World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech

  • By Franklin Foer
  • Penguin Press
  • 272 pp.

How companies undermine societal values and what we can do about it.

A recent survey revealed that wealthy technology entrepreneurs lean politically left, with one glaring exception: their views on regulation. Not exactly shocking news. Few business leaders in any sector are ardent fans of government regulation. But Franklin Foer’s thought-provoking and cogent book argues that lack of regulatory oversight has allowed tech companies to devalue knowledge and imperil our democracy.

World Without Mind focuses on Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon: the behemoths who control vast swaths of online — and, increasing, offline — life. After briefly tracing Silicon Valley’s cultural history, Foer devotes a chapter to each company, paying special attention to the worldviews of their founders, some of whom — like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos — are now among the wealthiest and most powerful individuals on the planet.

While neither the companies nor the worldviews are identical, these firms are united in that they have developed platforms that they want you, the consumer, to become addicted to. A platform, however, doesn’t amount to much unless it’s a platform for something: information, commerce, social interaction, whatever. And there’s the rub. These companies, according to Foer, don’t care a whit about that something beyond its use to them. But it’s the something, not the platform, that truly matters.

For example, in Facebook’s case, the something is your data, supplied largely by you, which it happily uses to sell ads and run experiments on with little concern for your privacy. Amazon’s something is retail goods, giving it tremendous leverage over companies whose stuff it sells. Amazon isn’t shy about taking advantage of this, leading to, among other consequences, the drastic alteration of the publishing industry.

Publishing is where Foer’s direct experience comes in. He was editor of the New Republic when it was purchased by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Foer’s firing a few years later led to a well-publicized mass resignation of TNR staff. He discusses this openly and dispassionately, then examines the impacts of technology platforms on journalism and the writing profession, with the operative word being profession. By unbundling and devaluing “content,” he claims, tech firms have de-professionalized writing.

He makes the interesting assertion that the old system of publishing gatekeepers (e.g., the big publishing houses, the Grahams at the Washington Post, etc.) was more democratic than the new one in which anyone can put their writing out there but virtually no one can make a living from it. This is at least partially a matter of perspective. The gatekeepers are still there, and Foer has spent his career as one of them. Aspiring writers out in the hinterlands may feel differently than he does.

But the claim is not entirely without merit, either. Technology will let writers bypass the gatekeepers, but there’s a cost in prestige and esteem, if not in money. Plus, just putting stuff out there doesn’t mean anyone will read it. Unless you’re famous or a marketing genius, the difference between self-publishing your novel and sticking it in a desk drawer can be negligible.

Most importantly, technology may have twisted decision-making about who gets through the gate (here I resist the urge to name a few overrated writers and cultural critics who appear wholly unworthy of their positions). At present, we may be saddled with the worst of both systems.

Content on technology platforms is subjected to two further indignities. First, algorithms help determine who sees it. While the word conjures images of logical and rigorous lines of code, algorithms are underlain by choices and values. Foer writes, “When we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.”

Second, each piece of content’s popularity becomes all-important. Thus, the oft-expressed desire to “go viral.” When clickbait wins, quality often loses…a possible consolation for those wondering about some of the writers getting through the gate these days.

Foer suggests — a theme I’m seeing with increasing frequency, and there’s something to it — that society has ceded to markets not just the assignment of monetary value (e.g., sure, the piece that gets the most eyeballs generates the most advertising revenue), but values writ large (that piece may not be “the best” in any other way). Markets are themselves a form of algorithm, and like computer algorithms, they reflect underlying values. But are these truly society’s values, especially when markets trend toward monopoly?

World Without Mind argues that we must actively fashion the internet we want instead of accepting, by default, what markets give us. The book calls for strengthening and updating intellectual property laws and stepping up antitrust and regulatory action: “The health of our democracy demands that we consider treating Facebook, Google, and Amazon with the same firm hand that led government to wage war on AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft.”

One alternative to powerful companies monopolizing the internet is exemplified by the history of truly democratic technological initiatives like Linux, Wikipedia, and the Creative Commons.

Foer reminds us (as if we needed reminding) that the Framers of the Constitution designed the U.S. system of government to be inefficient. They did so deliberately to favor liberty. He argues, “It’s not worth having free e-mail if the price is our privacy; next-day delivery is nice, but not if the consequence is a sole company dominating retail, setting the market price for goods and labor.” Convenience and efficiency versus privacy and liberty: In a nutshell, this is the values discussion around technology we’re not having.

It would take quite a shift to bring about the changes Foer advocates. He thinks it’s most likely to occur only after enormous and damaging hacks, the kind that disclose enough private information to wreck lives, or disrupt systems in ways that cause death and destruction.

In an environment where we are being governed by the Tweet, but can at least vent our outrage on, well, Twitter…I fear even this sad prediction may be overly optimistic.

Josh Trapani contributes regularly to the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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