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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?

By William Davies

The popular history of the internet can be divided into roughly three phases. There was the decade between the launch of the worldwide web in 1990 and the dotcom crash of 2000, in which “surfing” the web was a novel and rare activity, which typically required a visit to a library or use of a telephone line. Other than through message boards and email, opportunities to publish information online were still largely confined to those users capable of writing code. Phase two, occurring over the first decade of the new century, saw the birth and consolidation of what would become known as “platforms”, giant companies, massively capitalised with the aid of Alan Greenspan’s ultra-low interest rates, which became embedded in our everyday lives, and devoured data in the process. A “social” element crept in, making it easier for internet users to share content with one another via blogs and social networking sites.

A third phase began in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008: the mobile internet, based around apps and APIs (application programming interfaces), pieces of code that allow applications to communicate with each other, typically without the user being aware. Facebook seized these affordances in a bid to become an indispensable utility, the very gateway to the public sphere. “Disruptors”, such as Uber and Deliveroo, aimed to remake the basic conditions of municipal life. Wireless connectivity also unleashed the “internet of things”, a growing panoply of “smart” devices that could communicate with one another in the home, the workplace or the street. The capacity for surveillance just kept on growing.

Critics arrived late. Partly because the denizens of the early web retained some counter-cultural optimism, and partly because of the stranglehold that futurists held over discussions of the digital age, it wasn’t until phase three that popular criticism began in earnest. Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget (2010) and Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion (2011) signalled a change of mood, casting doubt over the fresh wave of tech-utopianism that accompanied the Arab Spring, in which social media and smartphones played a significant role. But it was the unscrupulous use of Facebook as a propaganda machine by the Trump and Vote Leave campaigns in 2016 that really turned the tide, triggering the so-called techlash.

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. When Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were writing their despairing and bombastic denunciations of the Californian “culture industry” in the 1940s, the objects were tangible and visible: cinema, billboard advertising and radio were things one could point at and accuse. The same is not true of the internet, which either requires critics to expand the scope of their despair and bombast, or to give up on some wholesale critique altogether in favour of narrower concerns. The emergence of discrete scholarly fields of “software studies” and “platform studies” over the last 15 years is partly an effort to establish some boundaries around the objects of research and critique.

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.

Smith’s book is his latest salvo in a long-running critique of our digital public sphere, which often feels more like a vigorous vendetta against it, not least because he evidently feels that the culture of the internet represents a vendetta against the kinds of seriousness and scholarly attention that he cherishes. Part of what makes Smith such an engaging online intellectual is the spectacle he generates of the resolutely literary scholar dancing precariously around the seductions of digital bullshit, and not always fully resisting them. As he confesses in The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, “I myself have spent far more time over the past year scrolling through Twitter than I have spent reading literature, but I do not recall consciously making any such attentional commitment. It is in part for this reason that my scrolling strikes me as a moral failure on my part, and at the same time a moral wrong against me on the part of those who contrived to reduce me to this condition for profit.” Many of us will be able to relate.

Much of Smith’s critique of the internet follows familiar paths, albeit with a philosophical verve and wit that refreshes the standard “techlash” lines. The internet has crippled our powers of attention, turned each form of intellectual and cultural exchange into a game and dragged every aspect of our lives within the scope of surveillance. Its overwhelming significance – a “revolution at least as massive as the agricultural and industrial revolutions that preceded it” – is that we are now exploited for profit as sources of data, simply by living and behaving. These claims are not in themselves very novel, but it is Smith’s ability to contextualise them with often bizarre details from the history of science that renders them intriguing.

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More curiously, having established what is so extraordinary and unprecedented about the technological paradigm of the past 30 years, he dedicates the bulk of his book to showing its various precedents from the previous 400. Smith jumps liberally across historical epochs, dwelling at length on the work of the 17th-century mathematician and thinker Gottfried Leibniz (his area of philosophical specialism), while also introducing stories of animal communication systems, obscure texts and exotic machines. “We always knew the internet was possible,” he remarks. “Its appearance in the most recent era is only the latest twist in a much longer history of reflection on the connectedness and unity of all things.”

As Smith meanders through anecdotes about spiders’ webs, cybernetics and pre-modern conceptions of artificial intelligence, one senses far more enthusiasm for these proto-internet dreams than for the actually existing internet of today. This, it turns out, is no Luddite tract, but an excitable tour through a curiosity shop of past scientific imaginings. Quite what it has to do with contemporary platform capitalism, or what it implies about the internet’s ontology (other than it’s not what we think), is not always clear. With Smith, one must be willing to enjoy the ride, and not worry too much if the driver sometimes seems to be going the long way round.

Tarnoff is no less appalled by the internet that we have now, but far more optimistic about the one we might have in the future – or could have had today, had different political choices been made. While he wears it lightly, the critique is plainly Marxist in nature: a set of technologies, invented by human beings, has the capacity for human emancipation but has instead been put in the service of profit. The internet, he argues, is now a necessary condition of progress and political citizenship, and yet it has been co-opted in various ways by capital and used against us. Ideology – including the very language of “platforms” – has obscured this reality from us and made the internet’s current form appear inevitable, even natural. Like any good Marxist, Tarnoff’s task is to deploy historical economic analysis to show us what’s really been going on, which is a form of digital enclosure movement, authorised by the US government.

His story begins in 1990s America, “when the internet became a business”. Until the early Nineties, the internet had been routed via various non-profit regional networks, operated by the National Science Foundation, a US government agency. This was a similar model of publicly owned infrastructure to the US Postal Service. But as Bill Clinton and Al Gore set to work on building the “knowledge economy” around an “information superhighway”, and as the most powerful telecom companies hovered, this vision of a digital public good was abandoned. Neoliberal ideology and the quest for profit meant that the basic infrastructure of the internet was privatised, and alternative visions of local, democratically accountable networks came under threat.  

From this moment, the forces of privatisation steadily moved up the “stack”, starting with the basic physical pipes and routers through which information runs, then dictating the types of software through which information is accessed and shared, before producing the giant platforms and apps which are now woven into our everyday social being. If the Clinton era sought to privatise the basic means of connectivity, the second phase of the internet was about extracting value from users once they were already connected.

Tarnoff resents the term “platform”, which he believes is “designed to mystify rather than clarify”. Instead, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google and others are better understood as “online malls”, commercial spaces we are encouraged to visit and hang out in, where our attention and experiences can be carefully controlled and exploited. We may not always be spending money in these malls, but they are shaped by the commercial imperative to identify revenue streams, whether through selling advertising or consumer goods. For Tarnoff, the malaises often associated with the internet – mass surveillance, gruelling “gig” work, right-wing extremism – are all ultimately effects of this privatised model, in which the owners and operators of the digital world are solely interested in extracting attention, data and money from us. 

What might the alternative internet look like? Tarnoff is scathing about attempts to reform the likes of Facebook and Amazon into socially responsible companies, and expresses little hope in competition law. Better, he argues, to just abolish the online malls, rather as Angela Davis has argued for the abolition of the police and prisons – a demand that has over the past 20 years opened up space for alternative visions of politics and social security on the American left. Along with the example of small-scale community networks, he takes inspiration from the example of the 1980s Greater London Council, which – under the leadership of Ken Livingstone – established five “Technology Networks” around London, to “democratise the design and development of technology”. Why not have “millions of social media communities”, Tarnoff asks, “each with their own rules and customs and cultures”?

This faith in bottom-up experimentation is a welcome respite from the fatalism that often accompanies discussions of Big Tech, but it leaves open the question of what (if any) “big” or universal services would be available in Tarnoff’s socialist vision. There are reasons why the internet generates monopolistic giants that are not solely the fault of capital, namely the phenomenon of “network effects”, meaning that users flock to where the other users are.

A centralised internet is often more useful than a decentralised one, as the example of eBay demonstrates (it’s where other buyers and sellers are). But so does the example of (non-capitalist) Wikipedia, a “platform” that Tarnoff virtually ignores, but which Marxists such as the late Erik Olin Wright have viewed as exemplary of how socialism can work. Smith, for example, happily acknowledges that Wikipedia occupies an exceptional position in escaping the pathologies and propaganda that have plagued so many other platforms. Perhaps it’s too obvious a case, but it is curious that Tarnoff doesn’t show more curiosity as to why Wikipedia has bucked so many of the trends he laments. 

When it comes to the collection and ownership of data, Tarnoff rightly demands a more democratic, accountable and transparent model, based around public and municipal agencies. “Platform cooperatives” (imagined as an alternative to Uber or Deliveroo) provide part of the answer. But if the critique is only ever of the “privatised” internet, and not of surveillance and behavioural control as such, the uneasy question remains of what such technologies might be put in the service of. The original publicly owned internet was, as Tarnoff notes, developed on behalf of the US military. China’s infamous Social Credit System is evidence of how contemporary platform technologies work just as well in the service of an authoritarian state as in the service of private profit. No doubt the democratically controlled internet, which Tarnoff advocates, would be put in the service of whatever its voters or members wanted. Setting some a priori limits on what these might be strikes me as a worthwhile project, but that brings us back to the mundane task of liberal regulation.

Nobody could read Internet for the People and accuse it of lacking answers or recommendations. The political origins of our digital woes are named and blamed, and the alternatives are articulated. This is a polemic in the great tradition of experimental, democratic socialism, in which non-capitalist ventures are assumed to exist all around us, and simply need discovering and learning from. Tarnoff is to be commended for politicising issues that are too often reduced to matters of personal behaviour, as if the answer to Facebook and Uber is a “digital detox” in a rural spa.

But the increasingly totalitarian reach of the internet (now ecompassing “smart” homes, APIs, screens, algorithms, endless ratings and feedback mechanisms, cloud technologies) also invites a degree of pessimism that neither Tarnoff nor Smith is quite willing to engage in. Smith is too fascinated by modernity (especially its early intellectual protagonists) to condemn entirely the technological web in which he finds himself trapped – or perhaps too conscious of the risks and clichés of counter-Enlightenment romanticism. Tarnoff’s Marxism provides him with a focus and an explanation, but it also retains a deep Marxian optimism regarding technology itself.

A more cautious assessment might be that neoliberalism was necessary but not sufficient for the genesis of today’s internet. The additional ingredients (as critics such as Shoshana Zuboff and Richard Seymour have in different ways observed) lie in the darker recesses of our psyches, and the 20th-century fantasy of complete behavioural control, which was never exclusively profit-driven. As mid-20th-century cultural critics such as Erich Fromm and Vance Packard argued, we have walked into this society of control out of our own volition, and must on some level desire it. The question then remains of what resistance even looks like, beyond throwing one’s hands up in horror or locking one’s phone in a safe.

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning
Justin EH Smith
Princeton, 208pp, £20

Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future
Ben Tarnoff
Verso, 272pp, £14.99

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William Davies’s books include “Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World” (Vintage)

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato