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Authors: Michael P. Lynch

The Internet of Us

BOOK: The Internet of Us
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The

Internet

of
Us

Knowing More and
Understanding Less
in the Age of Big Data

Michael
Patrick Lynch

Liveright Publishing Corporation

A Division of W. W. Norton & Company

Independent Publishers Since 1923

New York    London

For Rene

In the past, the things that men could do were very limited. . . . But with every increase in knowledge, there has been an increase in what men could achieve. In our scientific world, and presumably still more in the more scientific world of the not distant future, bad men can do more harm, and good men can do more good, than had seemed possible to our ancestors even in their wildest dreams.

—Bertrand Russell

All I know is that I don't know.

All I know is that I don't know nothing.

—Operation Ivy

Contents

Preface

Part I: The
New
Old Problems of Knowledge

1. Our Digital Form of Life

Neuromedia

Socrates on the Way to Larissa

Welcome to the Library

2. Google-Knowing

Easy Answers

Being Receptive: Downloading Facts

John Locke Agrees with Mom

Being Reasonable: Uploading Reasons

3. Fragmented Reasons: Is the Internet Making Us Less Reasonable?

The Abstract Society

When Fights Break Out in the Library

The Rationalist's Delusion

Democracy as a Space of Reasons

4. Truth, Lies and Social Media

Deleting the Truth

The Real as Virtual

Interlude: To SIM or Not to SIM

Falsehood, Fakes and the Noble Lie

Objectivity and Our Constructed World

Part II: How We Know Now

5. Who Wants to Know: Privacy and Autonomy

Life in the Panopticon

The Values of Privacy

The Pool of Information

Privacy and the Concept of a Person

Transparency and Power

6. Who Does Know: Crowds, Clouds and Networks

Dead Metaphors

Knowledge Ain't Just in (Your) Head

The Knowing Crowd

The “Netography” of Knowledge

7. Who Gets to Know: The Political Economy of Knowledge

Knowledge Democratized?

Epistemic Equality

Walmarting the University

8. Understanding and the Digital Human

Big Knowledge

The End of Theory?

Understanding Understanding

Knowing How to Chuck

Coming to Understand as a Creative Act

9. The Internet of Us

Technology and Understanding

Information and the Ties That Bind

Acknowledgments

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Preface

The changes wrought by the Internet are sometimes compared to those brought about by the printing press. In both cases, technological advances led to new ways of distributing information. Knowledge became more widely and cheaply available, which in turn led to mass education, new economies and even social revolution.

But in truth, the comparison with the printing press underplays the significance of the changes being brought about by the Internet today. The better comparison is with the written word.

Writing is a technology, a tool. Yet its invention wasn't just a change in how information and knowledge was distributed. It was a new way of knowing itself. Writing allows us to communicate across time—both with ourselves and with others. It allows us to outsource memory tasks and therefore lessen our cognitive load.

Not long ago, for example, I discovered a note my father had written, taped to the back of an old chainsaw I had inherited from him. It was more than a note, really; it was a little essay, detailing good and bad practice with the saw. My dad's house was peppered with such memos. He would write them as a reminder of how best to go about various tasks that one might do only irregularly—replacing the fuel filter on the lawn mower, shutting down the water heater. He would then tape them in a spot where he would be sure to later run across them. When I was a teenager, I found it embarrassing, but I get it now. He was a busy man and knew that he might forget a trick or lesson he'd learned while doing something for the first time. He was, in short, communicating with his future self, while simultaneously relieving his present self of the burden of remembering. That, in microcosm, is what writing allows us to do, and also why its invention is one of the most important developments in human history. It allows us to time-travel and share the thoughts of those who have come before.

The Internet is bringing about a similar revolution in our ways of knowing. Where the written word allows us to time-travel, the Internet allows us to teleport—or at least to communicate in an immediate way across spatial gulfs. Changes in information technology are making space increasingly irrelevant. Our libraries are no longer bounded by physical walls, and our ways of processing and accessing what is in those libraries don't require physical interaction. As a result, we no longer have to travel anywhere to find the information we need. Today, the fastest and easiest way of knowing is Google-knowing, which means not just “knowledge by search engine” but the way we are increasingly dependent on knowing via digital means. That can be a good thing; but it can also weaken and undermine other ways of knowing, ways that require more creative, holistic grasps of how information connects together.

New technology has always spurred a similar debate—and it should. During the heyday of postwar technological expansion in the 1950s, philosophers and artists worried about what that nuclear weapon technology was doing to us, and whether our ethical thinking was keeping up with it. Bertrand Russell, writing in the
Saturday Evening Post
, argued that we need more than expanded access to knowledge; we need wisdom, which he took as a combination of knowledge, will and feeling.
1
Russell's point was simple: growth in knowledge without a corresponding growth in wisdom is dangerous. This book is motivated by a similar worry and with a desire to do something about it. Yet where Russell was concerned with a specific kind of knowledge —knowledge of nuclear bombs—my concern is with the expansion of knowledge itself, with how the rapid changes in technology are affecting how we know and the responsibilities we have toward that knowledge.

Still, this is not an “anti-technology” book. I'm a dedicated user of social media and the platforms that enable it (the rise of which is sometimes called “Web 2.0“). I tweet, I Facebook, I have a smartphone, a tablet, and more computers than I care to admit. I am in no position to write an anti-technology book. Technology itself is not the problem. Unlike nuclear weapons or guns, information technology itself is generally not designed to kill people (although it can certainly lend a hand). Information technologies are more like cars:
so fast, sleek and super-useful that we can overrely on them, overvalue them and forget that their use has serious consequences
. The problems, such as they are, are due to how we are using such technologies.

My aim is to examine the philosophical foundations of what I'll call our digital form of life. And whether or not my conclusions are correct, it is clear that this is a task we must engage in if we want to avoid the fate that worried Russell: being swallowed up by our technology.

Storrs, CT
October 2015

Part I

BOOK: The Internet of Us
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