World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (Franklin Foer)

Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is an excellent book.  It identifies important problems, ties the problems to their historical precedents, and suggests some reasonable solutions.  The book is not complete, or perfect, but in the emerging literature of why and how to curb the power of giant technology companies, this book is a useful introduction, although there is a long way to go from here to there.

Foer is primarily known as having been editor of The New Republic, for several years during the modern era, ending in 2014.  Editors come and go, of course, but at the time his dismissal by a new owner felt like a watershed event among the chattering classes in America.  This was because the new owner was Chris Hughes—a man of distinctly modest talent and even more modest accomplishments, who became filthy rich by the happenstance of being Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard.  Hughes, after a brief period of operating The New Republic in close cooperation with Foer, using traditional (i.e., money-losing) journalism, hired some eighth-rate web traffic geek to turn the magazine into clickbait.  In that environment, of course, Foer was of no use, so Hughes fired him in the boorish and incompetent manner typical of nouveau riche men of his generation and class.  (Hughes no longer owns the magazine, having failed even at operating a clickbait site, and has since moved on to other failures.)

In part, as he admits, Foer wrote his book in response to these events.  But this is not a revenge job; it’s just that the story of The New Republic’s travails is illuminating to Foer’s points.  Those points are clearly and well made.  Yes, Foer seems to think that most history began in the 1960s, with perhaps a few events from the 1700s onward being mildly relevant.  But that is an occupational hazard for the educated members of Generation X, and, after all, most of the relevant history to this book began in the 1990s, so if you must have a narrow historical vision, it might as well be in a book about the evils of modern technology firms.

Foer begins with a Prologue, which in many ways is the most intriguing part of the book.  Here Foer introduces a key historical parallel for the book, 1950s and 1960s food re-engineering creating the dominance of processed food and frozen dinners.  He analogizes that change to the emergent dominance of the technology companies (by which he means “GAFA”—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon).  As far as food goes, we were promised “convenience, efficiency, and abundance.”  We got it—and we also, without meaning to, hugely damaged “our waistline, longevity, soul, and planet.”  We were promised similar, but more utopian, benefits by the GAFA companies, some of which we got, along with a heaping of unexpected Bad Things.  This tension, between the promises of technology and its costs, is the backbone of Foer’s book.

Foer clearly has a philosophical objection to the arc of modern technology; there is much talk of Descartes, Leibniz, and so on.  But the book suffers a bit from being unable to decide if it wants to focus on philosophy or practicality.  In his Prologue, Foer lays out a philosophical framework, focusing on what I think is the critical point.  “More than any other previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolists aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it.”  Although he does not use these terms, Foer’s basic point throughout the book is that the GAFA companies and their masters deny the telos of man.  They refuse to acknowledge that man has an inherent nature or purpose.  Instead, they view humanity in purely instrumentalist terms, subject to unending manipulation—all for mankind’s own improvement, of course, as well as their profit.  Thus, while Silicon Valley is often viewed as libertarian, it is not—it is monopolist in economic intent and collectivist utopian in social intent, even if that utopia uses the superficial language of liberty.  Silicon Valley considers “the concentration of power in its companies . . . an urgent social good, the precursor to global harmony; a necessary condition for undoing the alienation of mankind.”  This utopia is a collectivist one, not one personal to the individual.  In fact, Foer even semi-lyrically complains (not citing Josef Pieper, though he should) that “The tech companies are destroying something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation.”  And, even if such a utopia may seem desirable, Foer think that utopia is not on its way.  Rather, we face enforced conformity, a total loss of privacy, the erosion of thoughtful self-government, and the hobbling of creative genius.  We’re becoming Spam—a mediocre, indistinguishable, controlled mass of meat contained in a metaphysical box.

Foer traces this desire by the masters of GAFA, for global harmony and the end of alienation, to the 1960s.  More precisely, to Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Catalog, and to other pop culture icons like Marshall McLuhan.  While I suppose this is true in part, it is a crimped vision.  Seeking, and believing you have found, the key to global harmony and the end of alienation has a vastly longer pedigree—through Marxism and its variants; through 19th Century German philosophy; and through much Enlightenment thought.  Of course, as Foer sometimes seems to hint, these latter day eschatons are mere secular versions of the ancient Judeo-Christian vision, and Facebook and Google merely offer different re-workings of the Serpent in the Garden, promising us that we will be as gods.  Stewart Brand and other hippies are, in truth, irrelevant carbuncles on the shoulders of giants.  But Foer’s basic point is true enough—this vision was influential in forming the vision of today’s tech leaders, and it is utopian in form and content.  Despite the libertarian stereotype, it is “the exact opposite of Ayn Rand’s vision of libertarianism; [it is] a hunger for cooperation, sharing, and a self-conscious awareness of our place in a larger system.”

World Without Mind then turns more practical.  It addresses each of the GAFA firms in turn, with a focus on the history of each as it relates to Foer’s themes.  None of these companies, of course, produce any relevant amount of knowledge.  They are instead gatekeepers and filters, offering efficiency to consumers in exchange for a piece of the action.  Foer does not object to the gatekeeper role, as such.  He is perfectly well aware that the mass of information that is the Internet cannot be directly addressed by any human and still be of any use.  He notes that in the past journalists (totally coincidentally, people just like him) were the honored gatekeepers of both information and its importance, as well as arbiters of much of culture.  His Golden Age is the time when the owners of the Washington Post honored objectivity, de-emphasized profitability, and regarded their news outlets as a public trust.  Foer is aware that this Golden Age was sometimes tarnished, although his examples tend to focus on the clichéd (they enabled Nixon!), not the real (conservatives have been suppressed for decades).  But again, his basic point, that the GAFA companies are more like Cerberus out for a snack than a paladin keeping barring enemies from the gate, is sound.

Foer starts with Google, noting that Google regards its actual mission as creating strong AI, followed by augmented humanity and a world where scarcity has been eliminated and all limits on man disappear.  I have long known this (it is not like Google keeps it a secret, though few seem to focus on it), but my reaction has always been that Google will ultimately collapse, since this is a stupid business model.  Any company that hires Ray Kurzweil to be a top executive is delusional and wasting the shareholders’ money—if the goal is to offer the shareholders money, which here it isn’t. As Foer says, Kurzweil’s “main business is prophecy.”  Prophecy does not pay the bills, or at least false prophecy doesn’t.  But Foer is correct, and my old reaction was wrong—the business model doesn’t require competition to survive if Google has carved out a niche of permanent dominance, by having such an amount of data that no competitor can even begin to think of competing, and if it has, it can do whatever it wants, whether it makes any business sense or not.  Next comes Facebook, whose goal is not the creation of non-human progress, but rather directly augmenting human social progress, by bringing people together, while at the same time telling them what thoughts are permitted to think, and increasingly manipulating them into what to think.  Facebook’s focus is algorithmic thinking to apply that data, to which outsiders are not privy, only the priests of Zuckerberg.  Finally, Amazon monopolizes power over authors (Foer mostly ignores Amazon’s non-book sales) and thereby erodes authorial incentive, thereby crushing genius.  Amazon crushes authorial genius in books; Google and Facebook do it in newspapers and periodicals; Apple erodes it in music (Apple gets the least direct abuse in this book, implicitly because it has the least power of the type Foer complains of).

But before we get to authorial incentive, we should treat Foer’s grander, if less visceral, practical objection to the behavior of the GAFA companies.  That is, why is any of this a problem?   It is because their power is destroying our ability to govern ourselves.  They are “knowledge monopolies,” a new variation on an old theme.  Foer’s other Golden Age is one, from roughly 1880 to 1980, when antitrust enforcement was much more aggressive than today.  He divides that into two time periods, though, only one of which he feels should be our new model.  In earlier years, monopoly was viewed, by men such as Louis Brandeis, through the Jeffersonian lens of an unhealthy concentration of power tending to the degradation of democracy through its corruption of the democratic process.  In later years, however, from roughly 1940 on, monopolies came to be viewed by enforcers only as a problem when they harmed consumers, by raising prices or reducing choice—that is, when they were inefficient.  The problem, though, is that today’s monopolies, at least on the surface, benefit consumers quite a bit.  They are extremely efficient in that sense.  Thus, when in the 1970s academics such as Robert Bork pushed to revise the law to, in effect, only recognize this latter theory, and this view became wholly dominant, the tools to attack monopoly as a broader menace to our society had disappeared.  Foer wants to restore those tools, for, as he says, “The Framers preferred liberty to efficiency,” because any monopoly is ultimately the enemy of liberty, especially a monopoly with power over knowledge and communication, which tends to create conformity, the bane of a free people.

As to authorial incentive, there is little doubt that the GAFA companies have reduced the power of, and payments to, authors, which must necessarily reduce incentive to create.  Foer sees keeping such payments high as a key pillar of our society.  To demonstrate this, he focuses on copyright.  He claims that “one of [government’s] primary economic responsibilities is preserving the value of knowledge.”  Although there is something to this, and Foer cites both the Constitution and the 1710 Statute of Anne, the progenitor of generally applicable copyright law, he reaches too far when he claims, in essence, that today’s copyright law is a critical element of our entire social system, and, by implication, if authors get paid less due to changing competition, it tears at the fabric of our society.  For one, we got by just fine when copyright lengths were far shorter (a maximum of 28 years until relatively recently—now it’s the entire life of the author plus 70 years!).  (It is both not true as a reason for the growth of copyright, and an anachronism as an argument, when, speaking of Wordsworth and early copyright, Foer says “Because poets were rarely appreciated in their own time, copyright protections needed to be lengthy—so that there was enough time for the public’s taste to catch up with genius.”)  For another, we got by just fine when there was no copyright at all, and when it was spotty in framework and enforcement.  Sure, there’s a good argument that more rigid copyright helps authorial creativity and production.  Yes, Larry Lessig makes far too broad claims, and yes, anyone who believes “information wants to be free” is an idiot.  Yes, the theory that crowdsourced authoring, such as Wikipedia, can compete in accuracy of content or style of delivery with professional, paid content has proven utterly false, as has the idea that crowdsourced anything offers a viable model to replace any paid model with something qualitatively better (other than, perhaps, reviews of consumer products and services).  But let’s not elevate any of this to a core principle of good government.  Moreover, Amazon is not Napster.  Foer’s objection is that Amazon devalues the traditional hierarchy of authors imposed by publishing houses, instead substituting the whims of the market, and also eroding the power of the publishing houses through its economic dominance.  All true, but this is not theft, and copyright law seems to be working as it’s supposed to for authors.  So, it’s probably inaccurate to call Amazon a “knowledge monopoly”—it is more of a monopsonist, one whose dominance over the buyer’s market, in this case as middleman, allows it to set prices.  “Monopoly” is a term better suited to Google and Facebook (although they too erode authorial incentive, as a side effort to controlling the flow of information).  This is a less sexy and less compelling claim, though, than that all four GAFA companies are a monolith placing dynamite at the foundation of society.

Regardless of which company should be focus, Foer offers a set of solutions to his two identified problems.  First, we should restore the old understanding of monopoly, and the federal government should take aggressive enforcement action.  Any firm that controls knowledge to a great degree, especially one that filters that knowledge in a non-neutral way, should be curbed or broken.  Second, and buttressing this effort, new regulations, under the aegis of a “Data Protection Authority,” should be created to sharply limit the collection and use of data by technology companies, including requiring automatic deletion of data except upon opt-in and “insist[ing] that they provide equal access to a multiplicity of sources and viewpoints.”  Third, we should all realize we need to pay, and we should go back to paying, for quality authorial work, rather than thinking content should be free, and thereby both undercutting authorship and allowing Google and Facebook to direct us, unknowingly, to content they select that we should be consciously choosing for ourselves.  Fourth, as with the way much of America has recoiled from processed food, factory farming and other perceived evils (even though that is often “really purchasing the sensation of virtue and rectitude”), we should seek to restore “cachet” to “books, essays, and journalism.”  In other words, we should be more highbrow.

I think, at a minimum in the abstract, all of these are good ideas.  I, at least, had already started subscribing to more and more periodicals, in paper form, and have abandoned my Kindle, as has Foer.  If I’ve done it, there must be something to it!  I think, though, that absolute neutrality for all non-obscene content should be required, not just offering “a multiplicity of sources and viewpoints,” which is just another word for picking and choosing what is permitted to think.  Any technology company that censors any non-obscene content for non-viewpoint neutral reasons should be subject to massive government fines and a private right of action with huge statutory monetary damages.  But these are details—the question now is, how can we get this party started?

Foer explicitly thinks that while these proposals seem unlikely to be accepted, that there will be some “catastrophe,” a “Big One,” where some mass exposure of private data will cause such damage to the average person that voters will demand something be done.  This is certainly possible (the recent Equifax hack tends in this direction, though it is far from catastrophic enough).  Foer says “The best analogy is the financial crisis of 2008.  There was nothing that the banks could do to gain political traction in the face of the catastrophe that they unleashed.”  Really?  In the world I live in, corrupt politicians cooperated with corrupt bankers to make sure banks were completely insulated from the effects of their actions, and exited the 2008 crisis in far better shape than before, having paid no price at all, and passed all the costs on to the average American.  It’s the latter, not banks, who lack “political traction.”  In fact, I am willing to bet most dictionaries today illustrate their entry for “political traction” with a line drawing of Jamie Dimon.  This weak analogy suggests the key flaw in Foer’s hope—catastrophes nowadays are used by the powerful to advance their own interests, not to make changes for the benefit of society as a whole.  In all likelihood, unfortunately, the same would happen in a catastrophic data breach.

Some argue that action is not necessary, only more competition over time.  Once Microsoft was dominant; now it is not (though it still dominates certain software markets).  Once buggy whips were sold all over America.  At some point in the near future, probably sooner rather than later, so the argument goes, the GAFA companies will also cede their dominance to new competition.  Foer disagrees—he thinks that the collection of data these companies have make them nearly impossible to dislodge from their position.  Another argument, made by Tim Wu in The Attention Merchants, is that it is primarily our job, not the government’s, to change things.  Foer certainly agrees with this in part, as shown by his strong advocacy of returning to paid content and his suggestion that readers, by their consumer choices, have the ability to reverse the monopolistic dominance of the GAFA companies.  That is, even aside from any government action, we have the power to redirect our attention.  A third argument, related to the second, is that the system we have is what the people want.  We get what we deserve, and just because it’s trashy and damaging doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it.  Foer, certainly, overstates the ability of the masses to appreciate high-level thought and culture.  They want Upworthy, not The New Yorker.  Foer ascribes the decline of mass appreciation for classical music to Baumol’s cost disease (where activities that have not increased in productivity over time, such as live music performances, become relatively more expensive).  That doesn’t even make any sense—live performances are not how classical music is consumed; excellent recordings have been ubiquitous for nearly a century.   The decline is much more likely because the coarse tastes of the common people have become economically, and therefore socially, dominant.  (For the record, I cannot myself appreciate classical music at all; it all sounds like elevator music to me.  I prefer EDM, thus exhibiting my own coarseness.)  While these arguments may have something to them, they do not contradict Foer’s core assertion that aggressive government control of knowledge monopolies, now, will benefit society.

There are several areas in this book, though, where an editor’s touch appears to be wholly missing.  The correct word is “palate,” not “pallet,” when talking about food tasting—the latter is a wooden frame used for storage and transport of goods.  Slightly wrong metaphors abound.  Thus, Chris Hughes is introduced as an archetype, a “mythical savior.”  But there is no such archetype—maybe “savior of myth,” but “savior” is not something generally associated with “myth,” unless you are Richard Dawkins.  Similarly, when describing volumes of press coverage of Donald Trump, Foer refers to “dunes of crap.”  But “dune” is not a metaphor for large amount or volume; it is a metaphor for shifting shape and movement.  Complete mis-uses of words are also common.  Graham Greene’s self-imposed requirement that he write a minimum of 500 words each day is not, as Foer says, a “ceiling”; it is a “floor.”  “Cull” is not a synonym for “diminish.”  “Coterie of corporations” incorrectly uses a word exclusively used for living creatures (even if Mitt Romney says corporations are people).  “Invisibilia” is either a mis-print, or, given the use of “agita” as the plural of “agitation,” an original attempt to reify and make plural an adjective.  “Wending” is not a synonym for “winding.”  “Militaristic” is not a synonym for “military.”  Finally, there are errors of knowledge.  “Standing athwart history” is not a term meaning “immature, hopeless and pointless cause”; as Foer seems unaware, that phrase was originated in 1955 by William F. Buckley, Jr., as a battle cry for modern conservatism, a very successful project, until recently, at least.  Nor it is true that “During the early Middle Ages, the book was quite literally a miracle.”  What does that even mean?  These seem like small things, and they are.  But in a book written by a professional editor, whose only claim to fame is as an editor, you expect perfection in editing.  Like Caesar’s wife, he should be beyond reproach.  Plus, of course, Foer’s entire point is to contrast inferior, Buzzfeed-type thought and writing with the refined, perfected thought and writing offered by his class, for which they should be paid handsomely—so any lack of perfection in his own writing seems fair grounds for criticism.

Anyway, these problems do not diminish the power of Foer’s book.  It is both telling and ironic that in his Acknowledgements, Foer thanks Anne-Marie Slaughter and the New America Foundation, for their “intellectual comradery.”  Comrades or not, since this book went to press, Slaughter and the NAF have been discovered to have been victims of Google’s evil.  Google is a major funder of NAF, to the tune of $21 million in recent years, which it funds for the simple purpose of generating propaganda for its own benefit.  Slaughter was discovered to have been forced to fire one of NAF’s employees, and disband his team, because he had pushed antitrust enforcement against Google and other tech companies.  Just as Amazon damaged The New Republic when Foer wrote a critical article about the company, Google threatened to punish NAF by withdrawing funding.  Slaughter’s unconvincing protestations to the contrary, this is exactly what happened, and it very much proves Foer’s basic point.  So I agree—GAFA must be destroyed.  Where do I sign up to get my pitchfork and torch?


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