The internet changes everything/nothing

In an essay at Berfrois, Justin E. H. Smith gets at the weird technological totalitarianism that makes the Net so unusual in the history of tools:

The Internet has concentrated once widely dispersed aspects of a human life into one and the same little machine: work, friendship, commerce, creativity, eros. As someone sharply put it a few years ago in an article in Slate or something like that: our work machines and our porn machines are now the same machines. This is, in short, an exceptional moment in history, next to which 19th-century anxieties about the railroad or the automated loom seem frivolous. Looms and cotton gins and similar apparatuses each only did one thing; the Internet does everything.

It is the nuclear option for human culture, unleashed, evidently, without any reflection upon its long-term consequences. I am one of its victims, caught in the initial blast wave. Nothing is the same anymore, not reading, not friendship, not thinking, not love. In my symptoms, however, I resemble more the casualty of an opium war than of a nuclear war: I sit in my dark den and hit the ‘refresh’ button all day and night. When I go out, I take a portable dose in my pocket, in the form of a pocket-sized screen. You might see me hitting ‘refresh’ as I’m crossing the street. You might feel an urge to honk.

And yet perhaps all the Net does is make what was always implicitly virtual explicitly virtual:

If then there is a certain respect in which it makes sense to say that the Internet does not change everything, it is that human social reality was always virtual anyway. I do not mean this in some obfuscating Baudrillardian sense, but rather as a corollary to a thoroughgoing naturalism: human institutions only exist because they appear to humans to exist; nature is entirely indifferent to them. And tools and vehicles only are what they are because people make the uses of them that they do.

Consider the institution of friendship. Every time I hear someone say that Facebook ‘friendship’ should be understood in scare quotes, or that Facebook interaction is not real social interaction, I feel like asking in reply: What makes you think real-world friendships are real? Have you not often felt some sort of amical rapport with a person with whom you interact face-to-face, only to find that in the long run it comes to nothing? How exactly was that fleeting sensation any more real than the discovery and exploration of shared interests and sensibilities with a ‘friend’ one knows only through the mediation of a social-networking site? …

One would do better to trace [the Net] back far further, to holy scripture, to runes and oracle bones, to the discovery of the possibility of reproducing the world through manipulation of signs.

If human culture has always been artificial, isn’t it frivolous to worry about it becoming more artificial?

I’m going to have to mull that over.

7 thoughts on “The internet changes everything/nothing

  1. JustinFurano

    I think the idea of artificial vs. natural is a misguided one, or at least, not well evolved.

    It seems to me we arbitrarily draw lines between what is nature and what is synthetic, as if humans ourselves are not somehow a part of nature.

    A bird constructs a nest, bees pollenate flowers and turn nectar into honey, and these examples are considered natural. But a human experimenting with the chemical make up of the world around us is somehow a bastardization.

    Obviously we can have a destructive force on our surroundings with our inventions and biological engineering, but is it not true that many of the species on earth can overrun and destroy their surroundings with overpopulation? The relationships we form have real world consequences, further blurring the lines of what is artificial and what is real.

  2. Chris Knowles

    First of all, let me say how much I enjoyed The Shallows, which I’ve just finished cover-to-cover in a linear, very non-web fashion! I certainly recognised powerful reflections of my own experience in your account of how the web has made us more ‘flighty’ and less able to engage on long period of concentrated thought. I even found myself reading your post above in the ‘F’ style that you described!

    In relation to the Smith quote, I find that my life as an expat (in Istanbul) has meant that I use Facebook more and more to connect with my old friends in the UK. And in the process I have rekindled a number of ‘friendships’ with childhood friends with whom I would otherwise have lost touch completely. I find myself hitting ‘refresh’ several times a day to find out what they are up to, even reading avidly about their kids whom I have never met (and in many cases will never meet). But what does that matter? We have a shared past (at school), a shared hometown, and now a shared online world. I have regular friendships here in Turkey as well of course, but the net enables me to frame a new kind of friendship online, with those 2000 miles away.

    The key, as always, is to stay in control – use the net selectively, balance it with other lifestyle activities such as exercise, socialising, art…and of course reading full-length books such as your recent excellent publication! :))

  3. Steve T.

    I don’t think I understand putting the advance of the Internet on some kind of “artificial” continuum. If human personal communication has moved from hand-delivered notes to pony express to telephone calls to emails to social networking, I don’t see where it gets more artificial. I don’t imagine that new users of the telephone felt the new technology was more “artificial” than writing a note, do you?

  4. Seth Finkelstein

    > If human culture has always been artificial, isn’t it frivolous to worry about it becoming more artificial?

    Yes and no. It’s frivolous to go down the path that the past was a Golden Age, and now everything is going to hell in a handbasket. It’s not frivolous to note – and oppose – the new ways that the schemers, manipulators, con-men, exploiters, etc are doing what they’ve always done.

  5. umesh.bawa19

    Mr. Nicholas …

    Whatever may be the route cause of inhuman perception and behavioural tendencies, but still there would be a hope of recovery from every purge. Instead of long wepting session over the trauma, we should eliminate the root cause of such anti-splurge element..

    you would be contrasty to this one prowess of mine…. This is about sole inceptionary idea of living compassionately with the dart, passionately upto our complete satisfaction… We indians were carried our very love in such way.. We didn’t care of any thwarty patch of fate in future…

    ours usual idea is to bring something on the table with effivienct way of working style, unless love and compassion for such stuff, nothing is possible in life…

    so main conceptive shrewdness contracted here is to get dealt out with life in our own terms… Do for yourself… Not for your world surrounding your living….


  6. Tom Lord

    Smith is just goofy, trying to milk a tired old trope about a supposed controversy over the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” and reaching ridiculous conclusions. Waste of time.

    Here’s a nice topical quote, though:

    “According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt himself: “We know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are.” This information is given directly to advertisers so they can run demographics based ads, which bring in more income for Google.”


  7. kailin podley

    I completely agree. The internet is changing everything but yet nothing. How many of us have had friends that weren’t true friends? That did something a real friend wouldn’t have done. So what is the difference a “real” friend or an internet based friend such as a “facebook” or “myspace” friend?

    The internet has been around for a merely fifteen years and has it really changed our social interaction? We may not have as much face-face time but we are still communicating and in some ways better than ever before.

    There are several resources that all agree with saying the internet doesn’t change everything and for those people that are believe we are losing human connections due to it and just naive that don’t want to come into the technology world.

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