The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning

Julien Crockett in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Justin E. H. Smith

We hear about the loss of trust in our institutions and the need to reinvent them for the internet age. In short, we are living in a “crisis moment” — one ironically experienced by many of us while stuck at home. 

Many have diagnosed these symptoms and proposed policy solutions, but few have done the hard work of rummaging around in the internet’s history to find the roots of the problems — and almost none have taken a truly long view. In The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, Justin E. H. Smith, a philosopher and historian of science, argues that we’ve been much too narrow-minded in our understanding of the internet. In presenting a longue durée history, he challenges our assumptions about what the internet is and what we’re doing when we’re on it. Only by understanding the internet’s long history — by understanding the circumstances in which the internet’s many parts were conceived — can we, he claims, take back control of our lives and shape the internet in a way more conducive to human flourishing.

JULIEN CROCKETT: You credit the birth of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is with a melancholic piece you wrote in 2018–’19, “It’s All Over.” Can you tell us about that piece and why it inspired you to write about the internet and ultimately this book?

JUSTIN E. H. SMITH: In the end, the book turned out to be something very different, both with respect to tone and argument from the 2018–’19 piece that I wrote as a “rant.” The book has some serious scholarly philosophical theses to defend, so it tones down the polemics. That said, “It’s All Over” inspired me to start trying to hone and articulate an argument about why the internet functions in society the way it does, and what the harms both seen and unseen about this function might be.

More here.