Historical Prototypes for the Internet

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  • Book: Justin E.H. Smith, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022).



Sam Kriss:

"In this book, he shows us prototypes for the internet in some unexpected places. Like me, Smith finds demons at the origin of the digital age: here, it’s in the Brazen Head, a magical contraption supposedly built by the thirteenth-century scholar Roger Bacon. Like a “medieval Siri,” this head could answer any yes or no question it was given; it was a thing with a mind, but without a soul. Bacon’s contemporaries were convinced that the head was real, and that he had created it with the help of the Devil. Seven hundred years ago, we were already worried about the possibility of an artificial general intelligence.

If it’s possible to build a machine that has a mind, or at least acts in a mind-like way, what does that say about our own minds? Leibniz, a pioneer of early AI, insisted that his gear-driven mechanical calculator did not think, because the purely rational and technical operations of the mind—adding, subtracting—are not real thought. “It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labor of calculation;” a calculating machine would allow us to spend more time fully inhabiting our own minds. Today, of course, it’s gone the other way: computerized systems form our opinions for us and decide what music we enjoy; dating-app algorithms choose our sexual partners. Meanwhile, the pressures of capitalism force us to act as rational agents, always calculating our individual interests, condemned to live like machines. It has all, Smith admits, gone very badly wrong. But it could have gone otherwise.

After all, there have already been many different versions of the internet; go back far enough, and the internet is simply part of nature. An elephant’s stomping foot, the clicking of a sperm whale, the chemical signals released into the air by sagebrush, all of which send meaningful messages over a long distance. “Throughout the living world, telecommunication is more likely the norm than the exception.” Mystics understood this; they have always assumed that something like the internet already existed, in their vision of a “system of hidden filaments or threads that bind all things.” Ancient philosophers, from the Stoics to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, saw creation as a kind of cosmic textile. “How intertwined in the fabric is the thread and how closely woven the web.” Maybe, Smith suggests, it is not a coincidence that the first fully programmable computer was the Jacquard loom, a machine for entangling threads. Our digital computer network is just the latest iteration of something that permeates the entire world. The internet is happening wherever birds sing in the morning; the internet is furiously coursing through the soil beneath a small patch of grass.

It’s a fascinating argument, and a tempting one. Like Smith, I’m fascinated by very early computers, which are ultimately far more interesting than the machine I’m using to write this review. The Jacquard loom, the Leibniz machine, the Babbage engine: these devices seem to point the way to an alternative internet, something very different to the one we actually have. At one point Smith mentions Ramon Llull, a hero of mine and a major influence on Leibniz’s first doctoral dissertation, who invented a mechanical computer made of paper which he imagined could help us understand the nature of God. What would our internet look like if it had kept to its thirteenth-century purpose? Well, Smith suggests, maybe it would look like Wikipedia, “this cosmic window I am perched up against, this microcosmic sliver of all things.”

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is is, well, not what you think it is. Some online reviewers have been surprised by this book: they expected a pointed screed about how the internet is ruining everything, and instead they get an erudite, quodlibetical adventure through the philosophy of computation. They wanted to be told that the internet is a sudden, cataclysmic break from the world we knew, and they get a “perennialist genealogy,” an account of how things are “more or less stable across the ages.” It’s not as if Smith has failed to properly consider the opposite position. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is grew out of an essay in The Point magazine, titled “It’s All Over,” which was also about the internet but struck a very, very different tone. “It has come to seem to me recently that this present moment must be to language something like what the Industrial Revolution was to textiles.”