Book Review: The Internet of Us

If you have a penchant for philosophy and are concerned about the encroachment of the internet on the fabric of our daily lives, then Michael Lynch’s The Internet of Us will provide suitable sustenance for your intellectual musings. As a professor of philosophy, Mr. Lynch is well versed in nuanced philosophical viewpoints that relate to our mode of understanding in the age of the internet, and is able to reference everyone from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell in the process.

The basic hypothesis of the book is that information technology is impeding our ability to know and understand reality. Although Google brings a huge amount of information to our fingertips, that doesn’t necessarily translate into an ability to assimilate and understand that data. Our increasingly digital way of life presents us with a false reality. As the author puts it, Facebook is “a simulacrum of intimacy, a simulacrum of mutual understanding, not the real thing . . . Facebook knows, but doesn’t understand.”

In a chapter named “Truth, Lies and Social Media,” Lynch focuses on the challenges of distinguishing fact from fiction. As noted, the internet can be used to raise awareness of events like the Arab Spring, but it can also be used to control and distort the truth. Its anonymity makes it easy to manipulate content. Simultaneously, objectivity itself has fallen out of favor. As the internet replaces objectivity with what it calls transparency, this reduces our ability to ascertain hard and true facts in the morass of available data.

In the second half of the book, the author turns to specific issues of privacy and politics, particularly in terms of how those in charge get to control our access and understanding. With reference to privacy, Louis Brandeis’ landmark article from 1890 on the “right to privacy” is cited as a prescient premonition of present day issues. In an interesting side note, it’s pointed out that this article was written in response to the then recent invention of the Kodak camera and its ability to catch people off guard in ways they might not desire. This intrusion of privacy by a camera seems downright quaint alongside today’s blatant intrusions that permeate our online life. The point is made that along with the internet allowing us to know more about the world, there are large organizations that simultaneously benefit by their ability to capture details of our online activities. With this loss of privacy, our autonomy as human beings is reduced, and in many subtle ways, our dignity as well. Furthermore, as government increasingly sees individuals as mere objects to be understood and controlled, there are clear and present dangers to our democratic values.

The politics of who gets to serve as internet gatekeepers to control the flow of knowledge is equally fascinating. For much of human history as it took place in Europe, the Catholic Church controlled what could be known, via the production of books and the universities. Today’s internet has radicalized and democratized the process, but it is nevertheless true that organizations such as Google and Facebook have an inordinate amount of control over what we can perceive and know. There are massive technological and societal forces at play, as the very existence of traditional gatekeepers like universities are under attack. Whereas in 1969, three quarters of college faculty were tenured, now only a third have that protection. New internet structures such as MOOC’s (massive open online courses) are directly challenging the power structure of higher education.

Michael Lynch concludes The Internet of Us with an admission that we need not fear information technology itself, but also with an admonition that as tools of the internet become more closely integrated in our lives and entwined with our very beings, that we do not let ourselves become simply another tool. We must always strive to maintain a demand for human understanding and control over our technologies.

The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data
By Michael Patrick Lynch
Liveright, March 2016
237 pages, $25.95

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