The word “compulsion” can mean two different, if closely related, things: “the state of being compelled” or an “irresistible, persistent impulse.” The first suggests a force from outside that compels us; the latter an internal addiction or craving. The internet seems to blur the line between the two. Much of online life comes across as compulsory, at least to those of a certain age and station. One simply “has to” be online for any number of reasons: to make money, be informed, keep friends, find love. But once we’re there, life online quickly becomes compulsive. We lurk and loiter on social-media platforms designed to addict, mainlining content we don’t, upon reflection, actually value; advertisers compete for and scatter our attention; low-quality, slanted information consumes us, inflames our emotions, and distorts our thinking. The upshot is that the forum for public and private life we are all but compelled to use is, at least in some ways, against us.
To put it another way—the way philosopher Justin E. H. Smith puts it—“the internet is anti-human.” Smith’s book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is (Princeton University Press, $24.95, 208 pp.), draws on the history of philosophy and technology to recontextualize debates over the internet and related technologies like artificial intelligence and try to “figure out what went wrong.” Smith’s method is genealogical—he thinks that we don’t really understand the nature of the internet because we don’t really understand where it comes from. He means this more in terms of the idea of the internet than the technology, but he also surveys a variety of technologies, both imagined and real, that prefigure the internet. (My favorite is an “infinite book wheel” from 1588.)
Smith’s book, for better and worse, is short on solutions, but it does suggest that before we can improve our relationship with technology, we have to think differently about it. To take one example, the idea of high-powered computing systems that can take over some of the operations of human thought goes back at least to the early modern period. Smith cites the ideas of the German polymath, G. W. Leibniz, who invented, in addition to calculus, an early calculating machine. Unlike many of today’s technologists, Leibniz believed that human consciousness could never be reduced to any mechanical process, no matter how sophisticated. The analogy between artificial and human intelligence breaks down. For Smith, part of what’s gone wrong is that Leibniz’s conception of computers as tools to be “subordinated to our own rational decisions” has given way to a conception of machines as “rivals or equals,” capable of the same kind of thought as we are. This latter belief is not only a “science fiction” that neglects differences between minds and machines; it tacitly underwrites a regime that treats minds as machines—whether it be through advertising that attempts to mold our consumption patterns or language processing software that attempts to identify our innermost feelings.