A Review of "A Web of Our Own Making: The Nature of Digital Formation," by Antón Barba-Kay
“I would rather say something crazy true than falsely edifying,” writes professor Antón Barba-Kay in his 2023 book A Web of Our Own Making: The Nature of Digital Formation. His thesis is simple: digital technology (his preferred term for the internet, smart devices, and so forth) is bad, and nothing can be done about it. It can neither be reformed nor destroyed. It is a tragic yet inescapable reality, a “web of our own making” that we are all caught in.
This simple truth, Barba-Kay believes, is often complicated by those who want a more useful or optimistic diagnosis of the situation. Yet the bleak truth should be acknowledged, even if it seems to serve no pragmatic purpose—that’s a philosopher’s job, after all.
A Web of Our Own Making is indeed a work of philosophy. The author makes use of social science and psychology, but he is trying to construct a “Philosophy of the Internet,” rather than solve any social or psychological problem. As far as that goes, I think he succeeds. Though the thesis itself may be a bit too simplistic, in the process of developing it Barba-Kay is able to bring out a wealth of subtle and often profound insights about the subject. And he’s right—you have to start with truth, and look for a pragmatic option from there, not the other way around.
A Seductive Mirror
So, what’s so bad about digital technology?
The book argues that the danger of it is belied by the very thing that makes it dangerous—its frictionless, intuitive, almost invisible nature. Barba-Kay expects many of his critiques of the internet to seem unhinged, because most of us barely notice the internet. It feels like a part of us. It was designed to.
And that’s where the danger comes from. Digital technology is designed to react to our whims and grant instant satisfaction of our itches and cravings—to be a “natural technology,” fully intuitive to the user, yielding immediate gratification. And that means that the digital experience becomes a standard with which offline experiences cannot compete. Digital activity provides “the satisfaction of unlocking, of solving, of overcoming clear-cut obstacles” effortlessly and on demand, therefore yielding dopamine hits more reliably than real-world activity can.
Barba-Kay characterizes internet use as a “simulation of an experience of total commitment”—an imitation of being “in the zone,” totally absorbed in a difficult task. But unlike getting in the zone while doing real-life activities, such as playing a musical instrument or tackling a home-repair project, using your device requires no real skill or discipline. Barba-Kay compares artificial experiences to junk food, which we keep craving more of, not in spite of but because of its lack of nutrition—it can’t satisfy us.
At the same time, digital technology serves as a narcissistic mirror, simulating the experience of knowing another person. It allows us to “create the image of a personality that is like ours—a system of responses keyed to our preferences—but that is nonetheless entirely beholden and subservient to our whim: ‘someone’ who knows you better than yourself, but whose sole business is to be at your flattering disposal.” But this is futile, because “it is in this relationship between ourselves and what exceeds us that, as fathomless and irreplaceable, we discover ourselves to be real and at stake.”
That’s a profound truth. We long for an Other, but we want that Other to be in our control—we want to have our cake and eat it too. But that’s not possible. The very thing that makes artificial interaction so comfortable and painless is what makes it ultimately empty. Barba-Kay writes:
Each time I reach for my phone, I’m only ever waiting for it to be you. Each time, it’s only ever me again, self-consuming and consumed by the device.
The Dawn of a New Era
Barba-Kay persuasively argues that we are at the beginning of a revolution, not merely of technology, but of society and even human consciousness:
With the invention of writing, empires replaced nomadic tribes across the face of the world. Two or three millennia later, those empires bit the dust when a German artisan figured out movable type: the birth of the nation state. What now?
The internet is the first truly global information system. This makes it seem like the ultimate definer of relevance—if something isn’t on the internet, does it even matter? Even those who critique the internet tend to do their critiquing … on the internet, in one way or another. Everything in life and society has become caught up in the web. And because the revolution is so absolute, opting in is not really optional. Barba-Kay explains:
If you ride in a car to work (instead of walking or riding your horse), it soon becomes just “what is done” – no one continues to sing hosannas for a shortcut once established. But if you then choose to walk to work instead (in a world with cars), you must choose the hard way, with cussed stoicism, every day once more again, again, again. You can always hold out, but it is hard to row upstream when the effort seems arbitrary, when it’s just up to you, when there’s no shame in giving up, when the temptation to do otherwise accompanies each and every time… In a pinch (or a pandemic), what is technically possible shows itself to be absolutely necessary—and we are always in a pinch. Once friction becomes optional, it is no longer a living option. It is unbearable for human beings to feel that our effort is unnecessary, that our pains sustain no greater meaning.
Unfortunately, Barba-Kay only calls attention to this quandary—he doesn’t flesh out a solution to it. In fact, he seems uncertain about there being one.
In a highly unusual rhetorical move, Barba-Kay concludes his book with a fictional email to the author, attacking the book’s thesis. The sender is presented as a Silicon Valley tech executive. The CEO viciously mocks Barba-Kay’s argument, and seems to utterly dismantle it, exposing it as the pointless whining of a hypocrite who enjoys and relies on the internet just as much as anyone else. People want what makes them happy, the CEO says, and the internet makes them happy. That’s all there is to it.
There is no response from Barba-Kay to the apocryphal email—the book is simply over with that self-take-down. It’s hard to not draw a rather pessimistic message from that authorial choice. But it makes his point that digital technology is hard to critique because of the very thing that makes it so dangerous—its all-encompassing, irrefutable, inescapably seductive nature.
A Call to Resistance
But though Barba-Kay may not have the solution, he isn’t saying we should go down without a fight. Barba-Kay is an extremist. It’s not merely that he has concerns about the internet; he is against the internet. He is not talking about how we can use the internet better, or approach it in a healthier way, or mitigate its harm. Rather, he insists that “the only truly ethical use of digital technology is to disobey it, to walk away”:
Do not fight it directly (since that too is its power to shape) but work to change the subject altogether. At any rate, work not to see yourself as if reflected in this mirror… It will not be a permanent solution or a widespread one; but there never have been such, not really. There have only ever been temporary, adaptive reprieves snatched piecemeal from misrule, disintegration kept at bay one more generation by implausible exceptions, while all the while indifference, violence, and anarchy conspired at the doorsill, time always on their side. Keep watch, hold out, stay a while longer. It’s not yours to finish the work, nor is it to desist from it.
It’s not a very inspiring call to action – unless you find “cussed stoicism” inspiring. (And, well, some of us do…)
The Bed We Have to Sleep In
Barba-Kay’s prose is like a blackberry bramble: dense, thorny, sometimes intimidating, but dotted throughout with juicy one-liners. The book suffers somewhat from repetitiveness—you get the feeling that if Barba-Kay thinks of a good sentence, he can’t resist using it, even if it is redundant. (Of course, maybe Barba-Kay is using the denseness to convict the reader. Though it isn’t the main focus of the book, he does complain—in the grand tradition of anti-internet literature—about our inability to concentrate these days.)
Flaws aside, the book is more than worth the time and effort it takes to get through it. What I’ve been able to summarize here hardly scratches its surface. Not only is it worth reading, it’s worth reading slowly, mulling it over. Because whether you agree with Barba-Kay or not, he’s right about one thing: with the rise of the internet, we are entering a new age. It would be better not to enter it blindly.Daniel Witt
Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/caught-in-a-web