Jon Gertner is the author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.”
Silicon Valley’s achievements are typically viewed through the lens of innovations that have transformed modern life. We can go back a few decades and look to Intel’s development of the integrated circuit, for instance, or Apple’s reimagining of the personal computer. More recent are planet-spanning websites, such as Facebook; search engines that resemble magic mirrors, such as Google’s; and bazaars without end, such as Amazon’s. Many of us over 35 see this as a mixed blessing, of course: Access to wondrous technological tools has also brought us too much email, too many distractions and too much vulnerability — hackings, trollings, stalkings and worse. But what if the trade-offs are much larger than we realized? In the midst of our digital lives, Franklin Foer argues, doesn’t it seem possible that Silicon Valley’s darkest, stealthiest triumph has been to merge personal technologies that improve our efficiency with personal technologies that alter our humanity?
On a basic level, Foer’s book aims to expose the dangers that four technology giants — Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon — pose to our culture and careers. In their methods of consumer observation and data gathering, and in their intention to replace human decision-making with merciless algorithms, these companies, Foer says, “are shredding the principles that protect individuality.”
It’s even worse than that, actually. Bent on dominating our markets as well as the world, the four corporations have lulled us into a sense of pliant dependency as they influence our thinking and activities. Far more powerful than the elite “gatekeeping” institutions of the past — the major television networks, for example, or the leading newspapers — this fearsome four, as Foer characterizes them, are the new arbiters of media, economy, politics and the arts. By making their services cheap and indispensable, and by tailoring their complex algorithms to our data profiles, they can gently push us toward products they want us to buy or, say, YouTube videos they want us to watch. Yet the methods by which we get such recommendations — for news, consumer goods, movies, music, friends and the like — remain opaque. Facebook’s acceptance of thousands of Russian ads during the recent election may be a case in point. As Foer reminds us, through an algorithmic dispersal of misinformation, the social-media giant possibly helped elect to the presidency of the United States a frequently bankrupt real estate developer without any political experience whatsoever.
The heart of the problem, as Foer sees it, “is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.” It’s an important distinction. Foer isn’t an anti-technology zealot; he cops to being a Twitter addict and an enthusiastic user of screens and smartphones, even as he admits that his favorite indulgence is reading a book in his bathtub at home. What he most wants us to see, though, is how the companies that dominate the world’s technology ecosystem have assumed the roles of monopolists, even if by an economist’s definition they more closely resemble oligopolies, which is to say they are immensely powerful within certain markets (Web search, for instance, or social media) where there is limited competition.
I don’t think he’s exaggerating the point. As the investors Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen make clear, in the tech business, monopoly is not a forbidden zone but a desired destination. And as Foer notes, Andreessen has even argued that it may be the natural order of things — that while normal markets might have a Coke and a Pepsi competing against each other, “in technology markets in the long run you tend to only have one.”
Monopolies or quasi-monopolies that seem to be exploiting consumers — Western Electric, AT&T, IBM, Microsoft — have of course long been targets for government scrutiny. But Foer thinks advanced technologies may be creating a more dangerous situation than what we’ve experienced in the past. The tech companies’ wealth, market share, ingenuity and growing power on Capitol Hill make them increasingly formidable. As Foer frequently points out, “We have begun to outsource our intellectual work to companies that suggest what we should learn, the topics we should consider.” But by carving out for themselves immense networks of influence and intelligence, these companies, he argues, have also developed what may prove to be unassailable advantages. They know our preferences better than their upstart competitors ever could, so the more they win, the more they win. And the longer this goes on, Foer fears, the worse it will get.
The first half of Foer’s book is a takedown of what he terms the “sham populism” of the big tech companies. While he often seems less critical of Apple, he is scathing on the ambitions of Google’s Larry Page, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos. About halfway through his book, though, Foer moves his argument in a more personal direction — toward his experiences as an editor at the New Republic magazine, where he was vanquished by a data-driven owner who bought the magazine with wealth gained from his Facebook stock. Foer’s overly sentimental attachment to TNR narrows the shock-and-awe attack he began waging at his book’s start. But it does allow him to illustrate the difficulties of trying to run a struggling cultural institution in the digital age, and it gives him insight into how the Web environment created by the technology behemoths exerts pressure on magazines and newspapers to make knowledge free online, often with diminishing returns to the content producers.
Also, it leads him eventually — and persuasively, I thought — toward some prescriptions for lessening the dangers he perceives. For one thing, he asserts that we need to permanently reject the notion that knowledge should be free and that digital media shouldn’t charge users. For another, we need the hand of government to intervene in a variety of novel ways. One place to start would be to give citizens a measure of control over information that technology companies collect. “What we need,” Foer writes, “is a Data Protection Authority to protect privacy as the government protects the environment.” He posits that this idea would let Americans purge their data that sits on company servers while also having the choice to opt out of surveillance.
By the end, one can’t help but see “World Without Mind” as a polemic. And it happens to come in the wake of other powerful technology critiques — by Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr, for instance, who covered related ground in their own superb books. But Foer’s writing is deft enough to make this a polemic in the best sense of the word, which is to say a relentless intellectual argument, executed in the tradition of George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, which often eschews nuance in favor of wit and aggression. To be sure, he pens at least a few dubious, attention-grabbing sentences of caricature and fear-mongering. (For instance, he warns us that Google intends “to impose its values and theological convictions on the world.”) And I would presume that Foer does not actually think he, or anyone else, can stop the march of technological progress, even if he sometimes comes off that way. His essential point seems that at the very least we should pause and consider acting, on both a public and a personal level, before we find that we’ve lost more of what makes us human — our individuality, agency and spontaneity — than we ever bargained for. And before we discover that the creative industries that support our culture have been so eroded by lower wages and machine learning that they are in danger of infrastructural collapse.
We might ask if this is an unwinnable battle. We love technology; we need technology. And in an era when regulation has increasingly fallen out of favor, the likelihood in the near future of a tight yoking of big tech (or a wholesale revamping of our government’s anti-trust policies) seems unlikely. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe, judging by the growth trajectory and ravenous appetites of the tech giants, that their day of reckoning will eventually come, just as it came for monopolies such as Western Union and AT&T.
Until then, Foer suggests that a number of refusenik decisions — reading a book on paper, say, rather than in an electronic format, which allows for the collection of information on our reading habits — are a good place to draw the line. Now, isn’t that silly and small bore? At first I thought so, but then his modest argument struck me as having both symbolic and practical import. It’s a starter kit for thinking deeper. Even if innovations in personal technology can’t be stopped, their true value should always be questioned. And embracing some technologies while rejecting others is not an instance of hypocrisy. As Foer reminds us, the stakes are high, the marketing pitch is deafening, and saying no to big tech — at least sometimes — is an increasingly crucial matter of personal choice and civic responsibility.
World Without Mind
The Existential Threat of Big Tech
By Franklin Foer
Penguin Press. 257 pp. $27