Justin E. H. Smith
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Many think of the internet as an unprecedented and overwhelmingly positive achievement of modern human technology. But is it? In The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, Justin Smith offers an original deep history of the internet, from the ancient to the modern world—uncovering its surprising origins in nature and centuries-old dreams of radically improving human life by outsourcing thinking to machines and communicating across vast distances.
Yet, despite the internet’s continuing potential, Smith argues, the utopian hopes behind it have finally died today, killed by the harsh realities of social media, the global information economy, and the attention-destroying nature of networked technology.
Ranging over centuries of the history and philosophy of science and technology, Smith shows how the “internet” has been with us much longer than we usually think.
He draws fascinating connections between internet user experience, artificial intelligence, the invention of the printing press, communication between trees, and the origins of computing in the machine-driven looms of the silk industry.
At the same time, he reveals how the internet’s organic structure and development root it in the natural world in unexpected ways that challenge efforts to draw an easy line between technology and nature.
Combining the sweep of intellectual history with the incisiveness of philosophy, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is cuts through our daily digital lives to give a clear-sighted picture of what the internet is, where it came from, and where it might be taking us in the coming decades.
A professor of history and philosophy of science casts a stony eye on the liberatory promises of the internet. When most people talk about the internet, they’re really talking about the tiny slice that is social media.
It’s a “reverse synecdoche, the larger containing term standing for the smaller contained term,” writes Smith by way of introduction to his central argument. These social media, he argues, are fundamentally enemies of human liberty.
Employing that reverse synecdoche, he shows how the internet “has distorted our nature and fettered us” by, among other things, turning users into addicts (in strictest terms) and serving as a surveillance device that often limits our political freedoms.
A worthy critique of a technology in need of rethinking and human control that seeks to free and not enchain.
We are bent by our technology, unable to concentrate on reading and no longer remembering anything without Google’s help. Of course, as Smith points out, this is a charge leveled against previous information technologies.
When Gutenberg printed the Bible, people could simply read it rather than having to memorize it, which many critics at the time considered to be a diminution of human intelligence.
Smith is not quite so doctrinaire about print, but he makes a good case that the computer of Gottfried Leibniz’s dreams more than 300 years ago was not the personality-shaping machine of today.
Leibniz imagined something whose workings, in modern terms, “can be performed without ‘strong AI,’ without any internal life or experience of all the calculative operation it performs.”
Leibniz further held that human thought is an instrument of excellence, whereas those who shape algorithms today seem not to think much about human thought (or excellence) at all.
The best parts of this thoughtful book-length essay link those algorithms to the “gamification of social reality,” of which a strong example is the down-the-rabbit-hole entity called QAnon.
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