With an unsparing look at the leaders who dominate big tech, Franklin Foer mercilessly exposes the dark side of our descent into a world without mind, one in which culture gives way to algorithms and where the line between fact and falsehood has eroded. Although Apple is briefly discussed, the main focus of Mr. Foer’s invective is directed towards three companies: Google, Facebook and Amazon.
In relating the history of how the tech giants of today got to be what they are, the author gives a special nod to Stuart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. In the late sixties, Mr. Brand emerged as a highly influential guru of the emerging religion of “personal computing,” a phrase that he coined. A precursor to the internet, the Whole Earth Catalog was considered a sacred text by the likes of Steve Jobs and other early innovators. Brand was able to channel the spiritual longings of the sixties counterculture into a manifesto proclaiming that technology and engineering innovations would unleash our creative instincts and result in a more harmonious world. This burst of utopian optimism provided much of the intellectual justification for the misdeeds that would follow.
With its self-serving motto “don’t be evil,” Google operates under the delusion that its quest to catalog and categorize all knowledge is an activity that will benefit all of humankind. Larry Page was introduced to the promise of artificial intelligence by his father, an early specialist in the field. Google’s other founder, Sergey Brin, once stated that people would be better off if all the world’s knowledge was directly attached to our brains. With this unquestioning faith in technology, Google runs roughshod over minor inconveniences such as copyright law and pushes to impose its convictions on the rest of the world. In fact, Google has become such an overwhelmingly powerful entity that in 2015, it felt justified in changing its name to Alphabet, as it has become much more than simply a search engine.
While Google focuses on knowledge, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook creation operates more within the realm of our social lives. Nevertheless, both companies thrive and depend on the use of algorithms to create an air of anonymity that puts them beyond normal criticism. Both companies like to say that their algorithms have taken out the human element and are completely objective. Nevertheless, like Google, Facebook tightly controls what we see in our newsfeeds. Content is automatically calculated and determined for its users, thus lessening our ability to exert free will over the information we see. The implicit assumptions made on our behalf tend to drive us towards other like-minded individuals, so we are only presented with what we think we want to see. And of course, both Google and Facebook rely on advertisers for revenue. By relinquishing our privacy, ordinary users of these systems provide a wealth of data for the true paying customers.
In many ways, Jeff Bezos of Amazon is even more ruthless and focused on his ambitions than either Google or Facebook. As a seller of products, Amazon has created a coherent and usable marketplace for the emerging world of online retail sales. To his credit, Bezos was one of the first individuals to have the foresight to realize that the internet would remake the world, and to that end, he determined that books would be the ideal product to establish a beachhead in that domain. By eschewing the customary editorial content of literary book reviews, Amazon created a structure that provides crowd-based opinions for its products. And despite claims that they’ve eliminated the need for traditional gatekeepers in the book publishing business, Amazon itself has become a much more powerful gatekeeper than the old book publishers ever were. In fact, those who dare to question Amazon’s tactics generally pay severe consequences in getting access to this now vital retail channel.
With this book, Mr. Foer has persuasively exposed the false platitudes of the tech titans and the companies they lead. Despite promises of transparency, these companies operate under a cloak of secrecy and control that would cause earlier monopolists to gasp with envy. As the author points out, we need to re-establish some basic controls over these companies, and realize that our faith in technology must ultimately be balanced against our need for personal liberty.
World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech
By Franklin Foer
Penguin Press, September 2017
257 pages, $27.00