Justin E.H. Smith’s book The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is is not what I thought it was & is not what it says it is, A History, A Philosophy, A Warning: it’s the reverse

…so what is it? Here’s some bits I liked:

Just as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the global economy was dominated by natural-resource extraction, today the world’s largest companies have grown as large as they have entirely on the promise of providing to their clients the attention, however fleeting, of their billions of users.

— Justin E.H. Smith The Internet … , (Princeton University Press, 2022), 14

… which suggests a temporal economy and probably a better world were mental-resource extraction to replace that of natural resources…

And these users are, at the same time, being used. One vivid and disconcerting term that has been circulating in social media to describe anyone who spends time online is “data-cow.” The role that users of “free” online platforms occupy might sometimes feel creative, or as if it has something in common with traditional work or leisure. But this role sometimes appears closer to that of a domesticated animal that is valuable to the extent that it has its very self to give. We do not usually provide our bodily fluids, and are not usually asked to do so, though sites such as Ancestry.com do ask for saliva as part of their data-collecting efforts, and health bracelets and other such devices owned by Apple and Amazon are increasingly discovering ways to monitor a number of our vital fluid levels. But even if we are not giving our fluids, we are giving something that has proven more valuable to the new economy than milk ever was in the system of industrial agriculture: information about who we are, what we do, what we think, what we fear. Some of us continue to have old-fashioned careers in the twenty-first century–we are doctors, professors, lawyers, and truck drivers. Yet the main economy is now driven not by what we do, but by the information extracted from us, not by our labor in any established sense, but by our data. This is a revolution at least as massive as the agricultural and industrial revolutions that preceded it. Whatever else happens, it is safe to say that for the rest of our lifetimes, we will only be living out the initial turbulence of this entry into a new historical epoch.

— Ibid. 15

so begins chapter 1. Sounds like its going to chart the impact of what Shoshanna Zuboff in her 2015 book called Data Capitalism called data capitalism. I like the clear statement of what’s at stake. Revolution.

After naming four features of the revolution we will spend our whole lifetimes coming to terms with the book sets about telling us that the revolution is not anything new. It has been going on since at least the Revolution. In fact he dates the whole thing, the whole thing being the Internet, back to Leibniz.

That’s fine by me in terms of fundamental understanding, ideas and concepts, but not in terms of data extraction. And not in terms of the fundamental changes Smith’s four features of the revolution describe. Not then in the terms the book sets for itself.

These are:

  1. “a new sort of exploitation, in which human beings are not only exploited in the use of their labor for extraction of natural resources; rather, their lives are themselves the resource, and they are exploited in its extraction.” (15)
  2. a new problem: “the way in which the emerging extractive economy threatens our ability to use our mental faculty of attention in a way that is conducive to human thriving.” (17)
  3. feature 3 is so new it constitutes, says Smith, a “genuine break with the past: the condensation of so much of our lives into a single device, the passage of nearly all that we do through a single technological portal.” “Whatever your habits and duties, your public responsibilities and secret desires, they are all concentrated as never before into a single device, a filter, and a portal for the conduct of nearly every kind of human life today.” (18)
  4. … “in the rise of an economy focused on extracting information from human beings, these human beings are increasingly perceived and understood as sets of data points; and eventually it is inevitable that this perception cycles back and becomes the self-perception of human subjects, so that those individuals will thrive most, or believe themselves to thrive most, in this new system who are able to convincingly present themselves not as subjects at all, but as attention-grabbing sets of data points. (20) “For many, the only available adaptation to this new landscape is to transform our human identity into a sort of imitation of the decidedly non-human forces that sustain the internet, to trade a personality for an algorithmically plottable profile, in effect, to imitate a bot.” (21)

After this setup I’d like to find out what happens, particularly to number 4, but it wasn’t until much later I realised I was not going to. It was around when Smith was telling me that Deleuze (writing with Guattari) doesn’t have a theoretical monopoly and can’t claim copyright over the idea presented in A Thousand Plateaus of the network being a rhizome or the rhizome a network. And this was followed closely by citing Kant as an authority, so it kind of made sense. I mean, Deleuze with or without Guattari is not going to fit into a Kantian framework.

The problem I have with this book is that although it appears to want to engage philosophy, and this is in the subtitle, A History, A Philosophy, A Warning, it doesn’t do so in a philosophically informed way. The history part is halfway amusing but I would have expected, given that the book really starts with the warning, again a more philosophically informed approach, say an archeological or genealogical one. The trouble is that Smith maintains that it is, that he is doing a “reverse Foucauldianism”. (12) What this tells me is that the book is written the wrong way around.

— Tullio Pericoli