On a recent trip I was introduced to a senior philosopher who soon turned the conversation away from the standard opening pleasantries with this: “If it were up to me, the internet—especially blogs and social media—would go out of existence. It is just a place philosophers go to do terrible philosophy and act thoughtlessly. It’s embarrassing.”
Naturally, I asked him if he’d like to write up his views for a guest post at Daily Nous.
After some hesitation, he declined, but I’ve been thinking about what he said.
Do philosophers do terrible philosophy on the internet? Of course. Just as they do off the internet. Do philosophers act like jerks and idiots online? Absolutely. Just as they do offline.
Yes, on the internet, stupidity, jerkitude, brattishness, and boorishness are broadcast further and faster than in meatspace. Yes, on the internet, we are more insulated from the emotional effects of our speech, and so, less sensitive. Yes, on the internet, the constant stream of information and communication makes us comically impatient. These are real problems that accompany our internet-saturated culture. But what alternative world are these critics of the internet imagining?
A wise professor of mine once said: “Each system has its problems. The question is: ‘which problems do you want to live with?’”
I prefer the problems of the internet to the problems of a world with no internet. The internet is home to an incredible amount and variety of philosophical information, creation, communication, and collaboration. From resources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or PhilPapers or the UPDirectory to podcasts like History of Philosophy without any Gaps or Very Bad Wizards to mutual aid networks like The Philosophical Underclass to blogs like Brains or What’s Wrong? to stores like Amazon and the Unemployed Philosophers Guild to tools like Google Docs and Skype to the helpful exchanges that take place on Facebook and Twitter to open access journals like Ergo and Philosopher’s Imprint to random collective goofiness to… well, you get the idea. Think of all the problems we’d have if we didn’t have these kinds of things.
But… I could be wrong.
In fact the Romans knew that lead wasn’t good for them. Several doctors and writers talk about the lead poisoning they saw in metal workers. Hippocrates himself described metal colic in 370 B.C. but didn’t realize it was related to lead. By the 2nd century B.C. doctors accurately described lead poisoning for the first time. By the 1st century B.C. they knew that water that flowed through lead pipes wasn’t very good for you.
But having plumbing was a status symbol. It was key for the wealthy. And many of them continued to use lead pipes.
The author, Rose Eveleth, then quotes a friend of hers:
“Maybe people will look back on what we think is the really important part of the internet, all the memey stuff and the social networks and the places where people are making all this money, and they will look back on it the way we look back on the use of lead plumbing on the part of the aristocracy in ancient Rome. Which, to them this was like ‘Oh my god this is the sign you’ve arrived, this is where the action is, we have plumbing and it’s awesome!’ And it was! It was this amazing technological infrastructure. It was beautifully made, it provided them with an incredibly high standard of living and it also slowly, gradually made them irretrievably sick and insane. It poisoned them day by day.
And we look back at it now as this thing that was simultaneously a fascinating part of how their culture worked, and the invention of a new kind of urban living but also as something that was slowly but surely making the ruling class into people who were desperately ill with terrible impulse control without ever realizing it or understanding why.”
In other words, what if in 2000 years we look back on our current internet, and think of it as a fascinating but heartbreaking tale of hubris. A moment in time where people were consuming a type of technology they knew wasn’t good for them because it conferred status and prestige. And that thing they craved so much was slowly making them lose their minds. I think about this analogy a lot now. Some days it feels way too alarmist to me. And other days, it feels just about right.
I think it is too alarmist, and that it understates—even with “amazing”—just how valuable the internet is. But perhaps I’ve already lost my mind. I do run a blog, after all…
(image: detail of “Grey Space (distractor)” by Julie Mehretu