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Review: “A Web of Our Own Making: The Nature of Digital Formation” by Antón Barba-Kay

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Barba-Kay’s central claim is that digital technology is categorically different from prior technologies. It is not just a matter of degree but, rather, a matter of kind.”

Technology is neutral; it is just a matter of how one uses it. We have heard this adage countless times. But it is not true. For one, if we give a child a hammer, we all know what happens: Everything looks like a nail, and we get dings, dents, and holes everywhere. Even a tool as basic as the humble hammer has the power to nudge us in a certain direction—toward hammering. If that is what happens even with simple tools, what about complex digital omni-tools that can do much more than hammering—what do they nudge us toward and how do they form us? Antón Barba-Kay offers penetrating answers to these types of questions and more in A Web of Our Own Making: The Nature of Digital Transformation, which was released last year with Cambridge University Press. The Deep Springs College professor with a dry wit and a sharp pen takes on the sacred cows of the techno-optimists and challenges the techno-pessimists for missing root causes. He does all of this while uncovering the digital revolution’s effects when it comes to personal habits, community, politics, and more.

Barba-Kay’s central claim is that digital technology is categorically different from prior technologies. It is not just a matter of degree but, rather, a matter of kind. “Our largest problems are all problems in kind—problems intrinsic to the structure and logic of digital technology itself—not in degree,” Barba-Kay notes. This may seem like a strong contention, but I think mounting evidence and our personal and collective experiences confirm this. Digital devices are more than just tools like hammers, books, or telegraphs. They are omnipresent omni-tools of unending use and possibility.

Digital devices predict, change, respond, and connect us to a global network of other devices, people, information, and entertainment, the scale of which is unimaginably massive and beyond anything that could be considered human in scale. Digital technologies have become so woven into the warp and woof of our lives that we barely even notice when we are engaging with them. There has been a blurring of the lines between the digital and the real. And Barba-Kay argues that “this changes everything.”

He continues: “…there is no aspect of our life that is not yielding to [digital technology]; it is such as to sweep up into itself all our standing assumptions about what we know, and what it is to be connected, and what lies before us in the shape of hopes to come.” Barba-Kay makes the case that “digital tools represent a new stage in the history of technology: the moment at which what is understood to be the ‘natural’—the given and abiding conditions of our being human—and what is understood to be constructed, optional, or ‘artificial’ are fused through our translation of the world into digital terms.”

His term “natural technology” is an insightful, albeit easily misunderstood, term for digital technology—natural not in the sense of being inherent to the human experience or made of natural materials. This refers instead to its ease of use and blending into our daily lives. The smartphone in my pocket or the laptop on which I am typing this review easily become reality-mediating mechanisms. It is true that a smartphone, laptop, or other Internet-based digital device can remain just as tools, but resisting their nudges toward full immersion is difficult. These devices appear so natural and flawless, so smooth and frictionless—more real than one’s own body and surroundings. It becomes almost inevitable to begin viewing ourselves and surroundings through our devices. As such, the line between the human and the digital disappears. As Barba-Kay notes, “the appearance of digital technology marks the moment at which our tools or media are identified with our own conception of what is true, who we are, and what is good.” 

With this perspective in mind, Barba-Kay goes on to demonstrate the implications in a variety of domains: personal, social, and political. He writes:

“In transforming our means of relating to each other, the [I]nternet is reshaping our basic notions of what counts as society or politics at all. Our new way of communicating is reconfiguring our sense of community and of ourselves as members who conform to it. These changes are in turn redefining our larger-scale ‘social imaginaries’—our perception of what it means to be citizens of a democracy and of a nation—in typically polarizing ways.”

Barba-Kay also explores the ways in which “digital technology bears on our aesthetic sense of our own experience of reality.” He specifically investigates the ideals of frictionlessness, obedience, and perfection, and how they are being reimagined and reinterpreted through the digital frame. “In pursuing these ideals, we are thereby reshaping the notion of what is valuable about human beings,” he writes. 

As he develops these arguments throughout the book, Barba-Kay’s logical mind and breadth of knowledge are on full display. I will admit that the book is a challenging read, but it provides some of the most logically rigorous and philosophically precise argumentation I have read in this genre. It is true that Barba-Kay’s complex arguments and dense prose could have been aided by shorter chapters and improved formatting and headings. But perhaps that is my digitally-shrunken attention span and Internet-brain talking (something he critiques in the book, of course).

While he levels persuasive and stinging critiques of the digital age, I was left with a sense of what there is to do about it. Granted, this is beyond the stated scope of Barba-Kay’s book, but it does leave the reader wanting more. That is where readers might find Cal Newport’s 2016 book Deep Work and his 2019 book Digital Minimalism helpful for practical advice. However, when it comes to theory and a contemporary philosophy of technology, Barba-Kay’s book deserves a place in the tradition of writers like Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, and Neil Postman.

Barba-Kay has written a book to be reckoned with by technology friend and foe alike. And the fundamental question he attempts to answer is vital for all us to think about: “If the present technological age has a lasting gift for us, it is to urge as decisive the question of what human beings are for, what the point of us is at all.” Barba-Kay may not offer a ten-point plan or a to-do list in reply to this question, but he does ground his perspective in a deep understanding of the proverbial Great Tradition, tapping into philosophy, theology, literature, history, and science to help us see that we are more than machines. We are embodied beings with a desire for love and relationship—something that a technological device can never provide. We, human beings, have, in his words, a “responsibility [to] the common miracles of life, work, and devotion,” and “it is our capacity to build and love…that creates the world anew.”.

Joshua Pauling taught high school history for thirteen years and is now a classical educator and furniture maker. He has written for a variety of publications including Front Porch Republic and Quillette.

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