Most people assume they know what the Internet is. But if we are asked to describe its power, reach, or history, most of us will turn to an easy metaphor: we call it “the web,” “virtual public space,” or “cloud,” just to name a few common terms.
In “The Internet Isn’t What You Think It Is,” Justin EH Smith, professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris, asks how our use of such metaphors informs our understanding – and misunderstanding – of the Internet. It also poses challenges to the history we’ve built around it, particularly the Silicon Valley-approved tale of man’s progressive march toward a digitally-enabled, friction-free future. In other words: the Internet is not an ahistorical, morally neutral invention that we think it is.
Mr. Smith begins by summarizing some of the familiar contemporary transformations that the Internet has brought about, such as the fact that “the largest industry in the world right now is literally the attention-seeking industry.” He notes that the industry is driven “not by what we do, but by information extracted from us.” Describes how, for most people, the everyday experience is channeled through a single technology portal, the smartphone, and how activities mediated through these screens have created a new reality unparalleled by those that came before, like the book: Our New Technologies she is able to”Read these readers On the other hand.”
Skeptics of contemporary technologies will appreciate his descriptions of the way the Internet is “addictive and therefore incompatible with our freedom,” and how it “algorithmically shapes human life” in a way that can lead to “distorted and impoverished” lifestyles. He notes that because there is “little or no democratic oversight regarding how social media operates”, the Internet often operates in an “aggressively undemocratic” manner.
“The charge here is that the Internet contributes to restricting freedom in all these respects,” Mr. Smith wrote. As such, the Internet is hostile to humans. If we can prosecute him, his crime will be a crime against humanity.” He falters in defying the idea that social media platforms can serve as a new public arena for deliberative debate, instead likening the experience of political debates on Twitter to a “privately owned video game for scoring.” “.
But Mr. Smith does not believe all the charges against the Internet are fair. He is more optimistic than pessimistic and describes his goal as engaging in “clear criticism while avoiding the risks of pessimism or promotion of authenticity”.
The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: History, Philosophy, Warning
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He accepts, for example, the basic idea of allowing robots to care for the elderly, and he doesn’t have much to say about the ethics of doing so. Likewise, his easy agnosticism about the moral meaning of our tool-dependent world: people disagree about whether and to what extent a tool enhances, distorts, or distorts an activity, he concludes, so “it is always absurd to try to distinguish between good and bad tools like that.” always? The Uyghur people, who are constantly monitored by the Chinese government using technologies developed in Silicon Valley, cannot be very optimistic. It is worth noting that while Mr. Smith condemns “fanatics and trolls” such as “Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Victor Urban” in the book, he does not include Xi Jinping.
In general, Mr. Smith sees technology, both past and present, in terms of its possibilities, and in this way his philosophy is a useful correction to the often hopeless tone of much technology criticism.
The second half of the book is an eclectic, non-linear tour through the early history of technology, and readers will have to succumb to Mr. Smith’s often discursive writing style. He has a broad mind and myriad interests, but he doesn’t always succeed in his attempts to draw a clear line, for example, from the claims of a nineteenth-century fraudster about telepathic snails to the meaning of the Internet in the modern age. His fiercely fervent claims on behalf of the early modern German philosopher Leibniz—”he represents, more than any other modern thinker, the spirit of the Internet, the ideals that guided the early periods of its development, and perhaps the best hope for its ultimate realization of the future”—stretch naive.
However, Mr. Smith’s indictment of the way we understand the Internet is not wrong: in a hurry to see the history of technology as an ever-improving story of progress, one largely disconnected from the natural world, we are missing out on much-needed ideas. In particular, his argument that contemporary research on artificial intelligence would benefit from having better grounding in the complex history of technology deserves greater amplification.
Mr. Smith ends with a weaving metaphor and invites the reader to think of the Internet as a loom, both a machine and a process, with a history and a future. “It will help us understand the nature and importance of the Internet, considering it only the latest chapter in a much longer and deeper history”—particularly since, he also points out, “speech etiquette becomes constructive ethics.” Here’s a necessary response to Google’s humble “don’t be evil” bragging and the mindless rhetoric of “moving fast and breaking things” on Facebook.
If our technologies are an extension of ourselves, we need a more accurate understanding of how this self has dealt with technological change in earlier eras. And how we think and talk about our devices, Mr. Smith explains, has a history – which needs deeper exploration. The book’s subtitle declares “History, Philosophy, Warning.” Mr. Smith offered readers a new interpretation of the history of technology; a creative, albeit sometimes perplexing, philosophy of the Internet; And a strong sense that we don’t always know what the Internet is doing to us.
Ms. Rosen is a senior writer at the Commentary and a fellow at the Institute for the Advanced Study in Culture at the University of Virginia.
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