The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Book Review

The Dream of Electric Sheep

And we don’t want to wake up.

Ryan Kemp

Ramelli’s reading wheel, Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

We’ve got the Internet all wrong. Its raison d’être is not, as Mark Zuckerberg claims for his own corporation, to “strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together.” To the contrary, the Internet is a pernicious disease. It is—as Justin E.H. Smith argues in his new book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is—thoroughly “anti-human.”

The problem is straightforward: The Internet as we know and use it in our daily lives (the realm of Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.) significantly limits our capacity for freedom in all the various and complex senses of the term. We might think about the proliferation of action-constraining algorithms and ubiquitous surveillance. Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, admits that these things undermine our well-being, but he focuses instead on the so-called crisis of attention: the idea that the Internet is ferociously adept at cultivating distraction.

The intensity of our collective distraction is historically unprecedented, and for obvious reasons. Most importantly, the power players in our online experience—the pillars of what Smith calls the “phenomenological Internet”—are financially invested, and deeply so, in training users to flit quickly and continuously from one hyperlinked stimulus to another. This activity, online flitting, thrives on baiting inclinations that rarely reflect our best selves. (I really need to finish writing this essay, but—look!—photos of Kendrick Lamar’s beachside estate. Or, on your part, the herculean effort it takes to read this review without lapsing into skim mode or taking a YouTube retreat.) The satisfaction of immediate desires does, however, offer significant chemical rewards, and, over time, these dopamine drops create brain ruts that make sustained progress on life’s more enduring (and, presumably, significant) projects all the harder.

All this suggests that attention is more than a mere mental faculty; it is also an ethical state. Not only is it in some sense within my willed control, it plays a transformative role in how I appreciate and interact with objects and people—it makes them into genuine subjects. Consider a favorite novel that, pre-Zuckerberg, you used to lavish with heaps of off-the-clock attention. Smith wagers that your relationship with the characters in the novel, or even the novel itself, is more akin to that with a friend than with a fictional or inanimate object. This ontological promotion we occasionally extend to objects isn’t limited to the sphere of mere things, either; it’s something we must do for human beings, too. An individual’s dignity does not impress us all on its own. It has to be recognized. The other morally significant side of this recognition is that when we extend it, we ourselves are interrogated. Objects of attention not only prompt us to extend care where care is needed but, further, to transform ourselves. As Rainer Maria Rilke hints in his memorable poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the object-turned-subject admonishes, “You must change your life.”

In contrast to someone like James Williams, who, in his book Stand Out of Our Light, locates the problem in a superabundance of stimuli (the millions of data bits that nibble away at our attention stores), Smith places the blame squarely on the Internet’s financial overlords: Attention scarcity becomes an issue only when “information is being processed through an engine that is explicitly designed to prod the would-be attender ever onward from one monetizable object to the next.”

This focus on the corrosiveness of the Internet’s incentive structure may be justified, but it also establishes a tension within The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. The rest of the book, all the material that follows Smith’s darkly convincing exposé, offers a wonderfully smart and engaging analysis of the Internet’s early-modern precursors. This tour through the history of science and technology is meant to be not merely interesting—though it certainly is—but also ethically constructive. In the manner of other philosophical genealogists like Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, Smith offers a “historical ontology,” an investigation of the history of a concept that gives us a better sense of its essence or, at the very least, its family tree. At the same time, however, such a genealogy can be radically transgressive, since it is always possible that the investigation will reveal contingencies in our current patterns of thought. Perhaps aspects of modern life that seem obvious and necessary to us were anything but that to people of the past. Maybe the “Internet” doesn’t have to be the Internet.

There are two aspects of Smith’s approach that seem to foreshadow its limits. First, he stumbles when he identifies the monetization of the Internet, rather than any feature specific to its informational capacities, as the most important cause of its current decay. If this is so, why provide a genealogical investigation of the Internet? Perhaps an economic history or even a reflection on corporate greed might be more fitting. Smith’s project is further hampered by its historical conservatism. Where Foucault’s histories purport to show significant differences between past and present ways of thinking, Smith claims that his analysis points in the opposite direction: that our relationship to devices such as those employed by the Internet “has been substantially the same throughout the course of human history.” His is a “perennialist” genealogy, and it amounts to what he calls a “reverse Foucauldianism.” This is all well and good if the facts demand it: If the “Internet” has always been the Internet. The problem, though, is that this kind of analysis stands little chance of being transgressive. Unlike, say, Nietzsche’s analysis of Christian morality in The Genealogy of Morals, in which he sought to destabilize the status quo by investigating its unseemly origins, Smith’s analysis threatens to reify the status quo by revealing that things have always been as they are. Is it implausible? Almost certainly. But, worse, such an account makes our contemporary experience, which may in some ways feels hopefully contingent, appear now hopelessly entrenched. It also has the effect of clouding the reader’s sense of where Smith actually stands on the issue of the Internet’s purported antihumanism.

This confusion comes to a head in the final chapter of Smith’s book, which begins with a personal reflection on the trial of writing during a pandemic. He has been separated from his books (stored away in the New York Public Library) and forced to research in the isolation of his Brooklyn apartment. But unlike academic exiles of the past, Smith has the Internet, and the Internet functions as a kind of “window on the world.” He confesses, “barely joking,” that for people with his temperament, the isolation of the pandemic is something he’s been waiting for his whole life. He writes, “The dream that is now being realized is to retreat not into a closed [monastic] cell, but a cell from which to look out, as through a magic window, on the totality of the dazzling world from which we have been physically cut off.”

The online epitome of this dream is Wikipedia, the brainchild of entrepreneur Jimmy Wales, and a site that Smith seems to admire without the least bit of irony. This admiration is, we’re told, partly warranted, as Wikipedia appears to have largely avoided the corruption found in Big Tech. Smith notes that the original stigma surrounding Wikipedia, that it represented a “superficial and lazy approach to knowledge,” has largely disappeared. Now, he reminds us, “an undergraduate in a typical introductory humanities course is seldom expected…to open a book at all.” (Here one can’t help but think that Smith is setting us up for some kind of joke: Is the retreat from the reading of books to the breezy entries of online encyclopedias a serious recommendation of Wikipedia’s virtue?)

We also learn that Wikipedia plays a somewhat more personal, and rather cherished, role in Smith’s daily routine. He offers the reader a window into one recent late-night “stochastic” journey into the web of Wiki-trivia. From the Kuiper Belt to crop milk to the Hesychast controversy, the “tour tapers off imperceptibly into sleep, and the rhythm begins again the following day.” Confessing his “addiction” to Wikipedia, Smith writes, “I am already fearing and mourning my eventual release back into the ‘world’ in the vulgar sense: the bare physical reality of commutes, meetings, dinner parties, activities.” (Again, Smith seems so otherwise self-aware and astute and humanistic that one suspects a ruse.)

This dream of a pocket theater is nothing new, and in a rich survey that more than justifies the price of admission, Smith depicts the early days (in fact, the early-modern days) of the Wikipedian fantasy. For instance, in 1588, in a manuscript titled The Diverse and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli, the good captain describes an invention called the “book wheel.” Picture a wooden structure about the size and shape of a small watermill. Now, instead of blades used to catch water, imagine a series of tiny, hinged desktops with open books resting on them. As the wheel turns, the reader is presented with a new work, ideally on a topic related to his primary course of study. Sitting serenely at the contraption’s edge, the reader can wheel—presumably, the early-modern equivalent of “flit”—from topic to topic as his imagination demands. Somewhat humorously, Captain Ramelli, an Italian engineer, identifies the ideal user of his invention as “any person who delights in study, principally those who are indisposed or subject to gout.” (If the water wheel is indeed a conceptual precursor to Wikipedia, it’s worth noting that the original user was imagined to suffer from some kind of physical disability.)

Three decades later, perhaps in an attempt to ease the physical demands left unmitigated by the water wheel, Robert Burton produced The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), a treatise whose title is something of a misnomer, as Burton’s interests run far beyond the constraints of his announced topic. In reality, Smith explains, Burton’s book is a “compendium of trivia, a confessional memoir, a simultaneously satirical and heartfelt encyclopedia of everything that mattered to its creator.” Commiserating with his seventeenth-century counterpart, Smith observes that “this is Burton’s ‘world,’ and he knows it and loves it from within the security and comfort of his cramped and book-laden cell.” This reference to Burton’s “world” is meant to be something more than just metaphor. Smith suggests that the view from the world book is no more a distortion of reality than the view through the scientist’s microscope, or even from the prow of a ship, the edge of a precipice, or any number of sites we might be tempted to associate with “real” adventure.

That Smith intends exactly this exchange is made clear in the book’s closing paragraphs. He writes (again, without evident irony),

When we were children with our Atari game modules, there was a common and facetious argument produced in opposition to our parents’ orders to stop playing video games and to go outside: that these games were beneficial for the development of “hand-eye coordination.” Now many decades later I find there is a perfect coordination, almost like ballet, in my own human-computer interface, of not just hand and eye, but of hand, eye, and world.

The ability to absorb information online, through a kind of electronic osmosis, is, Smith concludes, “a dream come true, this cosmic window I am perched up against, this microcosmic sliver of all things.”

As I read these final words of Smith’s, I can’t help but hope that, as readers do in many of the passages from Burton’s compendium, we’re encountering an ingenious satire of the kind few contemporary philosophers dare to publish. (I am otherwise so impressed by Smith’s larger body of work that I’m holding out for this possibility.) How else to explain his praise for an online interface that he finds addicting, one that—like the rapid flitting of Facebook and Twitter—enjoins us to spend our late nights moving from one hyperlink to the next? Perhaps, and this strikes me as far more likely, the ease and availability of endless trivia—the possibility of erecting online worlds protected from “bare reality”—is almost impossible to resist. Freedom is a frightening thing. When, however, we succumb to such retreats, resign ourselves to the window from our computer screens, we must finally suspect that the joke is on us.

This dystopian dream also shows that the monetization of the Internet, while obviously serious, may be a red herring. The Internet is itself problematic in ways that seem to elude Smith. We would do well, then, to pay more attention to a response that receives short shrift in Smith’s account: the monastic approach. If the present crisis is as ethically pressing as Smith argues, we must begin the slow but necessary process of opting out. The apparent impossibility of this task is itself part of the web of illusion Silicon Valley has helped to weave. This illusion is in fact so thoroughgoing that the language of opting out inevitably sounds a bit precious, something reserved, say, for homeschool families or the Amish—certainly not for someone with reasonable responsibilities, a well-adjusted citizen of the age. Shouldn’t we, then, advise something a touch more realistic? Write a prescription the patient might actually follow?

One clear difference between, say, alcoholism and the kind of Internet addiction Smith describes is that only the former will literally kill you. Though in some obvious ways this makes alcoholism much more terrifying, there is at least one obstacle the Internet addict confronts that the alcoholic is spared: the absence of a clear physical line that constitutes an undeniable rock bottom. While physical addictions soon enough play a person out, addictions of the soul—those that addle our ability to appreciate beauty and share love—tend toward what Thoreau calls “quiet desperation.” This despair is all the more terrifying because it is subtle; it feeds slowly, and on the insides. It kills without killing, leaving its host—zombielike—living yet dead. Blank eyes, slack jaw, there but not there.

If this depiction strikes us as at all accurate, there can be no question that measures of the starkest kind are warranted. The doctor must prescribe what she thinks will work, even if she worries that the patient will refuse it.

Here then, at this critical juncture, we find ourselves in need of another virtue the Internet has in its crosshairs: ethical imagination. Why, if we sense that the disease is so virulent, are we so passive? There are surely many and complex reasons why this is so, but it also seems clear that chief among them is that we simply can’t envision what it would look like to live differently. Is there, finally, anyone left who can dream without the help of Zuckerberg and Wales?