During the pandemic, the young American comedian Bo Burnham had a moment. His comedy special Inside—written, shot, and produced at his home during lockdown—explores the psychological isolation of Gen Z’s immersion in phones and social media. Inside includes many memorable songs, with one viral hit running:
Welcome to the internet
What would you prefer?
Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racial slur?
Be bursting with rage
We got a million different ways to engage
The book version of Burnham’s ditty is The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is by Justin Smith. Smith agrees with Burnham that the internet is both the wonder of the age and the most messed up place on earth. The subtitle A History, A Philosophy, A Warning conveys the point, as well as the urgent need for thinkers to elucidate the true nature of this technology.
Smith contends the internet is not a gadget but is akin to a spider’s web. A spider’s web is not a tool to enhance perception but is rather the very way of sensation specific to a spider. Likewise, our web—the hyper rapid relay of strings of electronic code—is a probiscis, the way we probe the world for information; it is the way our sensation connects to reality. Provocatively, Smith argues that like the spider, the web is our very way of being in the world. History is critical to this argument. Smith wants to show that the internet is not new, it is just a refinement in the gossamer of perceptual probing that our species has woven into the world’s fabric to make near the distant.
This arresting thesis is aided by the excellent writing. Smith is an historian of ideas teaching at the University of Paris, with a research interest in Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). This book, like his earlier Irrationality, displays Smith’s talent for showcasing the continuing importance of the Baroque polymath. A genius mathematician, Leibniz was the co-inventor of calculus (with Newton), a builder of arithmetical machines, and a metaphysician sure that binary logic—the 1 and 0 of computer coding—structured reality. Dwelling on Leibniz’s thinking throughout, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is also demonstrates why being a bibliophile is handy when trying to grasp reality. Old books, many obscure, contain gems well able to explain why our lives are now compressed into “a single technological portal”—the narrow screen we all carry in our hands—that bears our “public responsibilities and secret desires.”
Many expected the internet to bring the Enlightenment to fulfillment: it was meant to secure “a rationally governed society, freed of passionate human conflicts through the outsourcing of decision-making procedures to machines.” In the last decade, this dream collapsed, with many observers now fearing an “existential peril.” Not only are our lives shaped algorithmically, but we are also addicts. To the first point, Smith gives the elegant example that on Spotify we are directed to other songs like the one just heard, but not to prior renditions of a song that might date back decades or even have first been sung in a different language. We are directed to have certain experiences, therefore, rather than electing them. As to addiction, people constantly break up watching the game on TV to look up trivia about the players, the city, or some oddity noticed in the crowd’s dress. We suffer the same distractions and rabbit holes when reading a book and when at work. The internet, argues Smith, suspends freedom: it is “aggressively undemocratic” in its structure and increasingly deployed by government and private industry as a “universal surveillance device.”
This is not the worst of it, either. According to Smith, “The largest industry in the world now is quite literally the attention-seeking industry.” Eager to judge others and eager to be judged, we are constantly online. This makes us “data-cows,” spilling “information about who we are, what we do, what we think, what we fear.” Industry deploys algorithms to mine us: “we are the targets of a global corporate resource-extraction effort on a scale the world has never before seen.” Ours is a new epoch of economic life: “Yet the main economy is now driven not by what we do, but by the information extracted from us, not by our labour in any established sense, but by our data.” Print media is old hat because its advertising relied on “a technology incapable of reading those readers in turn.” We have entered a new era of exploitation where biography is itself the resource.
In brief, the internet is anti-human. Or is it? Despite dwelling on extractive capitalism, Smith’s book is ultimately hopeful. The reason for hope is surprising: we have survived the internet before. The internet is not new, and it is not even unique to us. It repeats a manner of being in the world which has already served our species well, as it has others.
Leibniz “more than any other modern thinker, represents the spirit of the internet.” In his metaphysical writings, Leibniz offers an account of a networked world. A quote from Leibniz kicks off the book:
Now this connexion or adaptation of all created things to each and of each to all, means that each simple substance has relations which express all the others, and, consequently, that it is a perpetual living mirror of the universe.
For Leibniz, reality is a cosmos of splendid connection, with Smith glossing: “Machines, plants, animals, humans, the world as a whole: all seem to have something real in common.” The commonality, argues Smith, is fabrication: all things built of threads and strings in order to survive and luxuriate.
Smith points to lichen. Lichen is a network of fungus and algae: a symbiotic phenomenon which, under a microscope, reveals fungi threading beads of algae. Lichen is fungus playing dress-up with algae. An illustration that “it is often impossible to understand what a species is in terms that bracket the existence of any other species.” Indeed, lichen is part of a larger network, dubbed by one wag, the wood wide web: an example of mutualism, trees intertwined with other life forms exchange information across distance. Networking is “nature’s technique:” “throughout the living world, telecommunication is more likely the norm than the exception.” Tomatoes and tobacco release chemical information to trigger conspecifics into defense-related chemical expressions. From molds to the internet, communities are spread out but tethered by communicating wires: “Human beings qua human beings are telecommunicators, just as sperm whales are click communicators and elephants are seismic communicators.”
Smith’s thesis that nature is a networking technology openly relies on metaphor. It is no weakness of Leibniz’s metaphysics, Smith assures us, that it depends on the metaphor of the “living mirror.” A metaphor draws out an unexpected link between disparate things. Social media goes viral, but a virus is something very real. Why did we adopt the language of virus to explain a digital phenomenon? It is because we sense an underlying sameness or copying, as Smith states, “Nothing else follows about gastropods and galaxies from the fact that they both furnish an example of the Fibonacci sequence, and yet it is meaningful and true to point out this analogy of structure.” We should take note, thinks Smith, “when the human mind keeps returning inexorably to the same metaphors in accounting for some difficult or intangible aspect of the structure of the natural world.” Recurring habits of thought pick out cloth and fabricating machines as the common structure.
The long history of computing is part of the history of weaving. Machines express an ambiguous boundary basic to human life. The representation of things in consciousness hints at our aloofness from the world yet these same representations prompt us to creatively crisscross nature unceasingly. Whether folklore or high science, the phenomenon is the same. From folklore, there is the disembodied experience of the benandanti, night-walkers who voyage great distances while their bodies remain asleep at home. Comparably, when a 3D printer pulls a gun from the internet, it is a voyage into gunsmithing from our armchairs. Machines, cutting patterns in nature, make the world’s objects “prosthetics of the human mind.” They are how we are braided with the world. A variation on an ancient technology, and a pivot to our microprocessors, the Jacquard Loom illustrates how “we come up with ever new ways of activating the sort of experience we as human beings have always had.” The silk loom of French inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) shaped nineteenth-century speculation on arithmetical machines and is widely recognized as a proximate cause of the internet.
Jacquard silks are still a thing to buy and distantly reference the loom Jacquard developed using punched cards. The cut-outs in the cards acted as code, programming strands of silk to automatically fall into complex patterns. Cards and bobbins loaded, the machine only needed energy from a treadle to weave luxury fabrics. The loom was silk weaving as information-processing machine. Its real innovation, as the German scholar, Ellen Harlizius-Klück notes, was the automation of code, not the use of code in weaving. She argues “weaving has therefore been a binary art from its very beginning, applying operations of pattern algebra for millennia.” Instruments of the first Apollo missions depended on code woven of wires that look like tweed under a microscope. The threaded software was made in textile mills in Massachusetts, the binary code realized by a wire fed through a magnetic bead representing 1 and wire twisted around a bead, a 0. Those spaceships were very like lichen.
If the internet has causal ancestry in the Jacquard Loom, its inventor owed much to a long history of speculation. Like Law & Liberty readers, Smith is a bibliophile. He is taken with a Renaissance book The Diverse and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli. Ramelli was an Italian military engineer and inventor of the Book Wheel. Making note of the defense origins of the internet, Smith describes Ramelli’s wheel as a wiki. From the illustration, the invention looks like a water wheel, with each shelf stocked with related books from a gentleman’s library. The reader turns the wheel scanning the passing volumes for related content, which function very like the hyperlinks on a Wikipedia page. Handling the wheel makes the reader a sort of benandanti: at home yet surveying multiple points of the cosmos.
Like Irrationality, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is leaves the reader wanting a bit more. The book closes with a reflection on the Roman Sallust who relays that some have thought “they have the seat of their soul in the tips of their fingers.” Sitting at his keyboard, Smith scans Wikipedia links barely aware of his fingers tapping the keyboard. Attached to one of the billions of threads of the internet, Smith thinks of his computer as a “microcosmic sliver of all things.” The combination is like a ballet, “a perfect coordination… of hand, eye, and world.”
Gloomy in parts, the book is mostly enchantment. Compensating for extractive capitalism, is the mutualism of lichen. Smith leaves out the grubby part. There is no mention of the geopolitics of the internet, its vast energy consumption, the diplomatic horse-trading required to build its infrastructure, its balkanization in China and Russia, and no mention of the dark web. Dwelling on looms, Smith skips the potent rivalries from the national appropriations of the rare minerals that make wikis possible. The internet might make us ballerinas, but its start in life is as strategically tense as the cloth industry of old. There’s a reason the legions were principal consumers of cloth in ancient Rome.
Smith might have tested his romanticism against Leibniz’s near-contemporary Hume. Hume speaks of “the particular fabric and constitution of the human species,” but does so in a way that is a challenge to Smith. Inspired by Leibniz, to whose thinking Hume reacts, Smith argues we keep returning to the same metaphor because there is a fundamental copying throughout nature. Hume counters that the mind runs along well-trodden pathways due to the structure of consciousness itself and not from tracking things. Consciousness, details Hume, always skips from an idea to the next one resembling it. The mind is a fabricator, but it is also narcissistic: it sticks to the familiar. Smith, Hume would contend, has been misled by the character of consciousness: Smith’s mind runs from web to web, but there is the hint of something awry. The vitalist networks of lichen, trees, and tobacco plants, seem to occupy a space different from the non-vitalist electronic relays of the internet. The internet is likely more gadget than spider web because, as Hume intuits, we are stranger and more alienated from nature than Smith allows.
Lastly, not mutualism, but another unifying phenomenon offers an explanation for why our lives are now compressed into “a single technological portal.” British psychoanalyst Darian Leader agrees the internet is not exactly new but this is because it keeps hands busy. Babies are already at play with their hands in the womb. By 14 weeks babies suck their thumbs and look at their hands, clenching them and releasing their fingers. Once out of the womb, a litany of technologies occupies hands. In past ages, fans were ubiquitous, so was messing with a pipe, or snuff, or toothpicks. No sooner was smoking verboten, than cell phones popped up to fill the hands. These days, few men sport a moustache: Is this because the time spent twirling them is now spent scrolling a screen? Hitler had his painting, Mao his calligraphy, and Neville Chamberlain his umbrella. Visiting Hitler in 1939, Chamberlain was always umbrella in hand. Smith is rightly fond of the fascination of a deep dive on Wikipedia, but he might be less motivated by cerebral exploration and more with expending the body’s energy by palming a toy.