The Internet of Us
by michael p. lynch
livewright, 256 pages, $25.95
If diamonds could be had for free, would we still stoop to pick them up? Today we see the great ideas of the ages—preserved and studied over the centuries, at great cost in time and money—uploaded to the internet. The cost of maintaining and accessing this ancient wisdom has dropped to a new low. But so has its cultural penetration (despite the fact that the price of education has climbed to a new high).
Of course the internet has done much more than lower the cost of our cultural treasures. It distributes facts and opinions, classics and pornography, treasures and trash with the same ease, creating the impression that, whatever you want, whatever you need, it can be found on the internet.
It is a false promise. The internet, for all its variety, can only provide a certain kind of knowledge. You can learn about bicycles on the internet, but you cannot learn to ride them there. To know a bicycle you must feel a bicycle. You can become knowledgeable in the first way from the internet; in the second way you cannot. In humans, this is the difference between a know-it-all and a broadly capable person.
Philosopher Michael Patrick Lynch distinguishes these two types of knowledge—and these two types of life—in his new book The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. The first kind of knowledge he calls “Google-knowing.” A well-integrated combination of information, skill, and experience he calls “understanding.” His thesis: “Our digital form of life, while giving us more facts, is not particularly good at giving us more understanding.”
The internet has undercut the market for real-world experience. While the price of experience has held steady—or nearly so—the internet has drastically reduced the price of information. Learning from the internet is simply easier than learning from life. And our electronics have also created a new, cut-rate alternative to life experience: We now have depleted, virtual experiences such as video tennis or a text message sent in lieu of a visit to a grieving friend.
Of course, this argument—that we should learn from experience—damns the classics along with the cat videos, the click bait, the short-form book reviews, and the top-ten lists. And rightly so: No book is a substitute for life. Other men’s thoughts, no matter how great, must never stop us from knowing our own; they must never displace the people and the experiences in our world. So should we cast off the classics along with the internet and everything else that distracts us from living life with our feet on the pedals, the pollen in our nostrils, and the wind in our hair?
Lynch points us to at least one great wonder in the written word: “It allows us to time-travel and share the thoughts of those who have come before.” This is profound, it is wonderful, and we can thank the internet to the degree that it facilities this. The internet has, after all, set the ancient writing at our fingertips. But, with the vast stream of newsfeed-style content, the internet has, paradoxically, both provided this writing and reduced our will to read it. The internet has made the present so present that we have become dislocated in it. We become like a child who, having grown bored with his time machine, sits picking at the lint in his navel.
Lynch has done well to note that, as a culture, we are at risk of drowning in shallow information. But his book suffers from being excessively academic. To offer a sample, here is how Lynch introduces the bicycle-knowledge distinction:
The Oxford don Gilbert Ryle, in his influential 1949 book The Concept of Mind, sets himself against the idea that “the primary exercise of minds consists in finding the answers to questions.” Knowing how to do something, Ryle suggests, isn’t a matter of knowing a particular fact. Instead, it is more like having an ability to do something. And the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus has influentially argued that knowing how to do something—like ride a bike—can’t be understood as grasping a set of rules or directions. At bottom it involves a type of discernment or acuity that can’t be discursively codified.
This point is intuitive and demonstrably true. As such, it hardly warrants rousting the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus to argue about acuity being discursively codified—and perhaps the point is even weakened by this erudite reference. Lynch's academic habit of writing often leaves non-specialists, for whom the book is clearly intended, feeling that we would do better to live in our world and ponder it, rather than read a book about how we know. Though perhaps we might still time-travel occasionally, to sit with the ancients.
Micah Harris is a student at St. John's College and a consultant for the Department of Defense.