Internet Is Not What We Think

Internet Is Not What We Think
Fecha de publicación: 
7 November 2023
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The Earth has moved beneath our feet in just a few decades. Today the largest industry in the world is—almost literally—attention seeking. Just as the global economy of the 19th and 20th centuries was dominated by the extraction of natural resources, today's largest companies have reached their massive size under the sole promise of providing their clients with the attention (however ephemeral) of their countless customers.

And those users, at the same time, are also used. A striking and disconcerting term that has begun to circulate on social media to describe anyone who spends time on the Internet is “data-cow.” The role played by users of “free” digital platforms can sometimes seem creative, or maintain a certain relationship with the work or leisure in its traditional sense. However, at other times, this role is more akin to that of a domesticated animal, which is only valuable to the extent that it gives its all. We generally don’t provide our bodily fluids, nor are we asked to do so, although it’s true that sites like demand our saliva as part of their data collection, and that medical bracelets or other similar devices from Apple and Amazon discover increasing ways to monitor several of our vital fluids. But even when we don't supply our fluids, we provide something that has proven to be more valuable to the new economy than milk ever was to the system of industrial agriculture: information about who we are, about what we do, about what we think, about what we fear. Some of us still continue to work the old fashion way in the 21st century: we are doctors, teachers, lawyers, and truck drivers. However, the main engine of the economy is no longer what we do, but the information that is extracted from us; it’s no longer our job in any established sense, but our data.

The present revolution is at least as massive as the agricultural and industrial revolutions that preceded it. Whatever happens, we can safely say that the rest of our lives will only be enough to experience the initial turbulence of this new and emerging historical era. This then is the first truly new thing of the current era: a new type of exploitation, which does not exploit human beings only in the use of their labor for the extraction of natural resources, but rather in terms of their life. Strictly speaking, the true resource for whose extraction they are exploited.

The huge machine that is fed by countless fragments of individual human attention, and that constantly requires that attention to feed itself, is much more efficient and much more capable of satisfying its voracious appetite when it appeals to passion rather than reason: when it seduces our primary desire for dopamine-based gratification, rather than inviting us to cultivate moral character or pursue long-term goals for the improvement of the oneself or the world. This gives rise to what could be described as a “general crisis of attention.” Parents complain about difficulties limiting their children's screen time; the pharmaceutical industry develops new drugs and new ways to maximize profits in contending attention deficit disorders (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]); new companies emerge selling special brain-scanning glasses to refocus students when their attention starts to waver; there are people of all ages who can no longer read an entire book, or even watch a movie without interrupting it to Google some trivial fact about one or another of the characters. The crisis is real, and it has many tentacles.

Just as the overproduction of material goods is best understood with reference to its ecological consequences, the new crisis of care is also best understood in an ecological key: as a crisis affecting a particular species of natural being in a particular type of landscape informational, full of powers and threats created by human beings. As Yves Citton warned with special insight, the advent of the Internet catapulted global human society towards an overproduction of cultural goods (we had already lived for a long time with the overproduction of material goods, no matter how unequal their distribution was). In these new circumstances, one of the most pressing questions in politics and economics is determining the means by which our eyes are drawn to one fragment of human intention rather than another, but this requires special attention to the way in which the human mind knows its surroundings and makes its way through the world. Hence, cognitive science and phenomenology have acquired new relevance for certain basic matters of politics and economics.

This, then, is the second problem that has come with the Internet age: the threat that the emerging extractive economy poses to our ability to use the mental faculty of attention in a way that leads to human thriving. The two aforementioned problems are significantly aggravated by the advent of the mobile Internet, and what Citton very well calls “affective condensation.” Most of our passions and frustrations, our personal ties and enmities, our responsibilities and addictions, are now concentrated on our digital screens along with other more mundane tasks and daily errands, such as bills to pay and tax forms. It’s not simply that we have a device capable of doing many things; The problem is that this device has largely absorbed many of the things we used to do to transform them into various instances of its own universal imposition: utility has become obligatory. Our network of computers and mobile devices is not—or is no longer—comparable to a Swiss army knife with two or three blades, a scissors, a file, and a small magnifying glass. That may have been the goal of some technologists who worked toward absorbing the floppy drive, book, telephone, camera, calendar, watch, etc., into a single universal device. But this continued absorption has not limited itself to transforming our use of tools, it has also completely changed the outlines of our social reality. As the editors of the magazine “n+1” predicted in 2007, “the work machine is also a porn machine; “The porn machine is also a work machine.” This goes even for those who renounce pornography or are unemployed. Whatever our habits and our duties, our public responsibilities and our secret desires, they are all more concentrated than ever in a single device, filter or portal, through which almost every aspect of human life passes nowadays.

This is, then, the third component of current reality which is a genuine break with the past: the condensation of such a large part of our lives into a single device; the use of a single technology portal for almost everything we do. Needless to say, this consolidation promotes and intensifies the first two novelties of the current era that we’ve already identified, namely: the attention of human subjects as a central resource of the new extractive economy, and the strong challenge that this implies for our mental faculty of attention.

Things get even worse. The character that gives its name to the novel “Pnin”, by Vladimir Nabokov (1957), is an emigrated, ill-fated and lost White Russian who teaches Slavic literature at an institution remarkably similar to Cornell University. Pnin stays with an American family whose host, Joan, enjoys sitting with him at the kitchen table reading the voluminous Sunday newspaper. When Joan invites him to choose a section of the newspaper to accompany her in reading it, Pnin answers, sadly: “I just don't know how to differentiate what is advertising from what is not advertising.” If such uncertainty was possible for a poorly acculturated immigrant in the 1950s, today Professor Pnin's statement seems to unequivocally prophesy a general condition to which even the most expert navigators of our cultural landscape tend. If we all find it difficult to distinguish what is advertising from what is not, this is partly because, nowadays, everything is advertising. Or, to put it a little more cautiously, no part of our main technological products and services escapes the commercial interests of their proprietary companies. From the more or less small Twitter to the much larger Facebook and Google they make almost all their profits from advertising. Although Amazon and Apple are based on other business models, profiting above all from the sale of goods, a significant part of their commercial success is supported by the ability to infiltrate their logos and - more subtly - their general aesthetics (and even its spirit, one might say) in the lifeblood of society.

The traditional American newspaper of the 1950s also reaped its profits from advertising, of course, and the large corporations of that time—such as Coca-Cola—had established themselves not only as products, but also as ideas (and even as weapons), in the Cold War battle for global cultural hegemony. But the scale was much smaller, and still quite easy to avoid, as Pnin helpfully does in relation to the newspaper. Furthermore, although the Ithaca Journal attempted to extract and maintain the reader's attention with a view to maximizing the exposure of its commercial sponsors, it was ultimately nothing more than ink on paper, a technology incapable of reading those readers in turn: that is, unable to compile and exploit even a rough metric of their interests. In contrast, the advertising landscape of our times is bidirectional, to the extent that it monitors the potential behaviors, attentional habits and inclinations of customers, in addition to developing numerous technological goads and traps that together make the decision to cut the commercial nexus almost completely impossible. All of this is part of the extractive economy of attention that we’ve already identified. But perhaps the biggest change in recent decades has been the fact that individual readers or users Internet users are pressured and pushed to adopt the same commercial logic as the companies that sell them their products. During a generally pleasant conversation I had on a recent podcast, the host used a phrase that stuck in my memory. The affable young man began to introduce an observation about the different ways of using social networks: “Whether you are a brand or an individual who presents himself as a brand…”. The enumeration of these two possibilities has the superficial character of a distinction, but its real effect is that of an exception. From another podcast to which I was invited around the same time, they sent me an automated message beforehand in which they advised me to present my “brand” in the “best possible way” during my speech. Both participations were made with the objective of promoting my book “Irrationality”.

A story of the dark side of reason, where, as ironic as it may seem, I made at least some comment on the irrationality of human beings who conceptualize themselves as brands. But the truth is that there’s no other alternative. Using the Internet is unavoidable to do anything, including activities such as writing and promoting books; and, the more we use the Internet, the more our individuality is twisted into the form of a brand, and the more our subjectivity is transformed into a vector of algorithm-sensitive activity. Under these circumstances, one is inclined to say: “I don't even know how to differentiate in myself what’s advertising from what’s not advertising.”

This then is the fourth genuine novelty of the current era: with the advancement of an economy focused on extracting information from human beings, these human beings are increasingly understood and perceived as sets of data; and this perception, in the long run, is inevitably recycled as the self-perception of human subjects, in such a way that in this new system those individuals who are most capable of hiding their status as subjects in order to present themselves convincingly as data sets worthy of attention.

I repeat: Earth has moved under our feet. We are the target of a global extractive campaign whose scale is unprecedented. Such corporate entrepreneurship harms us in many ways, especially because it undermines our ability to use the power of attention in a way that allows us to prosper. This attack is felt especially forcefully by the fact that all the things we care about, often including our interpersonal relationships (or, as in the case of Tinder and Grindr, our hopeful attempts to achieve them), are condensed into a device whose size is reduced to a few centimeters in width and length. For many, the only feasible way to adapt to the new landscape is to transform our human identity into something like an imitation of the undoubtedly non-human forces that constitute the foundation of Internet: to give up personality in exchange for a profile sensitive to algorithms; or, in other words, imitate a bot.

*Justin Smith is a philosopher, professor at the University of Paris. He regularly collaborates with media outlets such as The New York Times, Harper's Magazine and Art in America, among others. He is the author of the books “Divine Machines. Leibniz and the Sciences of Life” and “Nature, Human Nature, & Human Difference. Race in Early Modern Philosophy.” His last text published in Argentina is “The Internet is not what we think. A story, a philosophy, a warning” (FCE).

Translated by Amilkal Labañino / CubaSí Translation Staff

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