Works in Progress - Winter 2022

Taming the Wild Web

By Justin E. H. Smith | December 16, 2021
Stephen Frost/Alamy
Stephen Frost/Alamy

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris. His forthcoming book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will be published in March 2022, and his Substack newsletter, “The Hinternet,” broadly covers the Internet’s place in human culture and history. We asked him to pose four questions about the future of the Internet.

1. The early dream of a “cosmopolitan Internet,” a global network of computers connecting us without friction across national boundaries, will continue to recede in the coming years. Of course, international communication will continue, but a combination of algorithmic nudging and outright censoring will ensure that the Internet looks very different from country to country, whether because of government propaganda or private enterprise marketing. Under such conditions, will any semblance of a “world wide web” still exist? Could our dream of a global population connected by computers really be a thing of the past?

2. It will become increasingly evident that social media do not constitute an ersatz public space for the pursuit of deliberative democracy, and users will become ever more aware that they would better be described as “the used”—for the purpose of data extraction, which is the entire economic foundation of social media. Therefore, the effort to bring about political or social justice via social media is fundamentally incompatible with the essence of social media. In the end, social media sites are not places of deliberative discourse; rather, they are a deliberative discourse–themed video game in which seemingly substantive dialogue is traded for “points”—that is, likes and followers. How, then, will social media be able to serve democracy in the future if the sites aren’t subject to democratic oversight?

3. Whether controlled by totalitarian regimes or private capital, social media will increasingly come to function as part of a system of social credit ranking similar to China’s, whether it is called by this name or not. The current system, in which people are mobbed and sanctioned in generally arbitrary ways, such as losing their source of income or admission to a school after embarrassing old videos surface, will be standardized and formalized; order will come to the Wild West. Behavior on social media will explicitly determine people’s eligibility for jobs, dating, and a variety of social perks: in sum, their “worth.” Increasing automation of avatars and social media feeds will follow, granting some people the option to purchase services that will sculpt and perfect their online presences to maximize social standing, even just to monitor them coldly, the way many investors do their online portfolios. Will this reflect on the user’s sense of self-worth, or will the system’s incompatibility with human dignity create a rupture between us and our online personas?

4. My predictions so far concern the “establishment Internet,” which will remain accessible through recognized and perhaps compulsory channels.If I am prescient, and if the forces that control the establishment Internet do not prove all-powerful, there will in the future be a thriving “counter-Internet,” a secret and perhaps illegal Internet that evades and defies the two principal raisons d’être of its aboveground counterpart: monetization and surveillance. New forms of self-cultivation and creativity will, we may hope, emerge and thrive here. In a much longer-term future, might we also dream that these forms will be welcome on the establishment Internet, as well?

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