The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin E.H. Smith pub. Princeton University Press If you’re feeling a vague sense of disquiet at the omnipresent and invasive nature of the internet, reading this book may make clear exactly what it is you dread. As Justin E.H. Smith, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris, points out, we are so distracted by the internet, and distracted so thoroughly, that we often fail even to notice we are being distracted. Algorithms curb our sense of inquiry by repeatedly showing us things similar to those we’ve already seen, and they reduce our ability to develop our tastes or opinions. A lack of oversight produces negative effects on political freedoms by allowing the manipulation of public opinion to malign ends. And the internet has become a surveillance device incompatible with freedom. In The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning Smith forcefully musters these familiar concerns into a ringing moral indictment. “The charge here is that the internet contributes to the limitation of freedom in all of these respects,” he says. “As such, the internet is anti-human. If we could put it on trial, its crime would be a crime against humanity.” All I can hope to offer is a more lucid understanding of what is bad and give some historical and conceptual depth to it Justin E.H. Smith, author of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning Smith claims the internet revolution is harmful in ways that previous information revolutions, such as printing, were not, although many of his complaints do sound like echoes of earlier times. “The qualitative revolution occurs when the technology becomes so pervasive that it transforms our self-conception,” he explains on a video call from Paris. Smith is disappointed at the dominance of what he calls the “socially salient” internet, and he admits to an uneasy relationship with Twitter. “I have made what I recognise as the moral choice to pay attention to all seven volumes of Proust’s novel [ In Search of Lost Time ; 1913]. But if I’m honest with myself, over the past year I’ve spent vastly more time on Twitter than I have reading Proust.” In general terms, time spent tweeting is time that might be spent on greater goods. “Scrolling through your social media feed is a failure of the will to take into account the commitment that is, in fact, being made,” he says. But perhaps it is his own addiction that should be criticised, rather than the internet itself. “I would say that there have been some moves made on the part of the designers that are almost [OxyContin manufacturer] Sackler-level evil in terms of figuring out how to custom design a product for addiction.” And there is so much more to the internet than Instagram or TikTok, although he admires some of the creative work being done there. “When I was 13, hanging around in a parking lot with my skateboard with no access to anything but television, I feel like if I had all the information in the world available to me I would have taken advantage of it in a way that, as it turns out, young people are not doing.” His great pleasure is using the internet to look at scans of early manuscripts, but it seems unlikely that had his teenage self grown up in Dublin, Ireland, he would have been skateboarding to Trinity College to look at the Book of Kells. Perhaps teenagers are just as they’ve always been, and to blame the internet for the exchanges that take place over it is like blaming the telephone for crank calls. Its distractive and addictive qualities, and its use to gather data on us, are perhaps merely a more efficient version of what has gone before, and not novel after all. But Smith wants to make us think differently about the internet and much of his book is spent explaining that many of the ideas behind its uses are, in fact, ancient, and he gives myriad fascinating examples. The 17th century German polymath Gottfried Leibniz conceived that all ideas might be reducible to numbers and thus open to calculation, and his invention of binary made that theoretically possible. A machine to enable quick cross-references from one document to another predated hypertext by centuries, and the 19th century fantasy of a “snail telegraph” long preceded texting (supposedly, the gastropods had a telepathic link once they mated). He closes the book by finding much in the internet to praise as “a delayed achievement of the Enlightenment”. “It might make some people say that I’m contradicting myself,” he admits. “What I wanted to say was, ‘Here’s the objective negative case from the point of view from nowhere; here’s […] interesting history and philosophy of science that helps make sense of how we got here; and now here’s me using the internet under lockdown.’” Wikipedia, he sees, surprisingly, as an unmitigated good, but he suggests that it succeeds because it is free from the profit motive. “It turns out that the problem is not the internet itself but the fact that it is primarily profit-driven, algorithm-riding venues through which we are constrained to pursue the closest thing to rational public debate that we have available to us.” But he offers no solution. “People who work at the intersection of government and technology are much better placed to say we should be lobbying our politicians to pass legislation that puts curbs on what the big tech companies can do,” he says. “All I can hope to offer is a more lucid understanding of what is bad and give some historical and conceptual depth to it in a project that’s continuous with a kind of older sense of self-help in philosophy.” Let the debate begin. Probably on Twitter.