Skeptics of contemporary technologies will appreciate [Smith's] descriptions of the way the internet is 'addictive and is thus incompatible with our freedom,' and how it 'shapes human lives algorithmically' in a way that can lead to “warped and impoverished” ways of living ... On the whole, however, Mr. Smith sees technology, past and present, for its possibilities, and in this way his philosophy is a useful corrective for the often-despairing tone of much technology criticism ... The second half of the book is a non-linear, eclectic romp through the early history of technology, and readers will have to surrender to Mr. Smith’s often-discursive writing style. He has a capacious mind and myriad interests but is not always successful in his attempts to draw a clear line from, say, a 19th-century fraudster’s claims about telepathic snails to the meaning of the modern-day internet. His wildly enthusiastic claims on behalf of the early modern German philosopher Leibniz stretch credulity ... Yet Mr. Smith’s indictment of the way we understand the internet is not wrong: In our haste to see the history of technology as an always-improving story of progress, one largely divorced from the natural world, we are missing out on much-needed insights. In particular, his argument that contemporary research on artificial intelligence would benefit from better grounding in the complicated history of technology deserves greater amplification ... Mr. Smith has given readers a fresh interpretation of the history of technology; a creative, if sometimes mystifying, philosophy of the internet; and a keen sense that we don’t always know what the internet is doing to us.
The title of Smith’s book is ungainly but cunning in asking not what the internet is but what it isn’t, pushing against our certainties about its very nature. For all the jeremiads, this is a book of nots. The internet age is still in its infancy, and forms of engagement may yet appear that reconfigure how we interact with our digital selves and the mediated world. If we feel that information overload is at the root of our sapped capacities for attention, Smith is quick to note that the same crisis of attention was sounded in the century and a half following Gutenberg’s innovation in printing technology ... One of the pleasures of Smith’s philosophical tour is to note how frequently the implementation of ideas and their consequences jump domains ... The vision that inspired Lovelace has become much more complex as its implications have disclosed themselves. One of the great achievements of Smith’s book is to permit us to honor her legacy, ambition, and achievement—and that of many others both before and after her—while buttressing a healthy and necessary skepticism toward the claims of tech transcendence and the uniqueness of our moment.
... erudite ... affords an opportunity to reflect deeply on what [Smith] calls the 'addictive power of the internet,' and to consider its implications for our individual and collective lives ... There's no shortage of journalistic jeremiads raising concerns of this nature, bemoaning the Internet's impact on modern life. What distinguishes Smith's exploration is that he writes from the vantage point of a professor of history and philosophy of science, the subjects he teaches at the University of Paris, and his insights are deeply informed by these disciplines ... Unlike similar works, Smith stops short of offering any broad individual or societal prescriptions for solving the problems he identifies. But in simply raising readers' awareness of the rising threat from the ways in which they are being manipulated in the service of 'attention-extractive profit-seeking,' by forces that are 'making us less free and less capable of achieving human thriving,' he may sound enough of an alarm to move some of them to action.