Where the Internet Went Wrong – and How We Can Reboot It

The online world is run by tech companies that we depend on but deeply distrust. New books by Justin EH Smith and Ben Tarnoff ask: is an alternative possible?

It is now quite ordinary to denounce the internet as a weapon of mass surveillance and disinformation, and a cause of our anxiety, narcissism and political polarisation. Many of us find ourselves in the alienating position of using (even relying on) technology companies we distrust and hate, knowing that they are bad for us and for society, but somehow being unable or unwilling to escape. Besides big energy providers and Big Pharma, there are no other businesses towards whom we feel such animosity and such dependence simultaneously. Twitter is colloquially referred to by many of its users as “the hell-site”.

What makes the internet especially difficult to oppose or escape is that it’s not always clear what “the internet” even is. Of course it involves devices, cables and codes, which perform particular functions and often have identifiable proprietors. But this fails to capture its entanglement in our culture, politics and even inner thoughts.

Justin EH Smith and Ben Tarnoff engage with this problem in a different way. Both are comfortable focusing on “the internet” (as opposed to, say, platforms, algorithms or “tech”), and both seek to demystify and encapsulate this entity by placing it back in the context of its history – a great deal of history, in Smith’s case. For Smith, a philosophy professor in Paris, the way to understand the internet today is to recognise it as the latest stage of a scientific and philosophical genealogy that can be traced back to early modernity, in which dreams of computation, connectivity and automated intelligence are writ large. For Tarnoff, the internet we know and hate today is the outcome of over three decades of “privatisation”, a deliberate political project, prosecuted by and on behalf of capital, to enclose a set of technologies that might otherwise be put in the service of human flourishing.

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