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The Once and Future Internet 💬
What does it mean that the internet isn't what we think it is?
Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of culture-making, big and small. Where do our cultural norms come from? How do we collectively decide what’s worth passing down through generations—aka, tradition? And to take it more granularly, through what filters do we cultivate our own smaller cultures, such as our familial ones at home?
This, naturally, has also led me to think ever more deeply about arguably the most pervasive current culture-maker at large: the internet. What was once a fringe tool for the selective nerds in particular fields is now considered so necessary to our survival that we carry conduits of it in our pockets and many governments and leaders have argued for its categorization as a utility.
And if you know me at all, you’re not surprised that this contemplation over the culture-making inevitability of the internet has led me to wonder whether we’re ignoring, intentionally or not, its seditiousness to what we’d otherwise consider a healthy culture worth upholding. The past few years have led me down many a rabbit trail of learning from various opinions about the best way to tame the internet’s role in our culture, from doing our best to make the most of it a la Tristan Harris to a near-Luddite approach of ignoring it completely a la Wendell Berry.
Because of this interest, my signals perk up when someone I follow makes a recommendation for further deep-diving into this topic — so when Myles Werntz posted this in my Twitter feed:
I was intrigued. I immediately snagged the audiobook and began listening to it. When Myles then offered to write a review of this book for us here in The Commonplace, I couldn’t pass it up. I don’t often do this here, but once he asked I realized it might be a good idea to do this more often. After all, this is The Commonplace, one meaning of which is a common place.
So, let’s all grab a drink and settle in to learn from Myles and his takeaways from this short but subversive book by Justin E.H. Smith.
The Once and Future Internet
A Review of Justin E.H. Smith’s The Internet is Not What You Think: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning
The phenomenon of “Zooming” is one instance among thousands in which a noun became a verb, and the verb, in short order, became indistinguishable from us. To be during the pandemic was to be physically distant from friends, colleagues, and loved ones; overcoming this distance was essential to living, and a relatively unknown company knit the world together.
This seamless integration of natural desire and technological apparatus is not simply the stuff of Artificial Intelligence fantasies, but, as Justin E.H. Smith argues, a desire which has preceded the infrastructure of the Internet by centuries. Long before there was Wikipedia, there was Jan Amos Comenius’ 1658 The World Depicted; before there were instant synaptic connections, semaphore chains sped up messages across the English Channel.
The Internet has a history, one borne out in a thousand small moments, but all driven by the same desire for communication, of creating shared life across great distance and time.
This history is not just built by humans in small measure, but also by nature. As Richard Powers elegantly describes in The Overstory, nature is rife with communication, from trees sending out chemical signals through root stems and pollen distributions, to prairie dogs calling out the shape and size of predators to sagebrush sending out chemicals that warn of insects coming. That not all of these are “conscious” in the way we think of communication is, Smith states, largely irrelevant; the important point here is that humans, members of a great organic web, follow the same patterns as stink bugs and sagebrush.
Across less than 200 pages, Smith takes the reader through a dizzying history of science with one primary goal: the Internet is not some entirely novel emergence, but the latest iteration of a basic dream that creatures, great and small, have had for millennia: to communicate and relate over great distances, bringing our worlds together. But this dream has, in many ways, become a nightmare, as natural faculties of attention, knowledge, and analysis have been outsourced and colonized by business interests, app developers, and data miners.
The Internet, thus, is an outgrowth of the natural history of creatures, the fruit of a million dreams with thousands of historical precedents. And yet, when the dream shows up, it appears only as a monetized means to bring together consumers who have nothing meaningful to share with one another anyway.
Smith shares the negativity and suspicions of many, cataloging the ways in which Internet attention merchants corrupt our pursuits of knowledge, friendship, and excellence. But it is the naturalness of the Internet that proves troubling for these right complaints. In that naturalness, the Internet evokes a sense of wonder for Smith: being able to see Orion more clearly, to meet with distant friends, and to have a world of information present at all times. To be able to answer an inborn desire in such an elegant way should evoke wonder in us.
To press this even further: insofar as the Internet is similar to other tools—augmenting our natural abilities—the Internet is simply one more undertaking by humans to answer the longings of all flora and fauna. Absent from Smith’s account is what difference that humans using the Internet makes. Is the desire for communication and knowledge of humans analogous to lichen and prairie dogs? Are the computational processes of a computer inflected by anything like a conscience? Is participation in an online concert the same as being there in person?
On most of the questions, Smith remains agnostic about what difference being human might make, and in that vein, his right concerns about the corruptions of the Internet run into a problem: if humans are just a complex variety of nature, why not integrate the Internet into our lives as maximally as possible?
In contrast to many Christian commentators, many of the theological markers which have been posited concerning human distinctiveness—the soul, conscience, sin—are absent, leaving humans little room to maneuver away from the Internet’s promise. Humans as creatures have no real reason to avoid such a gift, do they? The desires for intimacy and connection, particularly in a world under Covid, are pervasive, perennial, and open to every possible fulfillment by the Internet, but Smith’s account leaves open whether the possible, the natural, and the good are the same.
One could surmise that because the Internet emerges out of the common ether with the rest of existence: if the Internet exists, it is because it was always going to exist eventually in some form. But is everything that bears the echoes of nature good?
For the Christian, the good is not merely a matter of necessity, but a grace. A thing is good, in God’s economy, because it exists, but not all existence is good existence or necessary existence. To desire companionship from a friend is good, but the naturality of the Internet’s history does not answer whether all companionship is good for us. To crave knowledge is a sideways gift of the Fall, and so, not all knowledge is necessary. To say something is natural, for the Christian, is to say that God has made it, but nature’s goodness is particularized and requires a discrimination of ends and manifestations.
In the end, Smith offers a brilliant, searching philosophical history that deflates many of the alarms about the Internet’s novelty, rooting the Internet’s features in processes of the world always in play. But he offers little way for us to distinguish between that which nature presents and the form into which grace would mold it.
His account complicates or outright banishes some of the more superficial criticisms of Internet life: what is new and novel is not necessarily destructive or bad. By linking the Internet to the desires and features of creation, he offers a demystified vision of the Internet’s gifts, even if his vision is one that lacks a full account of whether this is a tree that should be eaten from with caution or with abandon.
If you’re interested, I’d (Tsh) recommend these reads for diving deeper:
The Internet is Not What You Think: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning, by Justin E.H. Smith
The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, by Andy Crouch (which I believe answers questions Smith ignores)
Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr
I’ve also got Myles Wentz’s new book in my summer TBR stack — it’s called From Isolation to Community: A Renewed Vision for Christian Life Together and it’s more than apropos for our current post-pandemic (nearly?) culture. I look forward to diving in.
Thanks to Myles for sharing his review! If you’d like more from him, check out his Substack newsletter, Christian Ethics in the Wild.
Ora et Labora,