When Steve Jobs introduced the world to the first iPhone at the Macworld Expo in 2007, his voice was suffused with a note of optimism that seems quaint in 2023. “Every once in a while,” Jobs said, “a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” The iPhone was, in Jobs’s innocuous description, “an iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator”—three phrases that, sixteen years later, sound like they were uttered by a grandpa (“internet communicator?” Okay, Boomer.). But in the sixteen intervening years, the iPhone and the tech frenzy it unleashed did change everything, from human nature and culture to world politics and economics. Our world became a MacWorld.
It is difficult to say precisely when, but at some point in the last decade, the initial wave of optimism brought about by late aughts’ digital technology gave way to a prevailing sense of exhaustion, pessimism, and defeat. Innumerable studies warn about the depressive effects of screen time, the polarizing politics of social media, the economic disparities of the digital economy, and the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence. Like Victor Frankenstein, even the Silicon Valley elites lament the monsters they have created.
Among the many excellent writings on the detriments of digital technology by authors like Jonathan Haidt, Antón Barba-Kay’s A Web of Our Own Making (Cambridge University Press, 2023) stands out for its greater philosophic depth, sharper cultural perspicacity, and literary beauty. A professor only by profession, Barba-Kay is at heart a thinker and writer in the classical mold, more a man of letters than an academic or a public intellectual.
A Web of Our Own Making overflows with disquieting observations about the ways digital technology is reshaping human nature. Barba-Kay puts into haunting words the anxiety, exhaustion, and emptiness that most of us feel but cannot put into words because we are too busy scrolling and ogling. The book has the effect of wakefulness. It prods with wit and grace the vital parts of the human soul that digital technology enervates, urging them back to life by revealing the many ways that, rather than our using technology, our technology is using us.
Digital Technology as Natural Technology
By “digital technology,” Barba-Kay means standardized electronic information exchanged in a single massive network to which a variety of devices are connected. Digital technology encompasses the internet, smartphones, computers, smartwatches, home speakers, cars, and a myriad of other gadgets and appliances that would seem to have no need for digitization. The thesis of A Web of Our Own Making is that digital technology is “natural technology,” or technology so intuitive and effortless to use that it does not feel to humans like they are using something external to themselves. This makes it particularly well suited to infiltrate and alter human nature.
The technological is distinct from the natural because it is produced by art and skill (technē) instead of nature. Digital technology is unique among other technologies because it blends tool with medium in so primal a way as to feel self-evident or second nature to human beings in a manner that taking the controls of a helicopter, for example, does not. It is technology that is adept at concealing its technical character behind its frictionless convenience and ease of use. An infant can use a single finger to play an iPad game before she learns to walk, and once she learns to talk she can interact from her crib with her digital assistant. Many adults spend their days typing, clicking, swiping, dragging, scrolling, saving, and sending, which they call “work.” As we accommodate ourselves to digital technology’s modes of interaction and communication, our patterns of life begin to resemble its ways of interfacing with us. We have not created machines that imitate us, but machines that we imitate. Our computers have made us into computers.
The Tyranny of Data
Barba-Kay demonstrates with haunting elegance the psychological, spiritual, and political implications of our transformation into beings whose habits are conditioned by digital inputs and outputs. Foremost among these is the transformation of ordinary moments in our daily lives into quantified data. Our devices measure and collect data (digits) on our steps, clicks, feelings, locations, routes, hormonal cycles, earnings, expenditures, libidos, temperatures, eating, breathing, reading, viewing, listening, sleeping, and other routine activities. This collection of data makes mundane facts about our lives knowable and interesting to us. If a person in the 1950s obsessively counted every step, calorie, or breath, he or she would have been thought to have psychosis. In the 2020s, this is practicing “self-care.”
The transformation of life into data has the dehumanizing effect of turning us into digital simulations of living beings whose purpose is to “optimize” life rather than live it. Dings, beeps, vibrations, and animations nudge us to conform to the numerical averages, medians, minimums, and maximums that will conduce to data-optimized health and happiness. The good life becomes the efficient life rather than, say, the noble, contemplative, or pious life, none of which is sufficiently optimized for efficiency.
The codification of life into data inevitably results in its commercialization. Corporations mine our life databases for profitable exchange. Being online means being a customer, viewing ads, hitting the “paywall,” buying a subscription, gaining access, becoming a “valued member,” being enticed by the algorithm. Our attention is “monetized” and ravenously pursued by corporations and entities other than us.
The optimal means of keeping our attention is continually to show us something new, which digital technology excels at because it is incorporeal and immaterial. Barba-Kay observes that digital objects are always on screen “for the time being.” This makes them different from artifacts made by craftsmen or words printed on paper pages, the corporeality of which substantiates their intention to stand the test of time. It is easy for corporations and “content creators” to provide something new when the things provided are not really things. Images displayed on screens have no lasting presence, and thus no lasting effect on viewers. There is no canon of online art or online literature comparable in quality to our enduring Western and Eastern canons. Our identities, money, and personal effects are dematerialized, “hosted” in password-protected “clouds” that exist only in the digital ether. What is valuable to us is now so formless as to permit editing and even deletion.
As digital technology habituates us to the moral and social physics of incorporeality, we lose touch with our own embodied nature. Seeming starts to matter more than being. We become avatars of our online selves rather than the other way around, identifying ourselves with our “personal brands,” gorging like disembodied pigs on our media “feeds,” and “binging” shamelessly on digital “content.” The internet’s paradoxical status as a place that is both nowhere and global lulls us into believing we are not bounded by our geographical locations or local borders. The language of local politics abounds in digital rhetoric (forum, site, home, community, marketplace, public square), and it is a sad reminder of the warmth of real places and the cold loneliness of their digital facsimiles. Conceptions of political form (nations, regions, cities) become confused in our minds as citizens become “netizens” and our bounded common life expands into a worldwide web. Fewer of us engage in the selfless compromises and tense negotiations required for genuine community building. Political participation means clicking to vote or changing your profile picture in protest, then refreshing the page to see how good it looks.
Virtual Nihilism and the Nature of Human Nature
Barba-Kay’s excellent analysis of humanity’s digital formation is as compelling as it is comprehensive, but two of his arguments are unpersuasive. The first appears in a section of the book that addresses the highest aspirations of the modern technological project. Barba-Kay argues that digital technology ultimately aspires to overcome reality through a virtual recreation of it, but he judges the prospect of a fully satisfying recreation to be a “doubtful possibility per se.” In Barba-Kay’s view, our impulse to compare reality to virtual reality (VR) will perpetually elucidate the virtual world’s shortcomings, which will heighten the meaning and value of the real. The virtual, in other words, will make the real more tantalizing.
This is plausible, but it is worth pointing out that VR is a young and rapidly evolving technology whose capacities for world creation are as yet undetermined. Augmented reality is presently more compelling than virtual reality, but this may have more to do with current technological limitations than with humanity’s affection for the real. Even when debates about current technological limitations are set aside, there are still reasons to think that humanity is not especially attached to the world in which we live. Religious believers’ hope for heaven, and techno-elites’ hope to colonize other planets, suggest that human beings may not prefer life in the present world if adequate paradisiacal alternatives are available. VR could just as easily evacuate the real world of meaning and further intensify nihilism rather than, as Barba-Kay argues, “accentuate the meaning of the real.”
The second aspect of Barba-Kay’s argument that I found unconvincing involves his account of the status of human nature. In the introduction to A Web of Our Own Making, he says that he regards the digital revolution as a “dehumanizing force.” But he adds to this the caveat that “what we have identified as ‘humanity’ is variable,” and he concludes that “there can be no neutral measure of what is good for us.” It is not clear how digital technology can be called “dehumanizing” if humanity or the good for human beings is variable instead of fixed. There is nothing stable called “nature” from which to deviate, nothing essentially human to dehumanize.
Despite Barba-Kay’s claim there is no neutral measure of the good for human beings, there are times in A Web of our Own Making when he uses language that suggests he does think we have something like a fixed nature, particularly when he speaks of “our dignity as human beings,” our “responsibility” to the world, our “heart’s desire,” and “the common miracles of work, life, and devotion.” Phrases like these strike the ear as Aristotelian or Thomistic (verging on conceptions of natural law). The tension between the variability of human nature on one hand, and humanity’s permanent or natural longings on the other, arises a final time when Barba-Kay says near the end of the book that the present technological age urges us to face the question of “what we are.” If humanity is variable, then the question of what we are is incoherent, or at least in need of a more precise formulation that accounts for our variability.
Becoming a Human Being Again
Readers of A Web of Our Own Making who hope to find in it a grand solution to the problem digital technology poses for humanity will be disappointed. The problem Barba-Kay confronts is not one that gives itself over to formulaic solutions, and the book suggests that it simply may not be solvable in any but the most personal context. This explains why Barba-Kay speaks directly to his readers in hortatory prose in the book’s penultimate chapter, urging us to “reduce your dependence” on digital technology, or “work to cut it down (or out).” He also urges us not to let digital technology enchant us into forgetting that we, unlike it, will die. There is perhaps no more powerful piece of advice, and it is sobering to see an author level so honestly with his audience.
For those who disagree with Barba-Kay’s analysis, the final chapter of A Web of Our Own Making presents a brazen tech-bro’s attempt to refute the book’s arguments and conclusions. Barba-Kay claims that the chapter reproduces the text of an email he was sent from someone who read his manuscript, but he leaves readers to speculate about the sender’s identity. More authors should be so courageous as to conclude their books with lengthy (and in this case amusing) attempts at self-criticism. One cannot help but suspect that, true to the internet fashions he derides, Barba-Kay ends his book by trolling himself.
A Web of Our Making is an eye-opening book written by an independent and learned mind with a unique voice. To miss reading it is to miss a chance to begin to become human again.