Issue 58 Theft Summer 2015

The Internet of Snails

Justin E. H. Smith

The snail, class Gastropoda, is noted for a number of exceptional traits. For one thing, it contains a model of the universe in its self-secreted shell: the whorls of hardened mucus instantiate the same logarithmic expansion, sometimes called e, that we see in the spirals of galaxies. For another, some naturalists have observed peculiar powers associated with the snail’s reproductive faculty. They have observed, in particular, a sort of sympathetic bond that endures, across any distance and for the duration of their lives, between any two snails who have once brought their slimy peristaltic rods together in courtship. It has not escaped human curiosity to see whether this bond might be seized upon and used for certain technological applications.

Paris, October 1850. A young man, a former law student and radical candidate for the Constitutional Assembly by the name of Jules Allix, publishes in the feuilleton of La Presse an article describing a new invention.1 He is not himself the inventor, but is only speaking, he claims, on behalf of his associates, Monsieur Jacques Toussaint Benoît from Hérault near Montpellier, and a man identified only as “Monsieur Biat-Chrétien, the American” (later referred to simply as “Biat”). The discovery is of a “pasilalinic sympathetic compass” that will facilitate “universal and instantaneous communication of thought, at any distance whatsoever.”

In the article, Allix dissimulates, stalls, takes an inordinate amount of time to tell us what this machine actually does. He moves at a leisurely pace through a survey of theological positions on magnetism. The distinguished men of Notre Dame, he tells us, are prepared to see it not as a trick or an illusion, but as the crowning mystery of God’s creation, a constant announcement, in the seeking out of metal by metal, of God’s wisdom and might. If we are prepared to admit gravity, why not other forces too? Why, for example, should we not admit the “galvano-magnetico-mineralo-animalo-adamical sympathy” that governs the pasilalinic sympathetic compass?

Unlike the electrical telegraph, we are eventually told, the compass has no conductive wires, but only two unconnected and portable boxes, each containing a voltaic pile, a wooden or metal wheel ringed with copper sulphate–lined metal troughs. And, in each of these troughs, a snail.

A snail? Allix dwells in excessive detail on irrelevant points, and breezes right past relevant ones. He checks off the most recent scientific shibboleths—Steinheil’s advances in telegraphy in Munich, Matteucci’s in Pisa—and he frontloads the technical terminology like Lieutenant Sulu explaining the impossible physics of warp drive. After a long digression, however, we are offered a bare-bones description of how the machine is to work. Allix explains, first of all, the natural phenomenon, observable only in snails, of “sympathizing,” which is to say of creating an indivisible bond through copulation:

After the separation of the snails that have sympathized together, a sort of fluid is released between them, for which the earth is the conductor, which develops and unfolds, so to speak, like the nearly invisible thread of the spider or that of a silkworm, which one could unfold and elongate in an indefinite space without breaking it, but with this one difference, that the escargotic fluid is completely invisible and that it has as much speed in space as the electrical fluid, and that it would be by means of this fluid that the snails produce and communicate the commotion of which I have spoken.

Why is this sympathy found only in snails? Allix does not say explicitly, though he does remind us that snails are hermaphrodites, “which is to say male and female at the same time.” We are perhaps invited here to recall the myth, or something like it, of the original androgyne, attributed to Aristophanes by Plato in The Symposium. In the beginning, the philosopher recounts, every human being had four arms and four legs, two heads, and two sets of genitals, and so every human being lacked nothing, and longed for nothing, and the body was in perfect communication with itself. For Allix, then, to be male and female at once is to have it all, and it appears that, at least in snails, this perfection is distilled into the sexual fluids, so that, once exchanged, each hermaphroditic snail now shares in the other’s being completely.

But let us return to the mechanics. A pair of snails—which have previously sympathized with one another and which, therefore, remain in perfect and instantaneous contact—are placed in two separate boxes. When one of the snails is manipulated, it triggers an “escargotic commotion” that causes its partner to move. By having numerous such pairs—each representing a single letter of the French alphabet—divided between corresponding troughs in the two boxes, successive manipulations of particular snails in one box would transmit words that could be read through the motions of the sympathetic snails in the other box.

Allix promises that, with this device, “all men will be able to correspond instantaneously with one another, at whatsoever distance they are placed, man to man, or several men simultaneously, at every corner of the world, and this without recourse to the conductive wires of electrical communication, but with the sole aid of what is basically a portable machine.” The machine will serve as the basis of a global system of instant wireless communication: an Internet of snails.

Before the public appearance related in the article, our salesman and future communard had been in hiding following the 1848 “June Days,” a popular revolt in Paris in response to the closing of the National Workshops that had been set up, after the revolution of February of the same year, to provide training for the jobless.2 He would be arrested one year later in connection with another uprising, and soon after would find his way into the company of the occultist and charlatan Jacques Toussaint Benoît, who had been cooking up a plan to gain sponsorship for the above-described snail compass from the investor Hippolyte Triat, born Antoine Hypolitte Trilhac, who had for his part recently founded the first modern athletic gymnasium in Paris.

On 2 October 1850, the experiment described by Allix in his article for La Presse was carried out in Benoît’s Paris apartment. Messieurs Benoît, Allix, and Triat were all present. And, if Allix’s account is to be believed, Biat was there as well—at least in a modality that would later come to be known as “teleconferencing”—participating from an undisclosed location in America.

Allix was far more impressed than Triat. The prospective investor had been installed with one of the two boxes behind a curtain, with Allix and his own box on the other side, while Benoît set himself up between them to observe. It is not clear exactly what happened, but it appears that Benoît found a constant supply of pretexts for walking back and forth between the two men on either side of the curtain, influencing Triat’s actions and gleaning hints and signs in a less than rigorously scientific way. If we believe a possibly embellished account by the nineteenth-century Englishman Sabine Baring-Gould, Triat was indignant, and insisted that the experiment be tried out again.3 Benoît agreed, only to disappear into the night before Triat could have the satisfaction of exposing this dastardly fraud. And a few years later Allix was to become a footnote to the biography of Victor Hugo, when, hiding from the authorities on the island of Jersey, he once again attempted to communicate by means of escargotic force, to the great amusement of the participants in the French author’s “talking table” séances.4

Allix had taken on the task of drumming up public support, and the La Presse article, written before Benoît’s disappearance, was a dazzling display of salesmanship, erudition, and gumption. Perhaps most remarkable of all, in our present age of shrinking machines, is his promise that although Benoît’s first models were more than two meters high, eventually the public could expect to enjoy more convenient models, transformed into stylish furniture or even jewelry made of wood or metal or any material one might wish. They would be found everywhere, from government offices to ladies’ dressers and even their watch chains. The original iteration had, according to Allix, been built to accommodate snails representing every letter or character of every known writing system in the world, while future streamlined models, made for the larger public, would conveniently contain only twenty-five troughs, one for each letter of the French alphabet. And as each trough could be filled by any species of gastropod whatsoever, and as there are many species that are very small indeed, no larger than the head of a pin, soon, Allix assures us, there would be pasilalinic sympathetic compasses no larger than pocket watches. Ordinary men and women would carry them along as they went about their daily errands, from time to time sending off quick escargotic missives—texts, if you will—to their friends and loved ones down the street and around the world.

Allix promises that by means of the compass there will soon be “electrical newspapers, electrical mail,” spreading across the entire world, as if by magic, at a minimal cost. Beyond just a “national press,” one in which the news will be published in regional towns at the same hour as in Paris, readers will also be able to browse “the English press, the German press, and that of all the countries of the world.” It is not entirely clear how all this—what we today would call electronic communication—would work technically: if there can only be communication between snails that have previously copulated, it would not seem possible for information to be broadly disseminated, unless perhaps there were special “server” snails that had copulated with many others. But let us not get hung up on details.

The activity of government, too, was to be transmitted via the compass, and the walls of the parliament buildings “turned inside out” as invisible, dematerialized orators were “infinitely multiplied before an innumerably large audience,” their words circulating “as rapidly as thought to all points in the world, thanks to the mysterious agent of the invisible sympathetic fluid, bringing with them not only the passion that drives the orator, but also the beating of his heart and the least vibrations of his soul!”

Allix quickly reels himself back in, wipes the sweat from his brow, reassumes his scientific composure: “I must remember,” he says, “that I am not to give in to enthusiasm.”

* * *

I am not interested in Jules Allix’s snails for their own sake, but as a chapter—not the first—in a very, very long history. This is what we might call the deep history of the Internet. Significantly, it is also the history of biology: of thinking about what it is in living beings that sets them apart, and of trying to harness whatever this is for feats we seem to have always known to be possible.

Montpellier, 1657. The eclectic English philosopher Kenelm Digby, combining elements of Aristotelianism with the new mechanical physics, gives a presentation to the assembled learned men in the provincial capital of the département where Benoît will be born some years later. The subject is the controversial “weapon salve,” where an injury is treated by application of a “powder of sympathy” not to the injured person’s body but, at a distance, to the weapon that had injured him.5 This sort of sympathetic effect would be denounced by the strictest mechanical philosophers as an “occult force,” a violation of the law that says there is nothing in the world but atoms or corpuscles bouncing around like so many billiard balls, but Digby insists that the causal bond between the weapon and the wound could be explained by the rapid motion of invisible particles between the weapon and the body, thus “naturally, and without any Magick, cur[ing] wounds without touching them.”6

Applications in the domain of telecommunication were soon tried out. An anonymous 1688 pamphlet proposes to solve the problem of establishing longitude while at sea by sending a dog that had been wounded with a knife in London aboard a ship traversing the ocean. The knife would stay in London, and each day at noon, salt would be poured on it, causing the dog to yelp in pain, it was hoped, and thus telling the voyagers the exact time back home.7 In the nineteenth century, for example in the imposture of Allix and Benoît, such action at a distance was typically accounted for in terms of electricity and magnetism, rather than in the preferred early modern language of bare particles in motion. But both Digby’s weapon salve and the later escargotic contraption involve speculation about some peculiar features of the ambient medium that facilitate such remarkable actions at a distance; and both, too, involve sentient animals not only as their test subjects, but also as the furnishers of the properties and powers that make the telecommunication possible.

Before there was a distinct science of biology, the study of living beings was the core element of the foundational science of nature. The cosmos as a whole was modeled after the living animal body, and the problems of physics seemed to have their resolution in the study of physiology, rather than the reverse, a twist that still leaves its trace in the overlapping morphemes in the names of these two sciences.

Thus we may go back further still, long before Digby, to the world soul of the Stoics, and to the giant animal that is the world, and which the world soul quickens. For Zeno of Citium and his student Cleanthes in the third century BCE, God seemed to be a sort of fire pervading the universe. Later Stoics, notably the second-century BCE philosopher Chrysippus, will identify the human soul as pneuma, a rarefied spirit that enlivens the body in the same way that God does the world as a whole. Typically, soul is conceived as some sort of breath, or flame, or a combination of the two, and there is a perfect correspondence between the human ensoulment of the body and God’s of the world. For Cleanthes, as reported by Cicero, the soul is “made of fire” but at the same time it is “nourished by the moistures of the Ocean because no fire could continue to exist without sustenance of some sort.” It is therefore not like the ordinary fire that consumes all things and then burns out, but is rather “vital and wholesome.” It “preserves, nourishes, maintains and bestows sensation on everything,” like the sun itself.8 If the world is not already a great sensorium, then we will make it into one, for we cannot think of the world except on the model of our own living bodies, in which signals shoot like lightning from one end to the other, in which, as the Hippocratics said, “all things conspire” [sympnoia panta].

What is the nature of this conspiration? Is human symbolic exchange in continuity with it, or rather a rupture from it? Having created the Internet from scratch, do we now pridefully project our own humble contraption far beyond its limited domain in order to make sense of nature as a whole, just as, some centuries ago, advances in the science and art of chronometry had all the philosophers declaring that the world is a great clockwork? Or is the Internet an outgrowth of what is already there?

In a recent, breathtakingly original work, the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn has argued that we may grasp “how forests think” if we abandon the idea that all thinking must take place by minds entertaining symbolically communicated abstract concepts.9 For Kohn, following a largely underappreciated strand of C. S. Peirce’s semiotics, representational signs are only one kind of sign, existing within vast systems of non-representational semiotic exchange, as when a vine snaps, and causes a monkey to grasp at another. Wherever there is such a system of signs, there is thinking, though not human thinking, and we must in turn understand this non-human thinking, which taken as a whole we may call “nature,” as the antecedent and substratum of what human beings do when they, for their part, think. Thinking, or systems that involve thinking, thus mark no rupture with the natural world, but rather are better seen as an excrescence or outgrowth of it.

Kohn’s theory helps us to make literal sense of much of the way people speak—in the popular science press, for example—which would otherwise be bracketed as mere loose metaphor. We are now being told, to cite one recent study that was widely reported on, that there are fungal networks beneath the forests, a “wood-wide web” that enables conspecific plants to share information, to deliver chemical packets of nutrients, and to block, with toxins, the interests of competitor species trying to move into their niche.10 Here, as with reports by sociobiologists of rape among ducks or political hierarchies among ants, the accusation of runaway analogizing cannot be decisively refuted: from the simple fact that there is an analogous process in non-human nature, we may not conclude that a human endeavor has a true counterpart among the animals and plants. And yet: my surge of joy when a tweet of mine is favorited is, in the end, a chemical process too, just like the organic chemistry underlying plant growth and life. And the joy is experienced as a sense of community, of belonging to something I cannot see, and that loves me. Is there some dim joy when a nutrient packet comes across the woods to the roots of a lonely plant?

I am trying to work toward a position where it does not seem absurd to suggest that the Internet might best be investigated as a branch of natural history, and that like other questions in natural history, the question as to its nature might best be answered genealogically. What is that human experience out of which there emerges some new technologically mediated way of doing things? In the case of cinema, we are fairly familiar by now with the analysis of this new art form into its constitutive ancestral lineages: the realist novel, certain schools of European painting, the shadow theater. And what is it that we are doing when we shoot guns? We are enabling our hands to be what we had always wanted them to be: perfect organs of killing, senders of more deadly projectiles. And what is this thing we call “transportation”? Just look back at Samuel Pepys, that vanguard of modern everydayness, who hops on and off boats to cross the Thames, to make it from one appointment to the next. “So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and through bridge.”11 Pepys is a harbinger of the world to come, a modern man, taking public transit before it exists in any real sense. The Tube will grow out of him, out of his desires and motions.

In all of these cases—cinema, guns, transportation—it may seem that we are looking at relatively recent, compressed, and familiar instances in the history of technology: slightly earlier chapters of it, perhaps, but nonetheless ones safely on the human and social side of the boundary that marks this realm off from nature, and so from the study of natural history. Yet behind or beneath cinema, guns, and transportation, there are human minds imagining stories, human hands thrusting, human feet walking: these are the true antecedents to the history of technology, and they are indeed continuous with what we observe throughout the natural world. To cite another example, the anthropologist Tim Ingold has deftly exposed the facile character of the distinction we generally wish to make between the naturalness of walking and the artificiality of riding a bicycle. As Ingold explains, “If walking is innate in the sense—and only in the sense—that given certain conditions, it is bound to emerge in the course of development, then the same applies to cycling. And if cycling is acquired in the sense that its emergence depends on a process of learning that is embedded in contexts of social interaction, then the same applies to walking. … Both walking and cycling are skills that emerge in the relational contexts of the child’s involvement in its surroundings, and are therefore properties of the developmental system constituted by these relations.”12 Ingold concludes that walking and cycling are both thus situated “within the same overall process of evolution—an evolution, that is, of the developmental systems which underwrite these capacities.”13 And again, the same may be said of listening to stories and watching movies, or of punching and shooting, or of walking and riding the subway: in each pair of cases, we are looking at a product of natural evolution and a behavioral disposition exemplified in a certain cultural context, and yet, in each pair, we are looking at what is in a certain sense the same sort of thing. The separation between the study of culture and natural history is, in the end, arbitrary and unfounded.

But let us return to the Internet. One of the most evident genetic strands in its prehistory is, of course, the book. Today, the Internet is in fact doing what the most grandiose claims about the book maintained that that humble object could do: duplicating the world, providing a perfect reflection of the order of nature (which properly understood was itself a book). In this respect, the Internet is not really a machine or engine at all, even if things that clearly are engines contribute to its genealogy. It is not like those things that transform nature by hydraulics and pyrotechnics and so on. Its history may be traced back in part to Agostino Ramelli’s book wheel, one of the “diverse and artifactitious machines” described in a curious work of 1588, but in order to understand its power, destructive and otherwise, one would be mistaken in concentrating on the mechanics of it.14 Unlike the case of the clock in early modern Europe, to conceive of the world as an Internet is not to get overexcited about one of our newest contraptions, for the Internet is not really a contraption at all. One would do better to trace it back far further, to Holy Scripture, to runes and oracle bones, to the discovery of the possibility of reproducing the world through the manipulation of signs.

This discovery was never exclusively, or even principally, experienced as facilitating the communication of practical information between human beings. Communication is far stranger than, say, transportation. The latter offers no action at a distance, no mysterious conjuring of mental images, memories, emotions, by sounds or signs. Even when we understand the technology behind communication, we feel as if there is something left over, which the technological explanation must necessarily leave out. That is why it was simultaneously experienced as a tapping into, a penetration of, the divine intelligence that pervades all of the natural order. Symbolic communication—first ephemeral speech, but then, later, communication across distances by means of more or less permanent signs—was never simply human, but was also always taken to be a divine or quasi-divine medium quickening and connecting all of nature. Thus so much of the writing in the Hindu temples of medieval southeast Asia is placed on top of structures, facing upward toward the sky, where no human being might read it. Thus the scrawled prayers inserted into the Wailing Wall. And thus do we draw out fragments of our inner lives, slivers of monuments of who we take ourselves to be, and write them and post them, without knowing for whom, or to what end. We send them out into the cosmos. And thus, too, one of the first transmissions exchanged at the demonstration: after Allix spelled out the word gymnase in honor of Triat’s most recent venture, he received the phrase lumière divine in return. All theories of the all-pervading medium—the ether, pneuma, spiritus mundi—are in the end variations or analogies drawn from the observation of light, which is not itself fully divine but radiates out from something that is, and elevates everything it touches or transpierces. Christians conceive this principle, variously, as Logos, or the Word, of which Christ himself, God made flesh, is a personification.

The clock, it is sometimes said, did not measure something that was already there; it was an instrument that itself produced hours and minutes and seconds. The clock gave us time as a collection of discrete temporal quanta. The Internet has been more like the aqueduct: it did not invent what flows through it, but only channeled it. What flows through it is human desire, and human aggression, which are in turn only our microcosmic expression of the general laws that govern all of nature: “All things proceed through love and strife,” as Heraclitus had it. Love, or its close cousin desire, may well have been the principal motor of all advances in communication technology in the modern era. Thus, Patchen Barss discerns the pornographic origins of new media since the rise of the printing press, but most intensively since the beginnings of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, when the first erotic photographs began to circulate. Barss argues that new communication technologies typically pass through their “pornographic years” until “other, slower-developing non-sexual applications could gain a popular foothold.”15

The Internet is also in large part a technological by-product of postwar military research: the “strife” part of Heraclitus’s formula. But it enters civilian households through love. It is not just that pornography is the primary application people seek out once the technology is already there, but rather that the pornographic desire itself generates the technology, realizes the contraptions that human fantasy has always imagined for itself. And now war and masturbation are facilitated by one and the same machine. Drones drop bombs, and monitors attest that somewhere these bombs subtract the lives of goats and humans. Meanwhile a webcam reveals that what is called a “creampie” is somewhere else overflowing all natural concavities. The Internet is coursing with animal spirits, hungry and enraged, a perfect mirror of the world itself. The world is an animal; the Internet, which has always existed as conceptual possibility, as human destiny, as desire, as fungus, as escargotic commotion, as life, is the animal’s embodied soul.

  1. The text, dated 17 October 1850, was published anonymously in La Presse, in two parts, on 25 and 26 October 1850, under the title “Communication universelle et instantanée de la pensée, à quelque distance que ce soit, à l’aide d’un appareil portatif appelé Boussole pasilalinique sympathique.” Digitized copies of the two parts of the article are available through the Bibliothèque nationale de France at gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k475317s; and gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k4753185.
  2. The secondary literature on Allix is limited, but a biography may be pieced together from various sources, notably Jules Clère, Les hommes de la Commune, 5th ed. (Paris: E. Dentu, 1872); Charles Chincholle, Les survivants de la Commune (Paris: L. Boulanger, 1885); and Thomas Bouchet, “Allix, Jules,” in Dictionnaire biographique du fouriérisme, available at charlesfourier.fr/spip.php?article421.
  3. See Sabine Baring-Gould, Historic Oddities and Strange Events (London: Methuen & Company, 1889), p. 197.
  4. See Gustave Simon, Chez Victor Hugo: Procès-verbaux des tables tournantes de Jersey (Paris: Louis Conard, 1923), particularly the séance of 3 September 1854.
  5. Kenelm Digby, A Late Discourse Made in Solemn Assembly of Nobles and Learned Men at Montpellier in France, by Sir Kenelm Digby, Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy (London: Lowdes, 1658).
  6. Kenelm Digby, A Late Discourse, p. 3.
  7. See Curious Enquiries (London: Randal Taylor, 1688). It is generally believed that this pamphlet was strictly satirical, and reflected no real plan, intended or executed, for the measurement of longitude.
  8. See Hans Friedrich August von Arnim, ed., Stoicorum veterum fragmenta, vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1964), p. 504.
  9. Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
  10. See Nic Fleming, “Plants Talk to Each Other Using an Internet of Fungus,” BBC, 11 November 2014. Available at bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet. The term “wood-wide web” has in fact been in use since late in the last century. See Thorunn Helgason et al., “Ploughing Up the Wood-Wide Web?” Nature, vol. 394, no. 431 (30 July 1998).
  11. See entry for 2 September 1666 in Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys (London: Macmillan, 1905), p. 412.
  12. Tim Ingold, “‘People Like Us’: The Concept of the Anatomically Modern Human,” in Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 375.
  13. Tim Ingold, “‘People Like Us,’” p. 376.
  14. See Agostino Ramelli, Le diverse et artificiose machine (Paris: n.p., 1588).
  15. Patchen Barss, The Erotic Engine: How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication, from Gutenberg to Google (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2010), p. 3.

Justin E. H. Smith writes from Paris. His next book, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, will be published by Princeton University Press in spring 2016.

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