How social media became a “debate-themed video game”
“The Internet is both our greatest affliction and our greatest hope; the current situation is intolerable, but there is no turning back either,” writes Justin EH Smith in his new book, “The Internet Isn’t What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy , a warning “.
Smith, professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris, describes in detail the affliction of the Internet. He argues that the internet as we know it is addictive, undemocratic, and “algorithmically shapes human lives, and human lives under algorithmic pressure are not enhanced but rather distorted and impoverished.”
How the Internet can become the “greatest hope” for solving our problem is less clear, but it’s also not why Smith decided to write this book. “I do genealogy and identify issues, then leave it up to brighter, younger people to find our way,” Smith told me on a Zoom call from a cafe in Paris. His approach, which he says draws inspiration from Foucault and Leibniz, attempts to place the internet in terms of “a considerably broader and deeper picture, both in time and in nature”.
In an interview with Protocol, Smith discussed how social media acts like a “debate-themed video game,” why dating apps often exclude “the deep mystery of love,” and how the United States has quietly adopted a Chinese-style enterprise-oriented social credit. system.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your book assumes that any remedy for the Internet’s problems will have to come from the Internet itself. Is there any resonance to the idea that an external belief system could bring change?
I wouldn’t describe my view as pessimistic, I would describe it as aporia or aporistic. That is to say, I do not identify any obvious solution to the current situation. Not because I’m pessimistic, but simply because I don’t really see it as part of the project. I do the genealogy and identify the problems, then I leave it up to brighter young people to find a way out of it all. And in that respect, too, I feel like I’m echoing Foucault here – my job is to show the problems and how we inherited them and leave it to others to provide a positive agenda.
That said, I could give you a glimpse of what a positive agenda would look like, and that would be a total destruction of the current economic model upon which what I call the phenomenological internet is based. We need a real digital public space. What we have right now is a digital pseudo-public space that is simply not a viable forum for the exchange of ideas or for rational deliberation of the kind that a democracy needs. It’s a pseudo-public space in that it allows people to play as if they’re exchanging ideas, when in fact what they’re doing is playing a video game – racking up points under the form of likes and followers, based on finding out how to play the algorithm.
We need a real digital public space. What we have right now is a digital pseudo-public space that is simply not a viable forum for the exchange of ideas or for rational deliberation of the kind that a democracy needs.
As long as it’s the only game in town to talk about things like free speech — or critical race theory, or whatever — we’re all doomed. Whichever side you’re on, we’re all doomed because this isn’t really a debate forum: it’s a debate-themed video game.
So how do you solve the problem? I do not know. Break the system and start over? Seizing social media companies? Well, the truth is, I honestly don’t think that’s a good idea. I think, de facto, social media is a utility like electricity or water. And it would be better if we recognized that and treated them that way. That said, I don’t necessarily think things would work so well if, in light of this, the government were to seize Facebook and Twitter and manage them accordingly. However, I believe that somehow there will have to be democratic control over how algorithms work for us to have any hope of ever using social media for deliberative democracy.
In your book, you use the term “normies”. Often the most vital areas of culture seem to come from these niche spheres of the internet. Why do you think that is?
It’s a real problem, isn’t it? Because it’s addicting [and] exploiter. It’s time-consuming…it eats up your time. …Nevertheless, I really can’t help but feel that it’s also the vanguard of [our culture]. And it would have been absurd to try to write a book like this without getting to the bottom of it. In this regard, it’s like writing an ethnography of heroin addiction – you’ll probably have to become addicted yourself to write a compelling account of it. It’s pretty much the same thing.
No matter what I was before, I can say with certainty at this point that I’m not a normal. My departure from the standards was part of the idea that I had to understand the Extremely Online culture in order to write about it. And what I understand about it now is that it both hurts and destroys me and also that it’s way ahead of anything that’s going on in society at this point.
Photo: Justin EH Smith
I go to visit my mother, for example, and they have MSNBC broadcasting 20 hours a day in their house and I can’t avoid it. It’s the only time I see TV at this point. What strikes me about MSNBC for the aged standards of, say, my mother’s generation is that it’s really just a social media filter. Like on MSNBC, you hear Rachel Maddow, or whoever, talking a day or two later about what people were already talking about on Twitter. So I have this weird experience when I’m in the presence of norms of being like, “Yeah, I know. Yeah, I know. I say. I know.” And feeling like it just kind of comes with a delay and in a filtered, diluted form that’s maybe easier to digest and keep you sane.
I don’t know how to handle this. You can hear the conflict in me. I am not, as I insisted in the book, a so-called neo-Luddite. I’m not on the same page as people like Jaron Lanier who think you need to close your social media accounts. But I’m also very, very concerned about the deleterious effects of social media because of its current manifestation, ie: for-profit operations guided by hidden algorithms.
You mentioned the difficulty of disconnecting from the internet. Was it intended to apply at a societal level? As an individual, what are the costs and benefits of reducing your time on social media?
What I mean when people tell me they don’t have social media is actually: yes, you do – you just don’t know it. Because you live in a society that is at this point largely structured by algorithmic forces that have their paradigmatic expression in social media. And it will become more and more so because, for example, logistics, health, even the economy are more and more modeled on the forms of computer exchanges experienced first in online forums. Thus, trains will no longer run according to concrete timetables, they will run according to flexible timetables determined by algorithm – just as, for example, Uber pricing is not a flat rate, but is determined by algorithms.
So you’ve got this algorithmic creep of something that’s been honed on Facebook and Twitter that then extends to all sorts of playful areas of life like car-sharing services – which ultimately has no limit to the extent to which it can extend to shape the way our society is. So when someone tells me they’re not on social media, I feel like saying, “Who gives a fuck? That’s not the point. Whether you’re on social media or not has nothing to do with how social media-type technologies are transforming our world.
What are some of the things that are lost when this gamification happens? You cite Foucault as a big influence, so I wonder what you think about the dating effects, in particular.
Dating is a good example. I’m not familiar with it directly – I’m more familiar with listening to music, it’s something I’m still able to do. But in both cases, we have the same thing, right? If you browse a record store – especially a used record store or a thrift store, the kind of places where things that don’t fit together get thrown away anyway – that’s where you can really cultivate a sort of musical aesthetic sensibility that the “You May Also Like” feature of the type you see on Spotify or YouTube takes away. [The algorithms] remove the responsibility of cultivating your own aesthetic sensibilities.
When it comes to dating, I would say the deep mystery of love is that you can end up liking someone who, on paper or on a digital platform, like Tinder, you really shouldn’t like. The fact that now people match profiles that include things like their political commitments – like, who cares about political commitments? Love is so much deeper than that! People are missing out on the potential to experience it because they mistake it for some kind of algorithmically plottable game. And indeed, it is extremely harmful to human flourishing.
With politics, too, algorithmization empties our idea of what it is to have political engagement.
With politics, too, algorithmization empties our idea of what it is to have political engagement. People end up simply following the map, so to speak, of the adjacencies they know they want to adopt or avoid for the sake of maintaining their social status. So, you know, it’s about not only avoiding people who are, say, right-wing extremists, but also avoiding people who are far-right adjacent, or people who are friends with people far-right adjacent … and soon enough you have a pretty well-built fortress of people who share your political commitments. But these aren’t really political commitments – they’re just your band. Social media therefore makes it difficult to gain political commitments through, say, rational thinking, rather than algorithmic conspiracy.
When it comes to abstaining from technology, different nations take different approaches. China, for example, bans video games. Could these national differences provide a way to master the technology?
My own suspicion is that somehow every country is converging on the same model, even though they use different terminology to describe it. The bleakest way to put it is this: Like it or not, the United States is moving toward a Chinese-style social credit system. Despite China’s ban on video games, I think the social credit system remains as the great video game of life itself. That’s how you have to understand what they’re doing.
We call it by other names, and it’s more in the hands of private companies than government. But one way or another, we are moving towards a condition in which your social status and the range of opportunities available to you – and even perhaps, eventually, your economic status – will be based on your digital file. I think it’s already emerging.