The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is

(This is a draft excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Living Mirror: A Philosophy of the Internet, appearing in 2021 from Princeton University Press. Text and title are still subject to change.)

1.

The internet is not what you think it is. For one thing, it is not nearly as newfangled as you probably imagine. It does not represent a radical rupture with everything that came before, either in human history or in the vastly longer history of nature that precedes the first appearance of our  species. It is, rather, only the most recent permutation of a complex of behaviors as deeply rooted in who we are as a species as anything else we do: our storytelling, our fashions, our friendships; our evolution as beings that inhabit a universe dense with symbols.

In order to convince you of this, it will help to zoom out for a while, far from the world of human-made devices, away from the world of human beings altogether, gaining at that height a suitably distanced and lucid view of the natural world that hosts us and everything we produce. It will help, that is, to seek to understand the internet in its broad ecological context, against the background of the long history of life on earth.

Consider the elephant's stomp: a small seismic event, sending its signature vibration to kin over a distance of kilometers. Or consider the clicks of a sperm whale, which, it is now thought, can sometimes be heard by familiars on the other side of the world. Nor is it only sound that facilitates animal telecommunication. Many or perhaps most signals sent between members of the same species pass not through sonic vibrations, but through chemicals. Female emperor moths emit pheromones that can be detected by males over fifteen kilometers away, which, correcting for size, is a distance comparable to the one traversed by even the most resonant sperm whale's click.

Nor is there any reason to draw a boundary between animals and other living beings. Numerous plant species, among them tomatoes, lima beans, sagebrush, and tobacco, use airborne rhizobacteria to send chemical information to their conspecifics across significant distances, which in turn triggers defense-related gene expression and other changes in the growth and development of the recipient.[1] Throughout the living world, telecommunication is sooner the norm than the exception.

Now some might protest at this point that “telecommunication” is being used here in an equivocal way, as for example when we say of both an irate cyclist at an intersection and of our computer when it freezes up with its cursed rainbow disc spinning, that both alike are “angry” at us. Some might object that even if for the sake of argument it is conceded that the sperm whales and the elephants are sending out signals that may be processed as information, that is, as a symbolic encoding of propositional content that is then decoded by a conscious subject, the same may surely not be said of lima beans.

Let us grant, if only to avoid unnecessary complications, that lima beans are not conscious. We may still ask why, when telecommunication in conscious and unconscious life forms alike evidently involves the same principles and mechanisms, we should be so quick to assume that telecommunication in our own species must be the product of consciousness, rather than being an ancient system that arose in the same way as lima-bean signalling, and only belatedly began to allow our human consciousness to ride along with it.

The first assumption seems to get things exactly the wrong way around: telecommunication networks have been here for hundreds of millions of years. Could it not be that the most recent outgrowths of our own species-specific telecommunicative activity --most notably, the internet, but also such systems as telegraphy and telephony--, which we take to be extreme departures from the previous course of human history, are in fact something more like an outgrowth or excrescence, latent from the beginning in what we have always done as a species, an ecologically unsurprising and predictable expression of something that was already there?[2]

And could it be, correlatively, that the internet is not best seen as a lifeless artifact, contraption, gadget, or mere tool, but as a living system, or as a natural product of the activity of a living system? If we wish to convince ourselves that this suggestion is not mere poetic rhapsodizing, but something that is grounded in some sort of truth about both technology and living systems, it might help to consider the long history of attempts to imagine telecommunication technologies through the model of animal bodies and vital forces.

2.

Human telecommunication requires not just knowledge of how to build devices to capture signals, but also some understanding of the nature of the medium through which those signals move. One of the most widespread cosmological theories in antiquity took the universe itself to be a sort of living body, and thus imagined that physically distant parts of the physical world are in constant feedback relations with one another, where any change in one region is echoed or mirrored in any other, just as the pain of a rock landing on the extremity of my foot is felt not only in my foot, but also in my physically somewhat distant head. The universe was thus a “cybernetic” system, in the sense described by Norbert Wiener in the mid-twentieth century. Like the animal and the machine for Wiener, the universe as a whole for many ancient theorists was characterized by a circular causality or signal looping.

The causal interconnectedness of all parts of an animal body was perhaps best captured in the Hippocratic motto, Sympnoia panta, which may be translated variously as “All things conspire,” or, in a somewhat more literal but also exactly equivalent rendering of the verb con-spire: “All things breathe together.” Conspiracy, when we break down the elements of the word, is nothing other than synchronized or harmonized breathing.

The Hippocratics were physicians, and they understood this motto to concern the interconnectedness of the parts of the body, the way in which my lungs filling up with air is also a replenishing of the life of my toes, and fingers, and the top of my head; the way in which my foot's pain is also my head's pain; or the way in which an illness of the kidneys may give rise to symptoms and morbidities in other parts.

Later philosophers, notably in the Stoic tradition, extended this account of physiology to the world as a whole. Thus the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, invoking the metaphor of weaving, implores us to think of the universe as a single living being, observing: “How intertwined in the fabric is the thread and how closely woven the web.”[3] If the web of all things is so closely woven, then nature itself, independently of the tools we develop to channel it or tap into it, already possesses the potential for near-instantaneous transmission of a signal from one place to another. It is just this sort of transmission that our wireless communication today realizes. But we did not need the “proof of concept” that has finally arrived in only the most recent decades in order to feel the force of the conviction that it must, somehow, exist.

Those ancient authors who recognized the possibility of telecommunication generally understood that while the natural medium through which signals are to be sent may preexist humanity, we are nonetheless going to have to rely on our own ingenuity to tap into and exploit that medium.

The devices envisioned by these authors are often rather simple and, even in their own era were perfectly familiar and mundane. Thus in the first-century CE fantasy novel, A True History, the Greek-language author Lucian of Samosata imagines a trip to the moon, where he discovers a “mighty great glass lying upon the top of a pit of no great depth, whereinto, if any man descend, he shall hear everything that is spoken upon the earth.”[4] This is a principle of simple amplification, whose proof of concept is already present wherever a person enters a seaside grotto or a cave that causes voices to echo.

To some extent, telecommunication just is amplification: simply to speak to a person in a normal voice is already to telecommunicate, even if at naturally audible distances we have learned to be unimpressed by this most of the time. But with a glass or a saucer or ear-trumpet, the ordinary qualities of sound waves are magnified, and the possibility for total global surveillance of all conversations from a satellite (in Lucian's instance a natural one) of our home planet becomes thinkable.

Often, in early attempts to seize onto natural forces for telecommunicative ends, it was not a matter of amplifying known powers of nature, but of manipulating nature in new ways so as to draw out hidden or merely suspected powers. Thus in the seventeenth century the English natural philosopher Kenelm Digby sought to harness the power of “the weapon salve”, an old treatment for soldiers injured in battle that worked through manipulation not of the victim's wound, but of the weapon that wounded him. Digby saw that if an alteration in the state of a dagger could bring about a simultaneous change in the body of the person it had previously stabbed, then in principle such a force could be seized for transmission of messages across long distances as well.

An anonymous pamphlet was published in London in 1688, drawing on Digby's work, proposing that a stabbed dog might be put on a ship moving across the Atlantic Ocean, while meanwhile the dagger that stabbed it might be manipulated every day at the same time, causing the dog to howl in pain, and in this way the precise time in the place of departure could be determined, and from the angle of the sun and other measurements the lines of longitude could be demarcated, and a major navigational hurdle overcome.[5] “[W]e might at Sea with great Ease and Pleasure know when the Sun was upon the Meridian at London,” the author notes, while anticipating the obvious humane objection: “Fye! says one, or other, you would not sure put a Dog to the misery of having always a Wound about him to serve you, would you?”[6]

But the dream of torturing animals in order to unleash their telecommunicative potentials is one that would not go away easily. In the middle of the nineteenth century a French anarchist and con-man by the name of Jules Allix managed to convince at least a handful of Parisians that he had invented a “snail telegraph”, that is, a device that would communicate with another paired device at a great distance thanks to the power of what he called “escargotic commotion”.[7] The idea was simple, if completely fabricated. Based on the widely popular theory of animal magnetism proposed by Franz Mesmer at the end of the eighteenth century, Allix proposed that snails are particularly well suited to communicate by a magnetism-like force through the ambient medium.

Once two snails have copulated with one another, he claimed, they are forever bound to each other by this force, and any change brought about in one of them immediately brings about a corresponding change in the other: an action at a distance of the sort that the mechanical physics ascendant since the seventeenth century had sought to banish, but never fully succeeded in banishing. After all, what is Isaac Newton's theory of gravity but action at a distance?

It is precisely the evident non-mechanical implications of gravitational theory that caused G. W. Leibniz to reject Newton's theory, to insist that no body may attract any other body from afar, since to move by attraction, rather than by the pulling or pushing of subvisible corpuscles, is to have the sort of internal soul-like power that modern physics was intent on denying to bodies. Thus Leibniz was wrong about the particulars --gravity does in fact exist, or so our best theories tell us for now--, but he chose the wrong answer for the right reason.

Allix's reasoning, in turn, was that we know as a fact, observable in everyday experience, that gravity, as well as magnetism, is real, and there must therefore be something incomplete about the physical theory that had been intent on denying action at a distance. And it could very well be, Allix suggests, moreover, that other such forms of action are waiting to be discovered in nature, and perhaps waiting to be harnessed for technological applications.

Against this theoretical background, Allix takes, or pretends to take, two snails that have previously copulated, and he places each of them in its own small slot on its own device, each of which corresponds to the same letter of the French alphabet. Then the two devices are removed from one another, and messages are sent from the one to the other by successively manipulating the snails in the appropriate slots in order to spell out French words. In a feigned demonstration put on in Paris in 1850, Allix receives the message: LUMIÈRE DIVINE (DIVINE LIGHT) from a correspondent purportedly in America (it is not explained how all the snails were transported so far after copulation, without any of them perishing in the voyage).

Allix predicts that at some point it will be possible to make pocket-sized devices using particularly tiny species of snails, and that we will then be able to send messages throughout the day --“texts”, you might call them-- to our friends and family as we go about the city. He envisions being able to receive the newspapers of the whole world on these devices, and to follow the deliberations of parliament. When he is exposed as a grifter, Allix absconds from Paris, having already taken the money of his gullible investors. He reappears a few years later on the isle of Jersey, leading séances in the presence of, among others, a skeptical Victor Hugo.

The story of Jules Allix reminds us that a rigorous historian of science may learn just as much from the fakes and frauds as from the real things: even when someone is lying, they are nonetheless doing the important work of imagining future possibilities.

3.

Allix's device, as he envisions it, is so to speak a species of wifi. The would-be inventor knew that the earliest telegraphy had required two conductive wires, one for the signal to go out, and another for it to return. But, as Allix explains, after experiments in Paris beginning in 1845, it was proven that the earth itself can function as a conductive medium, and can thus take on the role of one of the two wires. His project, then, is to allow nature to replace both of the wires, and for the incoming and outgoing signals to be conducted between the two devices through a medium that preexists both the devices as well as the human desire to telecommunicate. In this minimal sense, the sperm whale's clicks, the elephant's vibrations, the lima-bean plant's rhizobacterial emissions, and indeed Lucian's listening disc, are all varieties of “wifi”, sending a signal through a preexisting “ether” to a spatially distant fellow member of their kind (and also, sometimes, to competitors and to prey of different kinds).

It was just as common from antiquity through the modern period to envision nature not as pervaded by an ether, but so to speak as a wired or connected network, which is to say as a true and proper web: a system of hidden filaments or threads that bind all things.  Such a system is instanced paradigmatically in what is perhaps the original web, the one woven by the spider. The spider's web may be properly --which is to say not only metaphorically-- considered as the locus of its extended cognition.[8] Its nerves do not extend into the filaments it spreads out from its body, but it is evolved to apprehend vibrations in these filaments as a fundamental dimension of its sensory experience. The spider's sensation is not “enhanced” by the vibrations it receives from the web, any more than my hearing is enhanced by the presence of a cochlea in my inner ear.  Perceiving through a web is simply what it is to perceive the world as a spider (or at least as a member of one of the many spider species that spend a good part of their lives in webs of their own spinning).

We ordinarily imagine that our own webs of wires are enhancements, and not intrinsic to what it is to perceive as a human, to what it is to be a human, since they did not emerge together with the human species, but are only a much more recent addition to the repertoire of the species. The web of a spider is a species-specific and species-defining feature of the spider, while the internet, we usually suppose, is a superaddition to the human.

We tend to suppose that whatever is species-specific or essential to a given biological kind cannot ineliminably involve another species, that what it is to be a panther or an oak ought to be something that could be spelled out without implicating fleas or moss in the description. But the tendency to think this way is mostly our inheritance of an inadequate and un-ecological folk-metaphysics. For example, we were so hesitant to see the fungus lining the roots for what it was that for a long time scientists took it to be a harmful parasite. In reality symbiosis is common enough and central enough to the species implicated in it that it is often impossible to understand what a species is in terms that bracket the existence of any other species. This is certainly true of the symbionts that make up the wood wide web.

The symbiotic relationship between fungi and plant roots is coevolved with the individual species involved in the relationship. If the relationship does not involve technology, in our usual understanding, it certainly does involve what Immanuel Kant understood by the term “technique”: the beings of nature, through their own internal capacity, making use of what is at hand, or at root, to bring about their proper ends. Thus in the Critique of the Power of Judgment of 1790, Kant writes: “[W]e conceive of nature as technical through its own capacity; whereas if we did not ascribe such an agency to it, we would have to represent its causality as a blind mechanism.”[9]

The technique involved in symbiosis has also sometimes been compared to the process of animal domestication by human beings: thus for example in the fungus/algae pairing that makes up the two-species life form known as lichen, the fungus is sometimes described as a sort of “algae farmer”.[10]  And if we agree with the commonplace that a domestic pig or goat is an “artificial” being, to the extent that it is nature transformed in the pursuit of human ends, why should we not also agree that the algae farmed by fungus or, of greater interest for our present purposes, the fungus enlisted by the tree to pass chemical messages and nutrient packets along its roots: why should we not agree, that this technique is technology too? Or, to put it the other way around, and perhaps somewhat more palatably for those who do not wish to rush to collapse the divide between the natural and the artificial: why should we not see our own technology as natural technique?

4.

At least since Kant it has frequently been noted that living nature, or what we now call the biological world, presents a particular difficulty in our effort to distinguish between justified and unjustified carrying-over of explanations from one domain to another, and moreover that whatever justification there may be for doing so is not going to come from a deepened knowledge of empirical science. When Kant proclaimed, also in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, that there will never be a “Newton for the blade of grass,” --that is, that no one will account for the generation and growth of grass in terms of blind mechanical laws of nature in the way that Newton had managed to do a century before for the motions of the planets, the tides, cannonballs and other objects of interest to mathematical physics--, he was not simply reporting on the state of research in the life sciences, such that he would have to concede, if he were miraculously to be brought back to life, that the successive discoveries of Darwin, Newton, Mendel, Watson and Crick, and others, amounted to a sort of “collective Newton” for the blade of grass.

Rather, we will always, Kant supposed, be cognitively constrained, simply given the way our minds work, to apprehend biological systems in a way that includes, rightly or wrongly, the idea of an end-oriented design, even if we can never have any positive idea, or, as Kant would say, any determinate concept, of what the ends are or of who or what did the designing. In other words, we are constrained to cognize living beings and living systems in a way that involves an analogy to the things that we human beings design for our own ends --the clepsydras and ploughs, the smartphones and fiber-optic networks-- even if we can never ultimately determine whether or not this analogy is only an unjustified carrying-over of explanations from a domain where they do belong into one where they do not.

Kant understood the problem as an intractable one, arising simply from the structure of human cognition. Yet this did not stop successive generations after him from taking up dogmatic positions on one or the other of the two possible sides of the debate concerning the boundary between the natural and the artificial. “Do male ducks rape female ducks?” is a question that sparked and sustained heated and ultimately futile debates in the late twentieth century.

The so-called sociobiologists, led by E. O. Wilson, took it as obvious that they do, while their opponents, notably Stephen Jay Gould, insisted that rape is by definition a morally charged category of action and so also by definition a category that pertains only to the human sphere; that it is thus an unjustified anthropomorphization of ducks to attribute the capacity for such an action to them, and that moreover it is dangerous to do so, since to say that ducks rape is to naturalize rape, and to open up the possibility of seeing human rape as morally neutral. If rape is so widespread as to be found even among ducks, the worry went, then some might conclude that it is simply a natural feature of the range of human actions, and that it is hopeless to try to eliminate it. And the sociobiologists would reply: perhaps, but just look at what that drake is doing, and how the female struggles to get away, and try to find a word that captures what you are seeing better than “rape”.

The debate is, again, unresolved, for reasons that Kant could probably have anticipated. We cannot ever really know what it is like to be a duck, and so we cannot know whether what we are seeing in nature is a mere external appearance of what would be rape if it were occurring among humans, or whether it is truly, properly, duck rape. The same goes for ant cannibalism, for gay penguins, and so many other animal behaviors that some people would prefer to think of as distinctly human, either because they are so morally atrocious that extending them to other living beings risks normalizing them by naturalizing them, or because they are so valued that our own sense of our specialness among creatures requires us to see the appearance of these behaviors in other species as mere appearance, as simulation, counterfeit, or aping. And the same goes, too --to end our detour into much broader philosophical questions than the ones that concern us throughout this book--, for the mycorhizal networks that connect groves of trees. Are these communication networks in the same sense as the internet is, or is the “wood wide web” only a metaphor?

It is not to be flippant or to give up too easily to say that the choice is ours to make, and that no further empirical inquiry will tell us whether such a comparison or assimilation taps into some real truth about the world. The choice is ours to make, though we would perhaps do better not to make a choice at all, but instead, with Kant, to entertain the evident similarity between the living system and the artifice with an appropriate critical suspension.

Our minds are just going to keep coming back to the analogy between nature and artifice, between organism and machine, between living system and network, and the fact that our minds are doing this says something about who we are and how we make sense of the world around us. So let us continue then, neither in a dogmatically literalist vein nor in an equally dogmatic opposite vein, and declare, in a critical spirit, what we in any case cannot help but notice: that, like a network of roots laced with fungal filaments, like a field of grass, the internet, too, is a growth, an outgrowth, an excrescence of the species-specific activity of Homo sapiens.

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[1] Mohammed A. Farag, Huiming Zhang, and Choon-Min Ryu, “Dynamic Chemical Communication between Plants and Bacteria through Airborne Signals: Induced Resistance by Bacterial Volatiles,” Journal of Chemical Ecology 39 (2013): 1007-1018.

[2] For a classic treatment of technology as an “extension”, though one that does not dwell on parallels to phenomena of growth in the natural world (and that generally addresses questions in the philosophy of technology from a human-exceptionalist point of view), see Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994 [1964].  

[3] Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations 4, 40, ed. and trans. C. R. Haines, Loeb Classical Library 58, Harvard University Press, 1916, 91.

[4] Lucian, A True History, tr. Francis Hickes, London: A. H. Bullen, 1902 [1894], 35.

[5] See Curious Enquiries: Being Six Brief Discourses, viz. I. Of the Longitude. II. The Tricks of Astrological Quacks. III. Of the Depth of the Sea. IV. Of Tobacco. V. Of Europes being too full of People. VI. The various Opinions concerning the Time of Keeping the Sabbath, London: Randal Taylor, 1688.

[6]Curious Enquiries, 2.

[7] See Justin E. H. Smith, “The Internet of Snails,” Cabinet Magazine 58 (2016): 29-37.

[8] See Hilton F. Japyassú and Kevin N. Laland, “Extended Spider Cognition,” Animal Cognition 20 (2017): 375-395. For the classic treatment of “active externalism” in human cognition, which supposes that, like spiders, our mental activity similarly reaches out into the world around us, particularly into our technological prostheses, see Andy Clark and David Chalmers, “The Extended Mind,” Analysis 58, 1 (January, 1998): 7-19. See also the collection of papers, including a reprint of Clark and Chalmers's article, edited by Richard Menary, The Extended Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2010.

[9] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, tr. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge University Press, 2000, §61, 5:360/264.

[10] See Michele D. Piercey-Normore and Christopher Deduke, “Fungal Farmer or Algal Escorts: Lichen Adaptation from the Algal Perspective,” Molecular Ecology 20, 18 (September, 2011): 3708-3710.