David Beer, The Internet Is Only What You Think It Is: Go, Go Gadget Philosophy, Berfrois, 20 April 2022
The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning
Justin E.H. Smith
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2022. 256 pp
A classic lecture theatre layout. I was high in ‘the gods’ listening sporadically to a lecture on how to send an email. It was part of a weekly course guiding us through the internet and some other information technologies. Much of it was new to us. Yet even at the time the sessions felt a bit comical. Part of the assessment required us to successfully send an email to the lecturer. Picking up Justin E.H. Smith’s ambitious new book, which seeks to rethink our understanding of the internet, I can’t help but think back to my early encounters. Pulling philosophy from his sleeves, Smith’s aim, as the title alludes, is to tell the reader The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. In those early moments of surfing I knew exactly what I thought it was. It was crap. A gimmick. Flimsy content, empty, slow, pointless. Nothing much to capture the imagination and certainly no danger of an attention grab. Of course, things got very complicated very quickly.
To give this method and approach a label, Smith talks of a ‘historical ontology’, a phrase drawn from the work of Ian Hacking. The approach is also described in terms of it being an adapted version of Foucault’s genealogy. Instead of isolating historical moments of rupture though, Smith is looking for the stable and enduring in what he calls a type of ‘perennialist genealogy’. The aim here, presumably, is to see what keeps coming back. Smartphones, for instance, are said to be ‘concretions of a certain kind of natural activity in which human beings have been engaging all along’. Smith wants to build a sense of something ongoing in the internet, something that has always been and which is finding certain new forms that blend the old with some potentially new properties.