Review of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is

The Morality Of Attention

  • Attention has a moral component, because it involves, fundamentally, an openess to an otherness. He writes:
  • That openness takes time to cultivate; morally beneficial attention takes time
  • Platforms provide and must an ever-changing parade of objects of attention, to none of which can one properly cultivate a deep attentive attitude (their model ‘maximizes solicitations upon a user’s attention and ensures that the attention is never focused in one place for long’)
  • So, platforms prevent the cultivation of attention, a moral good
What is the internet? It sounds like a difficult and deep question but actually the answer is: this bike. Image credit.

The Possibility of AI

A central argument of the book concerns the simulation argument presented by Nick Bostrom and discussions about the hard problem of consciousness. Let me briefly explain these for those unfamiliar. The latter is just explaining the weird fact that we have experience at all; that in telling the whole story of our mental life, once you’ve told about beliefs and desires and headaches and hopes you’ve still left out that there’s a certain what-it’s-likeness to conscious experience, the production of which from brain is a hard and mysterious problem.) The simulation argument, roughly, can be seen as attempting to make the case that we are, on balance of probability, computer simulations, something like sims in the titular videogame. The thought is pretty simple: it’s likely at some time in the future we’ll develop genuine artificial intelligence which will involve conscious artificial agents. If we do so, then plausibly we’ll make a lot of them. Then if sim consciousness outnumbers — by a lot — bio-conscious, then we should think it more likely than any given instance of consciousness, including our own, is sim-consciousness.

Metaphor

But let’s not end on a negative note. In addition to much else, the book, as its subtitle advertises, gives us a history. But that history is not of DARPA and TCP\IP, JQuery and Android. It’s much more interesting (although the former history is cool too): Smith’s idea is that the internet qua telecommunication — communication at a distance — is part of what it is to be a being on this earth. Presenting, in brief, interesting material about the way whales, trees, slime molds, and so on convey information among themselves, he suggests that the internet is just the latest working out, for humans, of what began more obviously with things like the teles- gram and phone but also, more intriguingly, with asynchronous long-distance communication, either of ideas (with smoke signals and such) or people (with trains but we can also include horses, albeit back in prehistory). Roughly (my roughness, not his) he proposes, fascinatingly, that we think that to be simultaneous is a technology- or society- relative property, such that, to change examples, the 6 hour plane ride from Ireland to New York is simultaneous compared to the weeks long boat trip (and conversely, the milliseconds it takes to transfer an order to a dealer might be an eternity for a high frequency trader trading against someone with nanosecond-transmission-permitting wires).

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Matthew McKeever

Matthew McKeever

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/