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.

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