unexplainably emerged in that year. Yet, in part because the word “capitalism” does not appear once in his book, he struggles to find the vocabulary necessary to investigate many of the very real and vital issues he implicitly, and maybe even unknowingly, invokes. Recalling a variety of recent arguments that user data has become the arch-commodity of the post-Fordist, postindustrial economy, such as those made by Shoshana Zuboff in her 2018 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Smith states that “the main economy is now driven not by what we do, but by the information extracted from us, not by our labor in any established sense, but by our data.” Many rather damning criticisms of this claim have been made—those of Evgeny Morozov in The Baffler and Rob Lucas in the New Left Review are exemplaryand for readers familiar with such work, it might be tempting to simply put the book down here. Designating this select subset of social media the preeminent form of exploitation in our society trivializes the actual operations of the firms—still capitalist, involved in making products, providing services, and employing workers—in question. This is a fraught subtext, and one to be explained and argued, rather than casually posited and assumed.

Zuboff defends her case by identifying a new extraction of “behavioral surplus” through user data, which in turn is mobilized by digital platforms in order to nudge economic activity in directions beneficial to them. For Smith, this new economic logic more accurately exhibits a new extraction of user attention: “namely, the extraction of attention from human subjects as a sort of natural resource.” This is one of the more parochial explanations of the economic model of social media giants provided in recent memory. For one thing, as Smith himself notes, these companies procure nearly all of their revenue through advertising. Product advertisements represent an expense to the companies that advertise; that is, the attention of users is procured at a cost to those companies, and thus the entire business model of Facebook is predicated on the ability of the rest of the economy to finance those costs. Further, a user’s attention to advertisements doesn’t correlate directly to purchases of the products in those advertisements; nor can the platforms that auction screen space on targeted users’ devices guarantee to their clients that it will, their vast user-data-collection procedures notwithstanding. (It is the same with, say, billboard, magazine, newspaper, radio, or television advertising, all pre-Internet practices that likewise cannot be said to run on attention in any meaningful sense.) Additionally, while attention may not be a scarce resource in the sense that other commodities are, the disposable income in a user’s pocket is. For that reason, bombarding a Facebook user with as many product advertisements as possible ceases to make sense economically to companies past a certain point. A final question lingers: What would Smith’s objection be to a Facebook (or Twitter, or Google) without advertising, one that charges subscription fees to users in exchange for services?

Nevertheless, Smith asserts that within this “global corporate resource-extraction effort” can be located the true “threat to human freedom” posed by the Internet. Here we get the first of many shoehorned detours through the history of philosophy, as the author indulges in a needlessly exhaustive summary of the ways in which attention is conceived as an essential human faculty—intimately related to the equally sacrosanct intellectual capabilities of memory, empathy, and mindfulness—in the work of Buddhaghosa, Descartes, Leibniz (of course), William James, several 19th-century German aesthetic theorists, and more. Basically, Smith’s message here is that the incessant pursuit of capturing user attention by Facebook, Twitter, and now Spotify—as they offer constant solicitations for users to scroll, click, like, comment, and share—encourages the cultivation of “fleeting” rather than “sustained” attention, which strikes him as a “moral failure” when considering the “other forms of care of ourselves that we might have pursued,” such as reading a book. That Smith deploys this baroque historical-philosophical armature for the purpose of arriving at such an extraordinarily banal point makes the entire preceding discussion feel like a shaggy-dog story, as though we couldn’t have gleaned as much from the synopsis of the latest best-selling self-help book or from the copywriters at Headspace.

Moving on from philosophy, Smith turns his eye to ecology, providing extensive analogies between the Internet and various elements found in the study of natural science, including factoids, historical discoveries, and thought experiments, that demonstrate the ways that ecology itself might be said to be network-like—or, alternatively, that the Internet might be said to be ecological. Male moths, he says, can detect the pheromones emitted by female moths at surprising distances, just as sperm whales can register each other’s clicks from opposite ends of the earth. These are, for Smith, examples of organic, nonhuman telecommunication networks, and our acknowledgment of them situates the Internet as their human analog, thus problematizing the divide between nature and technology. Further, in the 19th century, Jules Allix claimed to have facilitated telegraphic communication between snails, an “invention” of the same ilk as Franz Mesmer’s earlier theory of animal magnetism. What this goes to show is that, in the latent form of fantasy, the conceptual infrastructure that comprises the Internet has existed for centuries, though it had “not yet been fully sucked out of the world itself and into the minds of individual people.”

It is wise not to make too much of statements like these. What they concretely tell you about today’s Internet—its complex, daily mediation of contemporary existence—is precisely nothing. First, Smith’s deployment of the vague image of the “network” has been stretched, like a rubber band, to the breaking point, evacuated of substantive meaning such that it applies to any cause-and-effect relation between two things or communication of any kind. That the network, and the supersession of substances by causal connections, has become, since the late 20th century, the go-to abstract descriptor for all kinds of natural, historical, and social phenomena across disciplinary fields is widely acknowledged (this is demonstrated magnificently in Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism); thus, Smith’s employment of this master metaphor as a specific figure for the Internet or even modern telecommunications feels tenuous at best. (I hasten to add that, as Geert Lovink, Marc Steinberg, and others have persuasively argued, the dominant logic of today’s Internet is arguably no longer characterized by the network but by the “platform,” a term liberally used by Smith but never critically examined.) Second, Smith’s allergy to straightforward materialist readings imbues the story with a sense of inevitability, viewing the Internet’s machinations as ontological or metaphysical instead of social and historical.

Shifting to a different register, the author presents a brief genealogy of computing, with particular consideration given to the automated loom developed by Joseph Marie Jacquard in the early 1800s. Devised for the weaving of fabric, the so-called Jacquard loom used a deck of punched cards to control its movements, with each card representing one row of the design, and the laced deck itself constituting a kind of rudimentary computer program for the production of repeated patterns of silk. In the 1830s, the English mathematician Charles Babbage began adapting Jacquard’s punched card system for his Analytical Engine—a calculating machine often called the world’s first general-purpose computer—and Ada Lovelace made much of the cards in her extensively annotated translation of an Italian article written on the engine, correctly predicting that it would have applications far beyond those intended by Babbage. This leads to a moderately incisive discussion of the importance of metaphor in philosophical and scientific discovery, especially the metaphor of the “social fabric,” which neatly ties Jacquard’s loom to today’s social networking sites. But when Smith states that to relate the loom and the engine “is to move between two registers of language that philosophy and science ordinarily seek to keep separate,” I am awed by his hubris in portraying what is a fairly standard history of computing as a novel insight.

The implications and consequences of this sometimes amusing, but largely incoherent, jumble of anecdotes are never drawn. None of the issues outlined in the book’s introduction and first chapter—the decay of the public sphere, the erosion of the mental faculty of attention, the economic model of social media, the death of the Leibnizian promise of prosthetic reason, “the chaos these technologies have unleashed”—are illuminated by this longue durée; the author’s stated goal of “figuring out what went wrong” remains unachieved. Rather, Smith skips ahead to what resembles a proposed solution, but which really amounts to little more than a mental wellness plan. In the conclusion, he drones on about the personal benefits he experiences from the use of Wikipedia, likening it to “a form of nocturnal voyaging through the imaginary landscapes of knowledge,” through which he is able to access “the full realization of the dream of the authors of the Encyclopédie.” Why Twitter, and not Wikipedia, became the archetype of social media is, to him, self-evident, as its generalized effects, sprung from forces beyond human control, have spread across the populace and its social institutions.

More might be illuminated by forgoing Smith’s one-to-one correlating of technology to social transformation. There is much lost in this framework, in which social media—grasped in terms of only its most surface, user-facing features—unilaterally impresses its modes of operation onto civilization as a whole, molding the latter in its likeness. (It is ironically incongruous with Smith’s since-unmentioned initial proposition that something profoundly changed in the year 2011.) To assume that a hippopotamus farting is no different from a network protocol—and that both are of the same inevitable linear progression—obscures everything about the Internet beneath the level of the superficially descriptive.

Smith’s approach has little to say regarding causal dynamics, namely the mechanisms by which capitalism, through its tectonic laws of motion, perpetually generates and then alleviates its own symptoms. He overlooks the historical conditions that preexisted the Internet’s generalization, conditions that made—and that continue to make—people need or desire these proprietary services on a large scale. These include, but are not limited to, the necessitation of labor-saving devices in the home by ever-shrinking leisure time; the abatement of relentless economic stressors with canned cultural junk like short-clip videos, games, and pornography; the compensation of arduous, unfulfilling work regimes with more immediate access to the boundless pleasures of consumerism; the erosion of public information provisions such as libraries, schools, and post offices, in addition to broadcasting, publishing, and print news; the alienation from community solidarities once fostered by churches, families, neighborhoods, and trade unions—of the Internet’s deeply embedded relationship to Cold War and post-9/11 politics, to the machinery of Capitol Hill, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Silicon Valley. Rather than viewing the Internet as an ecological event that, as if in its eschatological climax, deterministically enraptures human existence, it might prove more useful—though, admittedly, more difficult—to view each entity that the Internet comprises as a contingent, and difficult, solution to a problem posed by real social circumstances. To place the Internet, indeed, within the realm of late capitalism: That is to place the Internet, most holistically, within the realm of lived experience.

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