World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer, Jonathan Cape, 272 pp, ISBN: 978-1787330283
The tech titans of Silicon Valley, who have long considered themselves immune from the travails of ordinary mortals, are coming under increasing pressure. Even that doughty defender of muscular free-market capitalism The Economist ran critical articles last year under headings like “Big Tech: Big Trouble” and “Global Tech-Lash”, while earlier this year it devoted its cover story to a critical review of their growing dominance under the heading; “The New Titans and How to Tame Them”.
Not only are the tech giants being blamed for Brexit and Trump, they have also been accused of being responsible for what is seen as the narcissistic, self-entitled, disengaged behaviour of the millennial generation. The backlash against Silicon Valley has resulted in a flood of critical books, but Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, is one of the most trenchant because of its sustained attempt to shed some light on the distinctive culture of the digital revolution. Foer has “previous”: he was editor of New Republic, a hundred-year-old liberal American current affairs magazine, from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2014. During his first term, circulation declined sharply, as it did in many other print publications, under the weight of the digital onslaught, contributing to his departure. But a white knight, Chris Hughes, one of the original Facebook shareholders, bought the magazine in 2014, Foer was reinstalled and proceeded to invest Hughes’s ample fortune by hiring heavyweight journalists. The quality improved but circulation didn’t.
Hughes became impatient and couldn’t resist reverting to Silicon Valley type, so he hired data specialists who could craft pieces of journalism that would attract maximum audiences. Foer was forced into accepting the inevitable “snackable content”, charts, lists and quick items that appeal to the “bored at work” audience. Then he resigned and this book is his revenge. In it he takes us on an exhilarating journey through time between seventeenth century Europe in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War, hippy-dippy California in the “Summer of Love” and twenty-first century Silicon Valley, where the new tech elite are latterly devoting their unlimited resources and brainpower to “defeat death”. Along the way we are given valuable insights into the operations of some of the main players, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google). But more intriguingly we are introduced to three people ‑ Gottfried Leibniz, Stewart Brand and Louis Brandeis ‑ who Foer believes can throw some light on the thinking behind the digital age.
At the heart of Foer’s analysis is the engineering culture that pervades the digital revolution and which supplies its greatest strength; a profession devoted to systems and planning with a relentless focus on rational outcomes, and its greatest weakness, a lack of interest in or regard for the resulting societal outcomes. This thinking is traced back to the seventeenth century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, whom Foer refers to as the prophet of the digital age. His critical insight was mechanical thinking; the atomisation of reason which is at the heart of the engineering mindset. The assumption is that you can take any system that’s out there and make it much better. The procedures that enable that thinking are algorithms; a series of precise steps that can be followed mindlessly. It is this culture, now powerfully fuelled by big data and artificial intelligence, that leads to the Silicon Valley obsession with the transformative project that will create a new age, when AI becomes all-powerful, leading to massive advances in robotics, nanotechnology and genetics which will finally allow us “to shed our limited and frail bodies ‑ to fully merge with machines”. Google co-founder Larry Page “aspires to create a superior species that transcends our natural form”. Leibniz lived in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War and was driven by a desire to unify humanity by bringing Catholics and Protestants together; Zuckerberg’s oft-repeated goal is the unifying of humanity through Facebook’s global community.
This leads to the second characteristic of the revolution, the concept of “wholeness”. Google famously wants to make the entire world’s information accessible to everyone, Facebook wants all of humanity to be members of its community and Amazon, which started off life as an online bookseller, now wants to sell everything to everyone. To help us understand the origin of this concept Foer enlists Stewart Brand, the now ninety-year-old legendary counter-cultural phenomenon of 1960s San Francisco. Brand was there in 1968 when Doug Eaglebart outlined to an astonished audience of computer scientists his vision of what we now know as the internet. In the same year, as a rock concert promoter, he was there when The Grateful Dead played to an audience of 10,000 hippies. He was a tech visionary who first put the words “personal” and “computer” together, but his greatest achievement was to launch the Whole Earth Catalog, an extraordinary idiosyncratic publication comprising a how-to manual, an opinionated life guide to everything from computer technology to growing your own, to goat-herding,avoiding drug busts, solar energy and mountain bikes, all infused with a strong environmental ethos. Steve Jobs described it as his bible and in his 2005 Stanford University commencement address, which has now been viewed by 29 million people, he concluded with a paean to Brand liking the “hole Earth Catalog to Google in paperback thirty-five years before Google and recommending that the students adopt Brand’s personal mantra: Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.
It’s easy to understand how Brand’s whole earth vision inspired the next generation of tech entrepreneurs but less easy to understand how they eschewed the drug-infused lyrics of the Grateful Dead for the convoluted libertarian philosophy of Ayn Rand. Somewhere along the way Brand’s “wholeness” morphed into “monopoly”. But this is only one of the many paradoxes at the heart of the digital revolution.
Equally contradictory is how their continuing sloganeering about creating a more transparent world and a platform for personal liberation ended up as a means of constantly and secretly monitoring us, packaging the resulting data and selling it to the highest advertiser bidder:“Facebook is always surveilling users, auditing them, using them as lab rats in their behavioural experiments.” And as Foer points out, their transparency ideals conveniently stop at the threshold of their own offices.
Another underlying theme of big tech’s philosophy is that in the past the elite, in the form of academics, authors or public intellectuals, sought to gather all knowledge to themselves and parcel it out at their discretion to the great. The tech barons fancy themselves as latter-day Robin Hoods, setting the people free, redistributing the wealth of knowledge, enabling everyone to be an expert. But in fact everyone simply can’t be an expert and we will always need guidance from people who for one reason or another know more than us. The giants also blithely disregard copyright law, dismantling the structures that have protected our ideas of authorship. When Google decided to digitalise every book in existence they considered copyright law a trivial annoyance, hardly worth hesitating for a moment for, echoing Ayn Rand’s best-known quote; “The question isn’t who’s going to let me; it’s who’s going to stop me.”
There’s also the question of tax. A characteristic of Silicon Valley businesses is their obsessive efforts to avoid paying tax. Foer describes how Jeff Bezos originally wanted to locate Amazon in an Indian reservation because they had tax-free status. Dave Eggers’s dystopian novel The Circle, now a film, suggests that part of the tech boys’ reluctance to pay tax stems from their belief that inferior species like politicians and civil servants are not sufficiently intelligent to use the money properly. Be that as it may, the communities that Silicon Valley purports to believe in will always require an infrastructure that can only be provided by government and which can only be paid for from taxes. Once again there’s a peculiar paradox here because in spite of their innate suspicion of government the tech giants practise the most extreme forms of corporate gamesmanship ‑ buying support in think-tanks and universities, donating funds to favourable advisory groups and pressurising governments with highly-paid lobbyists.
Foer ably exposes the hypocrisy of Silicon Valley but reserves his main criticism for the danger the all-powerful tech businesses pose to democracy. In the prologue he asserts that one of the reasons for Brexit and Trump was the poor quality of information consumed by citizens in the UK and the US, blaming the tech businesses for simultaneously weakening traditional media and replacing the Fourth Estate with a diet of news feeds tailored to what users already believe, thus reinforcing these existing beliefs and making people more extreme and resistant to contrary facts. In the concluding chapter he warns: “We’re drifting, without countervailing pressure from the political system, from media or from the intelligensia. We’re drifting towards monopoly, conformism, their machines … We have deluded ourselves into caring more deeply about efficiency and convenience than about the things that last.” We need to return to the contemplative life.
So, what is to be done? Foer offers two solutions. The first brings on stage the third of the surprising characters that populate this book: Louis Brandeis was a US Supreme Court judge from 1916 to 1939. He was a fierce critic of business monopolies and was regarded as dangerous because he was incorruptible. He believed that the greatest menace to freedom was an inert people and that public debate was only possible after the formulation of private opinions free from surveillance or prying eyes. His appeal to the author is obvious: the framers of the American Constitution preferred liberty to efficiency and Foer believes that we are in danger of sacrificing liberty for the efficiency of Google and Facebook, who make the information trains run on time. Brandeis was one of the main movers in the break-up of some of the biggest business monopolies of the early twentieth century and he believed that “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.” Foer wants to revive America’s traditionally antagonistic attitude to monopolies and suggests that we need a new Brandeis but can’t see any on the horizon and feels that contemporary US liberals are too timid and not capable of the intellectual rigour that would be required to tackle the tech giants.
However there is now a growing clamour urging policy-makers to get a grip and start implementing the type of measures that were ultimately put in place following the last upheaval of this nature; the Gutenberg revolution in the fifteenth century. It took time, but eventually censorship, licensing, copyright and other protections for individual privacy were put in place. We now need to move much faster than in the first information revolution, beginning with an urgent refutation of Mr Zuckerberg’s arrogant assertion that “privacy is no longer a social norm”.
Foer’s second solution is ingenious but may initially strike people as naive. He argues that the transformation of the American diet as a result of a revolt against Big Food could well be the greatest triumph of the 1960s counter-culture and asks whether there is an equivalent of yogurt, granola and mache that could force the tech giants to make the kind of changes that the food companies are making in reducing their sugar, salt and fat content. This may not be as daft as it sounds; the big food companies have been forced to make radical changes to their products and Facebook ran a campaign last year showing people how to spot fake news and are now running a campaign showing how to ensure privacy on their platform. However they never do this of their own volition; they only respond to pressure. Ultimately we need a Louis Brandeis to tame the data barons; in the meantime the more pressure they are put under the more they will have to respond, after all:
This data’s your data, this data’s my data
From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters
From Dublin City to the Aran Islands
This data was made from you and me.
John Fanning is a former managing director and chairman of McConnell’s Advertising