Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Andrew Hui reviews The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is

Justin E. H. Smith. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: a History, a Philosophy, a Warning. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2022. 208 pp.

Review by Andrew Hui

12 October 2023

The subject of this friendly, lucid, and learned book is nothing less than the nature of the internet itself. By now we are so saturated in the realm of the digital that we no longer need any reminders about the World Wide Web’s molecular, neural, planetary, or cosmic significance. The internet is so big that no one can really understand its totality.

“When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy,” writes the nameless narrator in Jorge Luis Borges’s “Library of Babel.” But then: “That unbridled hopefulness was succeeded, naturally enough, by a similarly disproportionate depression.”[1] So too the reaction to many digital phenomena: the internet is a vast distraction machine; under the guise of surveillance capitalism, all our personal data has been commodified; we are amusing ourselves to death; mobile devices hijack our minds; there are infinite reasons to delete your social media account; AI produces fake news and deepfakes; search engines reinforce racism—admonitions and remonstrances, diatribes and manifestos abound.

Smith, a philosopher and historian of science, suggests that the internet is “only the latest twist in a much longer history of reflection on the connectedness and unity of all things” (p. 125). He zooms out to consider the internet as humanity’s attempt to communicate with itself, just as prairie dogs yelp to their kin, sage bushes emit airborne methyl jasmonate, and blue whales “sing songs for their own inscrutable reasons” (p. 84). In other words, all living things great and small desire to connect and communicate. This expansive chain of associations is a typical Smith move, as he dives and soars into the slipstreams of cultural history. Two important nodes emerge: the nature of A.I. thinking machines and the nature of consciousness—interconnected because “the ‘training’ of AI systems relies on neural networks that soak up information from the entire internet” (p. 121). In the last chapter of the book, aptly entitled “A Window on the World,” Smith reflects on the microcosm instituted by coronavirus, lockdowns, and the internet, with the world as its macrocosm. 

Smith is a lumper rather than a splitter. Information science and life sciences, living systems and the study of machines all come together to create a just-so story—a term I use not pejoratively but to bring out the suggestion of a beautiful etiological myth that by nature resists evidence and falsification. Metaphorization for Smith (following Paul Ricoeur, Hans Blumenberg, and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) forms the very structure of our thinking (“the history of science is often largely a history of metaphors” [p. 140]). Taking Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Ada Lovelace, and Charles Babbage as guiding lights, he assimilates information processing to world creation.

Smith is most at home among the profusions of the seventeenth century—Wunderkammern, universal libraries, the baroque, Robert Burton, and John Amos Comenius all make cameo appearances. In the manner of those predecessors, he holds that the computer “brings within our reach the power to know the mysteries of God’s creation: to simulate the world on a computer brings with it the hope of . . . knowledge of the world as deep and thorough as any other knowledge of the objects of our own manufacture” (p. 135). The history of science belongs to the history of culture, of making, of poiesis. The story of the internet flows from a poetics of technology. I am tempted to replace the last word of the title—“warning”—with “theology.” At the end of reading Smith's book, something crystallized in my mind: the relationship between allegory and algorithms.

The ancient and medieval world was enmeshed in allegory whereas the modern world is enmeshed in algorithms. Both attempt to approximate the world through the process of symbolic representation, one doing so qualitatively and the other quantitatively. It is fair to say that Leibniz, the inventor of monads and binary calculus, definitively shifted the early modern episteme from allegory to algorithm. But according to Jacob Klein in the groundbreaking Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origins of Algebra (1976), a decisive transformation occurred earlier when François Viète made geometry algebraic by making his symbolic notation record discrete quantities rather than continuous proportions. Abstract thinking thus moved from the analogical to the analytical.

Yet allegory and algorithms share some deep structural similarities: they are both governed by systems of representation in which one thing stands for another. Allegory in its simplest sense is precisely that. Algorithms manipulate signs and symbols through a set of rules that yield an output. Both allegory and algorithm presuppose that there is a hidden structure of the world and offer to uncover it. Though literary critics profess allegory and programmers code in algorithms, both sects live and die by the sovereignty of structure.

Allegories are difficult; coding hides behind its interfaces. An elite group of priests, hermeneuts, coders, and engineers possesses knowledge of what goes on behind the curtains and beneath the hood. The mysteries—of salvation and PageRank—are withheld from the laity. Proprietary formulas must be kept as company secrets. Smith’s The Internet is Not What You Think It Is offers stimulating and humane guidance through this realm of dissimilarity.


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York, 1988), pp. 115, 116.