The Internet Doesn’t Have to Be This Bad

The internet feels like an antisocial, dystopian wasteland. Capitalism made it this way. But if we can pry the web out of the hands of the profit motive, we can build a better internet.

French influencers create videos for TikTok at a content house in Paris. (Philippe Lopez / AFP via Getty Images)

We are living in an age of abundance for visions of postcapitalist futures. This is a good thing: there is a concerted effort underway to imagine our world differently, and there is a growing audience eager to hear it all. Jonathan Crary’s latest book, Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World, is a brief polemic targeted squarely at this audience. While there is much to admire about Crary’s deeply felt anger about the state of the world, even fiery polemics like his need some follow-through.

Unlike recent leftist books on the internet like Ben Tarnoff’s Internet for the People and The Promise of Access by Daniel Greene, Crary’s starting point is that what he calls the “internet complex” is fundamentally incompatible with a postcapitalist world, as technology is wholly intertwined with the planet-killing capitalist project. He argues that all of the internet complex’s “touted benefits are rendered irrelevant or secondary by its injurious and sociocidal impacts,” and “the notion that the internet could function independently of the catastrophic operations of global capitalism is one of the stupefying delusions of this moment.”

The end of capitalism will eventually come, he says, but the modes of communication we use thereafter will “bear little resemblance to the financialized and militarized networks in which we are entangled today.”

In short, Crary believes we must abandon the internet in our pursuit of a postcapitalist world. In making such a claim, Crary doesn’t begin a discussion — he ends it.

To get beyond capitalism, the internet seems like a useful tool — look not only to its role in the movements behind mainstream figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, but also experiments like worker-owned ride-hailing platforms that, as Tarnoff has argued, at the very least show people that another internet is possible and can even be found, right now, on your phone.

The tools provided through the internet are not inherently profit-seeking or fatalistic, and Crary’s stubborn dedication to this thesis limits possibilities rather than expanding them.

No Exit

Much is often made of the internet’s beginning as a military project, whereby Cold War–era officials imagined a “network of networks” called ARPANET that would continue operating and maintain its capacity to retaliate for nuclear blasts thanks to decentralization, as though this origin story in itself is a damning indictment of the internet and its usefulness.

As Tarnoff explains in his book, the internet could have developed according to different logics at this point, but unfortunately the one taken was one of gradual and then accelerated privatization, eventually leading to Web 2.0 and the platforms we know today. The looming “decentralized” Web3 remains tied to existing platforms and their corporate owners.

For Crary, this path seems to be the only possible one for the internet complex to take. Given the current realities of capitalism, which simultaneously seems exhausted and yet implacable, we reach the scorched-earth phase of the book’s title: “Scorched earth capitalism destroys whatever allows groups and communities to pursue modes of self-sufficient subsistence, of self-governance or of mutual support.”

The internet complex is the primary means by which this is achieved — largely, he says, by “neutralizing the insurgent energies of youth” and “preventing youth from experiencing and knowing itself.” This is the book’s most compelling section, as Crary describes how online life “regulates what is permissible to dream,” and that tech companies in particular have effectively become “the official futurologists of our time.” Our widespread indifference to and acceptance of this reality defines our current crisis.

From this perspective, it doesn’t matter if the visions we are offered and sold about artificial intelligence, robotics, the “Internet of Things,” and more actually come to fruition, because the point is to demoralize, dispossess us of thought and volition, and crush our hope — “one awaits this future as one would await death.”

Bleak stuff. At this point, though, Crary struggles to move into a convincing argument about why the internet is not salvageable and must be destroyed. Crary has a receptive audience, as his environmentally inflected argument has great similarities with the work of ecosocialist Andreas Malm and other thinkers who are pushing us to rethink the value of solutions that merely tweak existing structures. The main problem for Crary is that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in actually building his case against the internet’s salvageability, focusing instead on descriptions of its current monstrous reality as though this in itself is evidence of its inevitable future.

Crary also puts the lie to totalizing theories like social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism,” which describes a surveillance-based economic order that produces behavior modification in average people through data collection on platforms like Facebook that are used to induce emotions, sell products, and deliver content deemed relevant to them. As Crary stresses, Zuboff only sees a problem with the surveillance piece rather than the capitalism. More importantly, these exaggerations of tech’s control over individual autonomy — an algorithm hinting that we might like to purchase a certain product doesn’t literally force our hand to actually click “Buy,” and believing otherwise grants far too much power to these companies — distracting us from realizing how open many of us actually are to alternative ways of living.

Unfortunately, this is one of the very few times that Crary seeks to separate himself from other conceptions of the internet complex and its implications. Most significantly, he fails to identify any other postcapitalist futures, and how they might deal with the internet, to assess what it is that makes them so impossible.

He offers countless examples of the evils of current technology, including a lengthy section on eye-tracking technologies and other biometrics, seemingly as evidence that a postcapitalist future could not contain such grotesquerie — and rightly so. But the reader is left wondering how the ideas of Tarnoff, Greene, or Inventing the Future authors Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, who argue that a postcapitalist economy should embrace technology’s promise to liberate us from work, might be taken up.

Perhaps Crary is ultimately correct that a postcapitalist future will require us to destroy the internet. But his book does not tell us why or how or even what makes this more convincing than other arguments. He notes that the internet is dependent on the “rapidly deteriorating built world of industrial capitalism,” but he calls this a “fatal” dependency when this does not at all seem self-evident.

Certainly, his position on 24/7 capitalism and its incessant financialization, as articulated in his excellent previous book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, remains chillingly persuasive, particularly the notion that the constant activity and intensified accumulation of an always-on global economy contribute to the erosion of political solidarities. Scorched Earth’s new material on this, especially his analysis on the fetishization and fallibility of modern science and its institutions, which remain beholden to global capital and its planet-killing interests, is cogent but rather tangential to the topic at hand.

An Internet Beyond Capitalism

Crary comes closest to illustrating the extent of the inextricability of the internet and capitalism through his suggestion that the elite billionaire class is now wholly interconnected with the internet complex, whether through the companies themselves or the resources of financial computer networks that facilitate it all: “One of [the billionaire class’s] priorities is to prevent exploration of how existing technical capabilities could be creatively redeployed by local and regional communities to meet human and environmental needs, rather than exclusively serving the requirements of capital and empire.”

This nods to what Tarnoff and others explore in their work: already existing alternatives to the desolation of the internet complex that could be expanded upon through public or government investment to help usher in a different way of being online. But here they only exist for Crary as doomed-to-fail impossibilities. It’s a shame, because he has the analytical chops to incorporate these realities into his argument. Instead, they are only theoretical chimeras, concepts without proof or dead-on-arrival cyber pipe dreams.

In the book’s final section, Crary provides a more concise motivation behind his argument: fundamentally, he believes that online life offers no opportunities for “friendship, love, community, compassion, the free play of desire, or the sharing of doubt and pain.” If they do occur, they are only simulations, “permeated with absence and shallowness.”

As such, no class struggle can exist online, as we are experiencing the “wreckage of social formations” through “solitary subjectivities.” In such a world, we discuss our aspirations under the guise of a “system we know to be malign. We acquiesce out of passivity or convenience, and over time we come to have thoughts and gestures that are no longer our own.”

Here Crary comes dangerously close to falling into the “behavior modification” fears of thinkers like Zuboff, which he claims not to subscribe to, and yet much of this final section suggests it holds more sway over his argument than he’d like us to believe. He writes, apparently pointing the finger at you, the reader, “It is remarkable that at a moment of unparalleled danger for the future of the planet . . . that so many people should voluntarily confine themselves in the desiccated digital closets devised by a handful of sociocidal corporations.”

Emotionally, his analysis feels right. It does feel harder to connect than ever, online or off. But putting aside, as Crary does, the countless examples of robust, even potentially revolutionary online communities, like open-source social networking platforms like Mastodon or the contested terrain of platform cooperatives, it seems unproductive to condescendingly admonish one’s readers as passive do-nothings if you hope to build something better. Is wagging your finger at the rubes stuck in “desiccated digital closets” the best way to build a better world?

As Crary notes, there is no “digital commons.” But by simplifying what the internet is and could be, he is too bleak about both its history and its possible futures.

The internet did not have to be this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way in the future. Crary’s overall sentiment is accurate, that a postcapitalist future could not operate using the internet as it exists. But there is no reason why a different internet, following his own ecosocialist ideals and emphasizing the power of collectivity, could not thrive in that future.