“Our faith in technology is no longer fully consistent with our belief in liberty,” Franklin Foer warns in his provocative polemic, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. The book has its roots in the former New Republic editor’s bitter 2014 departure from that magazine after he clashed with its owner, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Foer saw firsthand how Facebook has bent journalism to its will, with serious writing struggling to compete against algorithm-pleasing clickbait. The experience led him to explore how Facebook and three other behemoths, Apple, Amazon, and Google, are reshaping our world in darker ways than most of us care to consider. The book, chilling yet entertaining, is above all a call to action. It’s not the job of the tech giants, the author writes, “to worry about their power. That anxiety falls to the rest of us, and we should be far clearer about the problem: Companies that are indifferent to democracy have acquired an outsized role in it.” I spoke to Foer by phone; the following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Barbara Spindel
The Barnes & Noble Review: You call for people to consider the consequences of the monopolistic tendencies of the big tech companies, but so many people love these companies for the convenience they bring to our lives. I don’t think early-twentieth-century Americans felt the same way about the industrial titans.
Franklin Foer: These devices are magic to us. It’s astonishing that before I finish this paragraph I could download almost any book to my phone and could call up any esoteric piece of information to my browser. On the one hand, these companies have the most immense cultural prestige — we tend to love them. On the other hand, there’s a confluence of many issues rushing to a head right now. We’re starting to deal with the prospect of a future where there are not so many jobs, thanks to robots. As parents, we have kids who reflect back to us our addiction to devices, and we have all sorts of worries about whether this is a healthy thing. Then we have the election of Donald Trump, which can be credited at least in small part to the proliferation of fake news and the destruction of old media. That’s led to unflattering attention being cast back on Facebook. We’re at a moment that’s ripe for a backlash.
BNR: Something like Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods makes some people take notice that this company is getting bigger and bigger. But then Amazon immediately lowers Whole Foods’ prices, so again, many consumers will be okay with that.
FF: I experience this in my own life. My beef with these companies is often in the realm of the abstract. I can think intellectually about the problems of Amazon’s gigantism, but when it comes to getting a replacement lunch box for my daughter the next day, I’m going to do it through Amazon because it’s so easy and so cheap. Consumers are going to keep going with the big guys because the big guys have a lot to commend themselves for, especially when it comes to price and efficiency. But price and efficiency aren’t the whole ball game. We’re also citizens and human beings, and we need to start worrying about that part of us, too.
BNR: The things you say we should worry about include the disappearance of privacy, the increase in conformity, the development of AI, the ease of spreading misinformation. What worries you most about the tech giants?
FF: All of my worries kind of get bracketed together, which is that we’re merging with machines. That’s not something new in human history — we’ve been merging with machines for a very long time — but we’re merging with machines that filter reality for us and filter information for us. It’s just so much power to invest in the hands of these corporations that are fundamentally unaccountable. I feel like we’re making this big gamble about the future of humankind, that this merger with their machines is going to work out okay for us, without even pausing for a second to think about what we’re giving up.
BNR: Media companies are financially dependent on the tech companies, with depressing implications for the state of journalism. Can you describe your experience at the New Republic, which highlighted the perils of that relationship?
FF: When I was at the New Republic, we were owned by Chris Hughes, who was a co-founder of Facebook. At a certain point, he decided that we needed to increase our revenue pretty dramatically. There was no way to do that other than growing Web traffic, and there’s no way to grow Web traffic other than mastering Facebook. We were living this compressed version of recent media history, where in order to succeed we needed to do the things that Facebook rewarded, and so the values of Facebook ended up becoming the values of the New Republic. At first it happened in a really subtle way, but as we became more in tune with the data and what worked, it became fairly explicit in our internal discussions that we needed to repeat formulas that had worked before, we needed to embrace subjects that the herd mentality of social media was gravitating to. The question of dependence is really the crux of my book, what happens when you come to depend on a corporation.
BNR: Given that you were excited about Hughes initially, this great benefactor, what could have been an alternate path that you and he could have taken together for the New Republic? Or was it doomed from the start?
FF: I think we could have taken a different path where we were more modest in our expectations. If we kept our expenses on the relatively low side, if we tried to focus on doing a limited number of things well, I think that it was possible for us to have made very plausible incremental progress.
BNR: I guess that’s just not so sexy, right?
FF: “Plausible incremental progress” is the sexiest term in the English lexicon! What are you talking about?
BNR: As we’ve touched on, the relationship between journalism and technology played a part in the election. I laughed a rueful laugh at your line that “Trump began as Cecil the Lion, and then ended up president of the United States.” Can you elaborate?
FF: Cecil the Lion was this celebrity lion who had been killed by a hunter from Minnesota who posted a picture of himself lording over one of his kills on the Internet. This became a story that the Internet glommed on to. There were ultimately 3.2 million stories written about Cecil the Lion, and everybody tried to get in on the act. I felt like Donald Trump, and not just the orange mane that leads one to think about a lion, he too was a character that the media glommed on to because he was traffic gold, he was ratings gold. You had Donald Trump, you knew that people would click. So I think that the media was fairly irresponsible in giving Trump more airtime than he deserved.
BNR: You write that “like Donald Trump, Silicon Valley is part of the great American tradition of sham populism.” What are the similarities?
FF: These guys in Silicon Valley claim that they’re anti-elitist, that they’re liberating the soapbox from these coastal media elites and they’re giving it to individuals. That’s just a lie. Of course, it’s true that if you’re an individual you can post things on Facebook, but these companies are the most imposing gatekeepers in human history. The fact that their gatekeeping is often invisible or difficult to discern only enhances their power. At a certain point we have to call these guys out when they claim to be on the side of the powerless against the powerful because they are the powerful.
BNR: They’re on to something with elitism being unpopular; it’s become a slur. But you talk admirably about an old idea of gatekeeping and the difference between gatekeepers of the past and the way the tech companies have assumed that role today without admitting they’re gatekeepers.
FF: It’s very un-American to say nice things about elites. Elites are often terrible. It’s not like we’ve ever had a perfect set of benevolent democratic elites ruling over our country. But the fact of the matter is that a representative system of democracy delegates power to elites. When it comes to information, we need to delegate power to elites, because you or I can’t sit and read everything that’s published or follow every news story or pretend to be expert on every little thing happening in the world. So if people are going to have that kind of power to make choices for the rest of us, we should hope at least that they have admirable values and that they have some sort of sense of their own power.
If you look at the old generations of newspaper publishers, they were imperfect people. They sucked up to power, they apologized for wars. We can’t say that they had a great record. But they also had a sense of just how much authority they wielded in a democracy, and so they set certain rules for themselves: about how reporting needs to try to be objective, about how there should be ombudsmen at newspapers and letters-to-the-editor pages, and they should publish corrections when they get things wrong. There was a sense of obligation to the public. When I look at Facebook or Google, they profess no obligation to the public; they claim that their algorithms are scientific and they’re just aggregating opinion, as if giving the world some distillation of what’s most popular is going to be the thing that’s going to be most useful to people. There’s an inherent problem: [if] Facebook takes responsibility for what they publish, which would be in keeping with this old tradition of elites, they would also expose the scope of their power. We would understand exactly why these organizations, why Facebook and Google, are so much bigger, so much more powerful than anything that’s come before. And if we had a realization of their power, then we would start to have a totally different conversation that would probably culminate in some form of government regulation.
BNR: These companies also don’t tolerate criticism very well. I half expected this book not to be on Amazon.
FF: It’s there — I’m monitoring that number very, very carefully. No, you’re right. They seem to be pretty thin-skinned. That’s a dangerous combination, to wield an immense amount of power and to be intolerant of critics.
BNR: Another analogy between Donald Trump and the tech companies.
FF: That’s true.
BNR: You call for more government regulation of the Internet and for more of us to pay for journalism. Do you feel optimistic on either of these fronts?
FF: It’s hard to feel optimistic about anything having to do with the American government at the present moment, but if you look into the future, I am optimistic that there will be some governmental solution to these problems. That’s the way it seems to always go with vast concentrations of wealth and power: we tolerate them for a period, and then once the costs of those monopolies become clear, we swing into action. Once we have a backlash against their power and we have more appreciation for the smaller players in the game, I think that part of that cultural backlash will lead us to be more open to paying for information in media again.
BNR: I’m assuming based on the way you talk in the book about the backlash against processed food that paying for journalism would be similar to the way many are willing to pay more for good food now. How did that connection first occur to you?
FF: At the New Republic, we were trying to produce Facebook-friendly content. My mind drew the analogy that we were producing processed journalism. We were producing fast-food journalism. It was stuff that was supposed to make you feel good in the moment, and then it would pass right through you or it would make you mentally fat. It would have been something like trying to take this hundred-year-old intellectually minded magazine and find some way to produce something about Super Bowl ads that would go viral where I said to myself, I’m becoming something that I don’t like.
BNR: You explore the intellectual history of Silicon Valley, from Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand to Alan Turing and others. How did that history help you frame what’s going on today?
FF: What’s so striking is that these companies are idealistic. I think they’re genuinely idealistic at the same time that they’re genuinely profit-seeking. One of the great confluences in the history of Silicon Valley is that the San Francisco mid-peninsula was the place that nurtured both the counterculture and technology. And so the values of the counterculture and the values of the tech industry rubbed up against one another. That seems to be the source of their idealism. If you go back to the ’60s and ‘70s, you can see that tech was trying to re-create the commune but on this much larger scale and through the personal computer and through the Internet. The problem is that all these beautiful poetical ideas morph into something different when they’re captured by big firms. And so ideas like the network and social media are theoretically beautiful but problematic when they become vehicles for the biggest, most monopolistic corporations in recent memory.
BNR: Facebook’s mission statement is still about building community and bringing the world together.
FF: And in some ways they are building community. In some ways they are bringing the world closer together. But there’s a dark side to that too, which is that by bringing people together they’re also homogenizing the world, they’re also creating a dangerous new form of conformism. They’re acquiring power that can be exploited to affect opinions on a mass scale at a very low cost, as the Russians demonstrated with their use of fake news.
BNR: You talk about these companies scrambling our intellectual habits. When my family travels, my husband and I look at actual maps, and our kids just want to get around with Google Maps. Do you worry about future generations who won’t even realize what’s been lost?
FF: I’m personally not so fusty about losing maps, for instance. There are probably some abstract dangers to Google directing us to places. But they’re so abstract that I don’t find that especially troubling. I’m charmed by your artisanal use of maps.
BNR: Well, what’s lost when kids don’t ever have to read a map? It’s a skill and it requires a certain kind of literacy.
FF: All right, let me work with you a little bit here on this. You’re convincing me. When you’re staring at your phone to navigate and being led places, you do become less aware of your environment and the journey becomes kind of automated. There is an aliveness that comes with having to puzzle out directions for yourself. And you have to ask other people for help, which creates opportunity for social connection. I remember being in Venice and always getting lost and having interactions with a local Venetian or a German tourist or whatever. I do think those incidental moments of social interaction are important to us as human beings. Can I drop the maps for a second?
FF: I worry that as we bury ourselves in machines and as we shop from our couches and we have all this abundance in our own homes, we cease to experience the world. My book is a defense of individualism and individuality, but a lot of what I worry about is lack of genuine social connection.
Photo of Franklin Foer by Evy Mages
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