The Internet Is Only What You Think It Is: Go, Go Gadget Philosophy
by David Beer
The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning
Justin E.H. Smith
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2022. 256 pp
A classic lecture theatre layout. I was high in ‘the gods’ listening sporadically to a lecture on how to send an email. It was part of a weekly course guiding us through the internet and some other information technologies. Much of it was new to us. Yet even at the time the sessions felt a bit comical. Part of the assessment required us to successfully send an email to the lecturer. Picking up Justin E.H. Smith’s ambitious new book, which seeks to rethink our understanding of the internet, I can’t help but think back to my early encounters. Pulling philosophy from his sleeves, Smith’s aim, as the title alludes, is to tell the reader The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. In those early moments of surfing I knew exactly what I thought it was. It was crap. A gimmick. Flimsy content, empty, slow, pointless. Nothing much to capture the imagination and certainly no danger of an attention grab. Of course, things got very complicated very quickly.
Three years later I was working on the phones for an internet bank. The internet had suddenly become a hub of commercialism. A decade later I was collaborating with other sociologists to try to comprehend Web 2.0, as it was being called in the marketing buzz of the time. The internet had become a hub of so-called user generated activity. Another fifteen years passed and something like half of the world’s population have some sort of active social media profile, with many spending hours a day streaming and interacting through powerful, automated and centralised platforms. The internet of today is not so much a hub of anything, as integrated as it is in the stuff and pulses of social life. You know the story.
That rate of expansion and integration has left it bloated and unwieldy. A constant but unfathomable presence. The internet is, of course, too big for even the vista-like thinking of Justin E.H. Smith to handle in its entirety. Acknowledging this and narrowing things down a little, he focuses instead upon what he refers to as the ‘phenomenological internet’. By this Smith means the parts of the internet that appear to us or that we experience. It’s a useful approach, yet it risks failing to narrow things all that much. As I worked through the book’s well composed flights of imagination I began to wonder if this might actually be something bigger.
A distinguished philosopher of science, Smith’s prior book was the expansive Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. It’s not hard to see how such a topic might lead into this new book that unpicks some of the irrationalities of the internet. Smith is a deep protagonist in it as well as an observer. In addition to his notable books and articles (often featured in this very magazine), Smith is also a prolific and long-time blogger who in recent times has moved much of his writing over to Substack, resulting in a very well received and wide-ranging newsletter. These regular dispatches explore all sorts of issues ranging from contemporary media through to animals, the history of science and the future of the humanities. It’s thinking of the limitless type.
The internet, as we know, is an architecture adept at facilitating spiralling emotions, fanning embers of division and beating its wings to cause a storm. The phenomenological internet, with its many facets, experiences and affects, seems somehow more expansive than the infrastructure that provokes it. Perhaps scale is not really the point. Treating the internet as something encountered means that Smith can roam far outside of the purely technical. The result, to pick one illustrative instance, is that the book doesn’t look at the algorithm as a form of code, instead it wonders how we came to model ourselves on those algorithms. From this perspective the algorithm becomes something that can be tracked backwards beyond our current devices and into the history of calculation, reasoning and reckoning. The code of the algorithm is then treated as an incarnation of something that has much longer roots. While the focus on the ‘phenomenological internet’ may not narrow the focus, it does set the tone. This comes through very directly in Smith’s concern with the limits and restrictions on freedom that are being imposed. He concludes that these circumscriptions mean that the internet is, as he puts it, ‘anti-human’.
This is not a technical unpicking of the systems, codes and networks, instead it is an exploration of logics, ideas and the philosophies intrinsic to the establishment of the internet. From the start Smith jumps backwards some distance, to around the 1670s, taking us to Leibniz and the anticipation of ‘calculating machines’ and language processing. It quickly make sense as a landing point, even if there are others that might have been chosen. Throughout the book Smith gets much from Leibniz’s thinking. The various extractions seem pertinent for contextualising and picturing the underpinnings of the internetworked present, but they still seem a long way from the devices and desires of today. Despite the obvious risks, the choice of Leibniz as a companion never feels like a favourite philosopher has been simply pulled off the shelf to try to make sense of things. Leibniz inspires various telling insights, not least around the image of the machine. We have found that human reason, Smith writes, ‘can be outsourced to machines’. Returning frequently, Leibniz, Smith argues, captures the ‘spirit of the internet’.
Philosophers are not the only figures to populate these pages. From leftfield the cartoon character Inspector Gadget is offered as an illustration of the mechanisation of the self. Go, go gadget philosophy. Given the philosophical depth and heft of the book, I can’t help but be surprised that such a figure should become the embodiment of Smith’s notion of ‘gadget being’. Yet this type of eclectic sourcing matts together in the narrative of the book. There is a storyteller type approach being taken here in which small asides from nature, history, popular culture, media and science lend the book an oratorial feel (which, admittedly, might be a product of the fact that I’m reviewing the audio version of the book). These different reference points stand alongside philosophical figures – they all become characters and events woven into the narrative of Smith’s neat rhetorical stories.
To give this method and approach a label, Smith talks of a ‘historical ontology’, a phrase drawn from the work of Ian Hacking. The approach is also described in terms of it being an adapted version of Foucault’s genealogy. Instead of isolating historical moments of rupture though, Smith is looking for the stable and enduring in what he calls a type of ‘perennialist genealogy’. The aim here, presumably, is to see what keeps coming back. Smartphones, for instance, are said to be ‘concretions of a certain kind of natural activity in which human beings have been engaging all along’. Smith wants to build a sense of something ongoing in the internet, something that has always been and which is finding certain new forms that blend the old with some potentially new properties. And so stability, despite the churning of the internet, is what he often finds. It feels counterintuitive, yet you can see Smith’s point. A longer-term perspective on things like simulation, mechanisation, automation and so on, is likely to change what we think the internet is. At the same time, Smith isn’t keen to argue that nothing is new – with the powerful presence of networked devices, algorithms and data, such an argument would, after all, be hard to prop-up.
Despite the stability, then, Smith finds novelties too. The book builds from the ongoing foundations of social life to think directly about what remains and also what is twisting. This immediately puts the novelties in contention with base stabilities. The image is of important transformations, around data and attention in particular, being anchored somehow by the more solid foundations in which the internet in a wider sense of subjectivity, social experience and the mechanisation of life has been philosophised for many centuries. This is a hard set of factors to manage, not least because this account of change then becomes a question of how to think about repetition and difference. What remains unclear is how solid, for Smith, that base is and how obdurate it might be in shaping what is possible or what novelties might arise. Any appreciation of social change is always going to create such problems, especially when genealogy is being used (bringing with it concerns about where to start and what represents a defining shift). What breathes an extra dynamic to this question in Smith’s book is his interest in not only what the internet is, but what it could become.
How then might the ongoing stabilities to which he has pointed impact on what might possibly come next? And why have the foundations ended up contorting into the particular form that that internet has actually taken? These questions gets reframed here, with Smith instead thinking about what can be rediscovered in that philosophical past that might then be used to redirect the particularities of the internet moment. Indeed, his point is that the internet is not a moment as such, but a continuation with long term outcomes. The internet is not, it is claimed, as ‘new fangled’ as it might appear. And, more forcefully, ‘It does not represent a radical rupture with everything that came before…It is rather only the most recent permutation of a complex of behaviours that is as deeply rooted in who we are as a species as anything else we do’. The relation between the roots and the adaptations hovers over the book. They do sit together, of course, nothing is ever completely novel and must have come from somewhere, but it is the nature of the relations that seems unresolved. The problem of treating genealogy as if it can identify the perennial is that the weight of the novelties covered in the book suggests that things are not quite as stable as such a method might lead us to conclude. Smith is very careful with this, but his vision of social change and its drivers starts to move into the shadows of the key insights in these pages.
I should say at this point that the book is too fleet to get caught up in solely locating the past in the present. Smith, for instance, is concerned with just how far the human is ‘conceived as data points’. In other moments he thinks in depth about the shifting parameters of subjectivity, poignantly arguing at one point that:
the more you use the internet the more your individuality warped into a brand, and your subjectivity transforms into an algorithmically plottable vector of activity. Under these circumstances, one wants to say: “I do not even understand of myself what is advertisement and what is not advertisement”.
The plotted-out individual, the rebranding of the self and the blurring of the edges of advertising, these all go together to build a particular picture. The shift from the individual to brand does at least appear here to be something of a tear – if not quite a full rupture – with the past, as does the emphasis upon how individuals are now living through ‘a single device’. Smith notes that these are things that couldn’t have happened before these forms of convergence occurred. The analysis of social media produces other such images of mutations of social and personal life. In one moment Twitter is compared to a videogame in which players move between levels in the hierarchy of the gameplay. Social media are videogames and, as the boundaries collapse, videogames are social media. Together such developments are part of what Smith refers to as the ‘the gamification of social reality’. Such points, some of which are familiar but which combine into something fresh here, show the strength of what Smith is doing in the book.
I’m not sure that a clear cut or mechanised understanding of change is what Smith is trying to achieve anyway. The book seems to have other objectives. Perhaps a better way to think of it is as an exercise in disruptive thinking. Or, perhaps more accurately, this is disruptive thinking about tech’s seeming disruption and its promotion of the ideals of disruption. Where the emphasis is upon acceleration and instantaneity, longer term thinking is itself a form of resistance. For Smith this is needed to upend the short-term views that have come to dictate how the internet is understood. It is explained that ‘our attention is being constantly solicited from multiple sources and it is seldom held by any of these sources for more than a few seconds or minutes…we are able to pretend that the larger patterns of our engagement are something less than a profound existential transformation’.
Along with this, Smith tries to turn away from the dominant concerns that tend to form around the internet. The active upending of convention means that there are parts of the book that readers will no doubt find contentious. There is almost a secondary method that peeks out in places in the book. This secondary method, which might be described as a kind of targeted contrarianism, seeks to not accept almost any position that is communicated widely on social media, but to see these things instead as being something to be disrupted or unsettled through a reintroduction of context. The book would work without this secondary method, yet it does add something of a spark even if it might potentially end up distracting readers from the substantial arguments that are under performance in the book. Might these acts of resistance also be a product of the targeted and personalised structures that shape how the internet appears to us?
Smith’s careful reading of and closeness to the philosophical sources is striking. Smith certainly knows these materials, especially Leibniz’s writing, like the back of his Samsung. The philosophy is martialled expertly to draw spiralling depth to the history of ideas of internetworking and calculation in particular. The philosophy may stay close, whilst there are moments in which there is a sense of distance from the internet itself. Closeness and distance might not be the right words here, it is perhaps more of a question of proximity. One issue that Smith’s approach throws up is a kind of duality in how the components are addressed. The philosophical sources are genealogical, whereas his encounter within the phenomenological internet is itself more phenomenological. Many of the analytical views are a product of how the internet appears to Smith. This is not Smith’s problem, it is a problem with any internet research.
Personalisation means that perspective on the internet is always a difficult to obtain. We see the internet through its responses to our data. How can we know something that is largely different for everyone? Anyone trying to comprehend it in its entirety will have to find a way to overcome the algorithmically sorted lens that is placed in front of them. Smith hints at this in the closing chapter when he reflects on how ‘we see through the internet’. The philosophical underpinnings become the means by which this problem is addressed. Smith clearly knows that the experience of social media in particular is fragmented, so he uses examples of his ‘own user experience’ to draw out wider observations. This is to look outwards on to a vast and varied infrastructure from the viewpoint of a single node. The things close to that node are highly visible, but the rest may be obscured by distance and invisibilities will be brought about by automated ranking and filtering. The subjectivities of social life render perspective a problem. The question left open is whether this is exacerbated by highly-tuned data infrastructures that seek to know, tailor content and guide behaviours, choices and networking practices.
The strength of The Internet is Not What You Think It Is can be found in the questions it provokes. The answers may not necessarily be found by turning back to Leibniz and others, yet doing so sets the internet into a different frame, bringing out its properties and placing them into longer term perspectives. The threads of the genealogy that are unravelled are themselves disruptive. If internet is not what we think it is, then its related logics of calculation and monetisation are presented to us in a form that distracts from its actual presence and purpose. If social media ‘conceal the true manner of their working’, as it is argued, then there is work being done to maintain that imaginary. The next question is why and how the internet has managed to appear as something different to our impression. There’s another question lurking behind this, though. Smith’s articulate exploration of the phenomenological internet and its subjectivities lead us somewhere else: If it is too big a thing to comprehend as a singularity then how can we really know what people think the internet is? That question takes on even more weight when we imagine the internet as being fragmented and fractured by processes of personalisation, targeting and automated filtering. The internet, as it is made and remade in our collective imaginations, is many things at once. Perhaps the conclusion to draw from Smith’s book is not that there is a version of the internet that is different to how it is conceived, but rather that the internet is only what you think it is, nothing more.
About the Author
David Beer is Professor of Sociology at the University of York. His books include Metric Power, The Data Gaze and The Quirks of Digital Culture. The Tensions of Algorithmic Thinking will be published later in 2022. He is currently part of the team working on the Nuffield Foundation funded project Code Encounters: Algorithmic Risk-Profiling in Housing.
Photograph courtesy of Princeton University Press.