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.