The internet is beginning to damage us in a big way. Some 30 years after the beginning of its proliferation, and perhaps 15 since the introduction of the smartphone, we are becoming used to the idea that the world wide web and all its manifestations and applications, has a very dark side.
With capabilities to propel malevolent ideas into motion, threaten democracy, and introduce chaos into our minds, most people are viewing this technology differently compared with that time around the turn of the century when utopian ideals based around limitless communication and abundance prevailed.
TikTok as a likely agent of cognitive warfare, malicious WhatsApp groups, and ChatGPT are a growing worry. Perhaps most significantly, the scientific evidence is clear that younger people’s use of social media is damaging mental health, raising levels of individual unhappiness, pain and suffering.
But how did it come to this? What is the nature of the internet, and how has it ended up ushering in this new complex era of hate speech and division? In his book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, Justin E Smith, professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris, takes a look at its history, and the growing threat of individual and social unrest.
How did you start thinking about the idea for this book?
Well, I suppose there are two layers to this answer. One is in my professional scholarly capacity as a specialist in early modern history and the philosophy of science.
The other is a long interest in the history of artificial languages, or let’s say the construction of ideal languages, which really took off in the 17th century, and is of course related to computing in many ways. But the history of computing itself is a relatively new interest of mine.
Having said that, it’s also a very personal book. I’m not only writing in my capacity as a scholar, but also as a human being in the 21st century: one who, like everyone else, gets dopamine rushes when something goes viral, and who feels despondent when no one cares. It is this algorithmic engine which shapes the entirety of our social reality today, and I think is a very important topic to investigate at length.
So what is the internet, really?
I think we know the internet to be many different things. We use it to pay our bills, do our searches and take care of all sorts of practical aspects of our lives. This kind of technology has been considered something of a utopian dream by scientists, technologists and philosophers for centuries.
But we are beginning to understand that the mass connectivity it allows, and the kind of free speech – or hate speech – which spreads, is damaging us, as individuals and societies.
There is also the addiction issue. For example, in the near past we used the internet by accessing websites with desktop machines. But today many people, especially the younger cohort, seem to barely ever experience the internet through sites: they largely experience it through feeds on social media apps, which is phenomenologically something quite distinct. It’s a different experience, and in some sense this shift from websites to social media feed – via smartphones – is like switching from cocaine to crack.
The internet is now a living thing, which is being driven by algorithmic incentivisation. The more addictive it is, the more people will use it (and for longer), the more advertisements will be sold and the more profits will be made by an elite few. I think it’s fair to say that what has emerged fairly recently, over the course of the 2010s, is a new form of the internet that has the potential to, and already is, causing huge social and mental problems.
Why do you think a philosopher like you has written a book about the internet?
The problem with technologists is that they have skin in the game, but in the wrong way. They are interested in promoting a relatively rosy picture of the landscape. For example, you hear technologists like Elon Musk voicing approval for the simulation argument (that is to say the world is a mere manifestation of a computer simulation). It is very much in his interest to convince everyone that all of reality, even the entire universe, is a product like the ones he resides over and profits from.
Sure, we’ve seen many defectors, from Facebook, for example, saying that this is not the future they had imagined, but I think it takes someone from outside to really take a piercing look at what is going on – someone who does not have skin in the game, or any incentive to profit from the technology. I also think that a certain kind of lucidity is trained in the philosopher, meaning they can bring something the table.
What is the key existential risk the internet poses?
I think the largest threat lies in the damaging of individual mental health, which itself leads to societal divide and threat to democracy. Obviously the issue is more complex than this, and involves the widening gap between rich and poor, as well as other human aspects involving fear, but it is all manifesting the past few years in the culture war, with everything from the controversy around #MeToo to trans identity.
It seems that now the conversation around our culture, or cultures, is split along political lines and that the conversation takes place largely online, on platforms hosted by corporations profiteering through addiction to their services. It seems like there is nowhere to go, offline, where people can gather in good faith to find common ground, and resolve to work through differences and discover that we actually agree on 99 per cent of everything.
Social reality has in fact been warped, and the pandemic worsened the situation. I don’t mean that in some loose, arbitrary, way – I really mean that social reality is fundamentally different now.
Where is the internet taking us in the coming decades?
We can look at China where social credit systems have emerged, and use this to extrapolate into the future here. These systems effectively gamify love, relationships and social status, so that citizens are constantly calculating. For example, should I jaywalk here or not, and risk being docked three points? This reduces all of life to social calculation in what is essentially a rewards system.
But even in the West much of life is converging on such a Chinese style social credit system, whether we call it that or not. People are getting fired for viral TikTok videos. Whether this happens under free market capitalism or under Chinese authoritarianism, it’s still a social credit system.
It’s still a system where you’ve got to keep your online image polished if you want to receive a living wage. That is a real problem, one which is set to get worse. I can see the eventual convergence of online status with financial wellbeing. It may well be that one day your online metrics – your social media metrics – will end up replacing your bank balance, and become the new true measure of wealth.
Dr Conor Purcell writes about science, society and culture and can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell – some of his other articles at cppurcell.tumblr.com