Trevor Quirk at Bookforum on Justin E. H. Smith’s Philosophical History Of The Internet: The first four nodes of ARPANET—the Department of Defense’s primeval internet—were connected in 1969, the very year that Theodor W. Adorno died. In retrospect, it seems a cruel coincidence; it is difficult to imagine a cultural technology more deserving of Adorno’s truculent analysis than the internet, or to locate a comparable living thinker able to explain why a worldwide network that was supposed to unite everyone and improve everything tremors with feelings of disconnection and debasement.
The beginning of Justin E. H. Smith’s new book reads as if it might deliver this lost critique, given his previous, excellent entry, Irrationality, which was consciously indebted to Adorno and Max Horkheimer. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is begins by attributing our online despondency to familiar effects: the dopaminergic designs of online features and the resulting “crisis of attention” experienced by users; the superannuation of traditional “journalism, music, film, higher education, publishing”; the unaccountability of social-media firms whose platforms have become “universal surveillance device[s]” and vehicles of misinformation; and the reduction of political discourse, career advancement, and much else to a “point-scoring video game.”
Yet this book could not be summarized as a jeremiad against cyberspace, because it, like most of Smith’s essays and scholarship, rarifies its subject through its author’s talent for synthesizing seemingly disparate ideas and endeavors. In building an alternative model of the internet, Smith transports his reader between discussions of Proust and 1940s hunting gadgetry; the signaling of sperm whales and the metaphysics of methyl jasmonate; Melanesian ritual masks and the Kuiper Belt; Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics and Grand Theft Auto; the nascent industry of “teledildonics” and the rueful poetics of railways; Kant’s epistemology and the pablum of Mark Zuckerberg. In a book that meditates upon networks, webs, and connections, Smith’s astounding range becomes something of a method for revealing the interconnectedness of everything between stars and modems.
Accessing such a mystic vision first requires a deeper accounting of the shittiness of online experience. Smith is a historian of science, and so he appreciates how human understanding of nature is often constrained by era-defining technology. Not accidentally did the profusion of mechanical inventions of seventeenth-century Europe correspond with the prevalence of the “mechanical philosophy,” which conceived of living creatures as automata and the universe as grandfather clockwork. The persistent human dream that every object under the sun is simply a natural version of our own handiwork is powerfully seductive, as it allows us to believe that we might know nature and ourselves as intimately as we know our favorite contraptions (thereby attaining what Francis Bacon called “maker’s knowledge”).
The comparison between mind and computer has always been a metaphor:
Artificial intelligence is only intelligence in a metaphorical sense, where a term is being carried over from one domain into another in which it does not naturally belong, in order, so we think, to help us make sense of what we are observing there. What we are really doing, of course, is seeking to make sense of one thing that is poorly understood in terms carried over from something that is even more poorly understood.
Smith easily demonstrates that the internet is no exception to this historic tendency. Over the past four decades we have been busy reconceptualizing nearly everything about ourselves, including our vision of nature, in terms of the ancillary technologies of the internet: computers, networks, programs, and algorithms. But this has proved to be an impressive exercise in self-deception. Instead of deepening our knowledge of humanity and the universe, we have merely denatured ourselves and developed a monstrous resemblance with the technologies we know so well.
Smith sees this transmogrification at work in online vernaculars, by which we refer to those who spend too much time on social media as “data cows,” or to our ideological opponents as “bots,” implying “that their opinion is so crude that it may as well have been automatically generated.” These and many other idioms express a wider confusion of mind for computer, behavior for subroutine—which, implausibly, is now found in both popular culture and academia, where you are equally likely to learn that the human brain is nothing more than wet circuitry. Even spiritual considerations have been similarly updated. We learn from the technicist cults of Silicon Valley that our cosmic destiny is yet a small step in the runaway progression toward a godlike superintelligence, or that the universe itself is a simulation, one quite similar, if more advanced, to the kind dreamed up in Palo Alto. Imagine that.