The Demons Are Not What You Think They Are

To understand the Web, we have to also understand the people who’ve spun it.

CJ Green / 5.17.22

In Nabokov’s 1957 novel Pnin, when the title character is offered a magazine to read, he refuses, giving this as his explanation: “I do not understand what is advertisement and what is not advertisement.” It’s a striking moment, especially amidst today’s debate about media reliability and readers’ seeming inability to discern what’s what. But even more striking is the way Justin E. H. Smith modernizes the same aphorism, in his new book The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: “I do not understand of myself what is advertisement and what is not advertisement.”

It’s a haunting idea, once it really worms into your mind. What is myself, what is an ad? What do I put out, only to get something back? Like the doleful Pnin, “I do not understand”; it’s simply not clear to me. It’s also not clear what, of others, is not just an advertisement to me. Thanks to a swift convergence of things (the gig economy, social media—in short, the internet), it’s surprisingly difficult to find someone who isn’t selling something of themselves. And if ever you do find this person, they usually do not have much of an online “presence.”

Smith writes, “the more you use the internet, the more your individuality warps into a brand, and your subjectivity transforms into an algorithmically plottable vector of activity.” At a broad level, we “are increasingly perceived and understood as sets of data points… eventually it is inevitable that this perception cycles back and becomes the self-perception of human subjects.” In a world of machines, it can seem as if we’re merely advanced models, evident in casual, contemporary metaphors—that we are “wired” a certain way, that we are “functional” or “dysfunctional.” It’s also evident in the way we establish worth—that what’s valuable can be deemed as such by measuring it.

The effect is so alarming it’s started to feel demonic. A few years ago the tech reporter Sam Biddle said that “so much of the Internet feels like hell now that it just makes sense to blame it on the devil.” More recently, Alan Jacobs—in a brilliant piece for The New Atlantis—compared historical depictions of possession to life online: “consider that when a tweet provokes you to wrath…you are dealing with powers greater than yours.” Almost concurrently, in response to Smith’s book, the writer Sam Kriss published an essay entitled, “The Internet Is Made of Demons.

I admit I’m a believer in some things but a skeptic about this. Part of me thinks it’s just really hard to say anything interesting about the internet anymore, and one way to keep readers’ attention is to invoke the demonic. (I love the epigraph in Smith’s book, from Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts: “This is the struggle with describing social media: it devours importance.”) While on a creative level I appreciate serious thinkers reviving a topic that seems plainly medieval, I find that Sarah Condon’s phrasing better suits my actual life: “Stop blaming the devil: you can do bad all by yourself.” I guess I just don’t know whether the internet is made of demons, whether the devil is possessing society, whether technology is a gag gift from hell or simply a neutral tool easily misused. In any case, for most of these writers, the demonic seems metaphorical. Possession is merely a way to describe a feeling: that I—and others—feel compulsive; that we are, to use Smith’s word, “unfree.”

But in Smith’s interpretation, the internet is not what you think it is. Though we live in what seem to be “cursed times,” they might not be—at least not incredibly more so than any other time. With a keen eye on history and the natural world, Smith convincingly portrays the internet as a natural outgrowth of who we are as a species, for better and worse. Although there are clearly unique demonic qualities about the internet—it is extractive, anti-human, reductive—this might be more reflective of ourselves than a mystic principality. The way Smith describes it, the internet is less a possession than a revelation. Moreover, he maintains that there have always been mysterious traces of it, in the ubiquitous webs in nature and early forms of telecommunication. He points out that even Paleolithic people were sending messages over great distances: seashell necklaces and other items “were packed with symbolic meaning, just like a letter, just like a sequence of emojis.” He recounts a fable from the 1630s, of a legendary island where sponges can absorb the sound of a person’s voice; if an islander squeezed a certain sponge he would hear a message conveyed from the far side of the island.

I found this comparison unexpectedly poignant—that the modern YouTuber may not be wildly different from the islander whispering into a sponge. It may be that in both scenarios isolation is palpable, or that survival is pressing, or that the message of a friend would, or could, be a great comfort. More than anything, “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.”

If all this is true, then to understand the web, one has to understand the people who have spun it. In his criticism of Smith’s book, Kriss argues that “the internet makes people tangibly worse.” Seems obvious, but this is actually a substantial claim, which, once I reflected on it, began to seem contestable. The idea seems to be that people were generally decent while they still “touched grass” then became maniacal once they got online. Kriss observes that online, even ordinary people begin celebrating the deaths of people they’ve never met, which is true; he describes his own experience this way:

Back when I spent half my days on social media, … I would probably have also celebrated a murder, if the victim had once tweeted something I didn’t like. Now, looking back on those days is like trying to remember the previous night through a terrible hangover. Oh god—what have I done? Why did I keep saying things I didn’t actually believe? Why did I keep behaving in ways that were clearly cruel and wrong? And how did I manage to convince myself that all of this was somehow in the service of the good? I was drunk on something. I wasn’t entirely in control.

My own observation is that the questions above are honest, incisive, and seemingly eternal, central to most good literature, as far back as Genesis. Being not entirely in control isn’t a “function” of the internet—not for me. I’ll give an embarrassing example. (Embarrassing, and also the tip of an even more embarrassing iceberg.) Recently my wife and I went for a walk, and I spent the duration of it gossiping about people I actually really admire. I wasn’t “celebrating a murder,” but I wasn’t saying nice things, either—why? “I was drunk on something. I wasn’t entirely in control.” And I wasn’t online; I was outdoors, strolling beneath lush dogwood canopies. I was drinking a coffee. I was beside my favorite person on earth, filling her ears with stupid theories, which were graciously cut short when we arrived at our destination: a church, and not just any church, but one that understands sin to be as real as it so obviously was, in me, just seconds before I walked through the doors.

The sermon that evening was about voices—the voices in your head, which say terrible things about others, and which say terrible things about you; the voices of judges and prosecutors on loop; and amidst all of them, the voice of a God who exonerates at great cost to himself, who loves very embarrassing people despite them constantly putting their foots in their mouths (for example). How appreciative I was, not to have my sin expiated by commentary about the “times I live in” and “what the internet is doing to my brain,” and instead by a genuine sacrifice commensurate with my ill will. What a relief not to hear more drivel about what a good person I am, at heart.

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7 responses to “The Demons Are Not What You Think They Are”

  1. Gary says:

    Great article CJ! I liked the quoted analogy to being drunk. Alcohol reveals because it numbs our consciousness, including our terrified awareness of being just ourselves. So does the internet. Sometimes so does being with the people we know the most, like family.

    To interact in an embodied way with others is to interact in self-monitoring, self-conscious fear that hides us even from ourselves. But does that make us better people?

  2. CJ says:

    Thanks, Gary – great thoughts here!

  3. Chris B. says:

    I’ll second what Gary said. I always found it a bit inaccurate to say things like “I wasn’t myself” or “that’s not who I am” to excuse things.”

    It’s also not entirely accurate to say the opposite.

    Maybe . . .

    “I drank too much and conflated reckless inhibition with true freedom. ”


    “I fell further astray from the pursuit of an authentic, righteous self and instead rested in the muck of my desperate shallow ego.”

  4. We can share malicious gossip with a loved one, indeed this used to be an art form; but social media gives us the illusion that anyone can be a confidant; a human voice wouldn’t carry round that circle. This creates arrays of voices, converging on an object. I suppose it’s this arena effect that exaggerates the blood lust appeal of feelings that would be trivial without it.

  5. Perhaps there is a neurochemical continuity, so that a deal with the Devil is an attempt to ensure a perpetual dopamine hit, that sin is surrender to it, that digital devices update older, and often more esoteric (alchemy or magick is really doing your own research) ways of wasting our time or making sure it’s otherwise ill-spent. Which may well turn out to be part of Justin E H Smith’s thesis once I read The Internet is not what You Think it Is.

  6. CJ says:

    I agree George. I’ve been wanting to add that even though demons feels like a limited analogy to me, that doesn’t mean it’s not a bad situation! Ha. I admit I have my own personal tactics for limiting internet use, which are helpful in minimizing the exaggeration or amplification you’re pointing out—in Smith’s book his phrasing is “a sudden acceleration.” This idea of the internet as an “outgrowth” indicates continuity, but also acknowledges some undeniable novelty.

  7. […] For all the hand-wringing there’s been over the years about how terrible the internet can be, perhaps we’ve all just been projecting? Maybe we don’t get the internet we want; we get the internet we deserve. Or, as CJ Green recently put it , “The demons are not what you think they are.” […]

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