Hubble ESA: Artist’s Impression of a Kuiper Belt Object, 2014 (CC)
From the LARB:
How should we shape the internet to make it more conducive to human flourishing? And how does looking back toward Leibniz help us do that?
The zoomed-out view enables us to see some of our hopes for the internet that have failed to materialize. And when we do that, we’re in a better position to begin diagnosing the obstacles that prevented them from materializing. Why did so many of the high hopes that we had from the 1670s to the 2010s fail to come about? Is this because of something intrinsically in us as users? I argue, absolutely not. And this is the devil’s ultimate trick, to convince us, individually, that the whole problem is that we’re too weak in character, and too prone to doom scrolling, or just, you know, too lazy and ambitionless to solve the problem at an individual level. I think that’s a cop out. I think something this big and this transformative at a global scale is not the sort of thing that’s going to be solved by focusing on individual behavior, even if individual behavior is often revelatory of what the problem is.
I’m mostly a “via negativa” thinker. I don’t have policy solutions. If I did, it would be a very different kind of book. The opposite extreme from what we have right now, which is for-profit companies structuring our lives through algorithms, is a government seizure of social media and recognition of their status as a public utility, or something like that. That, too, would be terrible for reasons I don’t find it hard to anticipate. In different government/enterprise meshes in different systems throughout the world, including the United States, but also significantly, China, we’re seeing one and the same thing slowly emerge, again, under very different legal systems in very different cultures with different historical legacies. And that is, namely, a system in which algorithms constrain and define and limit our identities rather than enabling us to cultivate our freedoms.
One thing that surprised me with your book is that you end on an optimistic note. Quoting your last paragraph: “I type the phrase ‘Kuiper Belt’ as quickly as I can think it, as quickly as I can perceive the desire to absorb the facts of it, and no less quickly do the facts come pouring in from my screen. It is a dream come true, this cosmic window I am perched up against, this microcosmic sliver of all things.”
I threw that final chapter in as a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s the most personal of all the chapters, and it describes my actual usage habits of the internet, but of Wikipedia in particular, which, after more than a decade of constantly consulting it, I take as a kind of cognitive prosthesis of my own. Do I know what the Kuiper Belt is? Or what a quasar is? Well, I know that, at any moment, I could access this electronic prosthesis of my mind and tell you what a quasar is. Twenty years ago, if I were walking down the street and I had a sudden thought, like, “Hmm, what is a quasar?” I probably would have just thought, “Ah, I’ll learn someday.” And I would have dropped it. Now, if I wonder what a quasar is, I’m on Wikipedia within seconds. So that has changed me cognitively. For better or worse, it has displaced older, more ingrained cognitive habits, and made me extremely reliant on this prosthesis. On the other hand, I really do think I am now more encyclopedic, even when momentarily cut off from my prosthesis, than I would have been had this technology not emerged. I just take it for granted that I should know what quasars are, I should know what proteins make up milk, stuff like this. I should just know all this in a way that is, I think, imposing quite a high standard that has everything to do with the state of technology in my lifetime, rather than with any kind of absolute standard of what one should know.
So I was thinking about this a lot as I was writing that final chapter, because I wrote it in the first two months of the pandemic, trapped in lockdown in a very small apartment in Brooklyn, because I had a fellowship in New York in 2019–’20. I was all of a sudden cut off from the New York Public Library where I had my office, and this still vestigial adoration of physical books was very much part of the culture of the common center — we were there to create new books after all. And so the fact that books are very much on their way out was a fact that we did our best not to acknowledge in that setting. But then when I was stuck at home under lockdown in these rather scary circumstances, I was put in mind in particular of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which he wrote in exile in Istanbul during World War II, without his library. So the work itself is a meditation on what it’s like to be cut off from your books, even as it’s also about books. My point is not to claim any real similarity to Auerbach’s project, but to say that this writing is a product of a sudden cutting off of a certain form of engagement with knowledge that has predominated over the past several centuries. But being cut off in that way also forces a reflection on what that several-centuries-long history was all about, and on what’s changing cognitively and culturally in the present moment. Talking about that personal experience of looking to Wikipedia as a solace in the absence of books in a transformed world when one is trapped at home is I wouldn’t say so much optimistic as bittersweet, maybe. Looking for some kind of hope in this new cognitive technological conjuncture.
What makes Wikipedia different, in your perspective, from other aspects of the internet?
There are minor structural components that keep it from being totally rotten, which is, you know, what you should naturally expect of any well-known website: that it veers toward rottenness. Wikipedia has not veered in that way because of a few simple obstacles to low-effort vandalism and conspiracy theories, and so on. And so, over time it’s been pushed to this remarkable level of encyclopedic detail by what is a rather small cohort of goodwilled editors. For me, it expresses a kind of Leibnizian conception of knowledge — just details within details within details. That is the nature of the hyperlink. And it corresponds to a certain encyclopedic hunger that I admit I share with Leibniz.