World Without Mind – The Existential Threat of Big Tech
Discovering the internet in the 90s was an important part of my teenage years. I found meaning and friendships both through my slow dial-up connection and away from it. The image of a life of landline phone calls and face-to-face connections means something to me, but in 2018 I mostly see it as a nostalgic simplification. What we gained and what we lost through technology is a balance that is not easy to see but is important to explore.
Sense of doom
All eyes are on Silicon Valley these days: issues of data safety, surveillance and the way information is filtered and served to us are hot, worrisome topics. I generally dread talks about technology, especially when they suggest a better version of life existed in the past and is now dead. It is with these sentiments that I went to see Franklin Foer talk about his new book World Without Mind – The Existential Threat of Big Tech. But what the talk and his book left me with was not a sense of doom, instead they made me reflect on who I want to be in this world of information and change.
The first part of the book is a journey from past to present, telling the story of how the internet and the big tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook came to be. It explains the ideas, logic and philosophy behind these, and it connects the dots to create a big picture, telling a multi-layered story in which Stewart Brand, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page meet Descartes, Leibniz, Alan Turing and Marshall McLuhan.
«The market has been open and unregulated for companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon.»
One main point is that most people behind big tech are engineers, and «The engineering mind-set has little patience for words and images, for the mystique of art, for moral complexity and emotional expression. (…) The whole effort is to make human beings predictable.» Therefore, having the media and, in general, the world of words not only dependent on Silicon Valley but dependent on Silicon Valley values is dangerous because these values idealise simplification and collectivism, namely «the hive mind,» that is easy to stir one way or another and is not able to produce individual thought.
What’s more is that the market has been, from the very beginning, open and unregulated for companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. They have built information and market monopolies that have too much power, and have negative economic and cultural implications. «In economics, the peril of network is monopoly – where a competitive market comes under the sway of big corporations. In culture, the peril of the network is conformism, where a competitive marketplace of ideas ceases to be so competitive, where the emphasis shifts to consensus.» Paradoxically, they are the very companies that trashed the idea of elite gatekeeping and aimed to give everyone access to information and participation, yet they became the most powerful gatekeepers themselves, collecting data to increase their own position at the detriment of smaller actors and the common good. «When Facebook shifts direction […] or when Google tweaks its algorithm, they instantly crash web traffic flowing to media, with all the rippling revenue ramifications that follow.»
Big tech journalism
The side effect of big tech’s power is an umbilical relationship between them and the media: one that influences the information and content of the media, and replaces its democracy-guardianship role with a tech business-oriented approach. Foer has some direct experience with this, and shares in detail how as an editor of The New Republic in the period after Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the magazine, he experienced first-hand the impact of a tech-engineering approach to journalism.
«Foer sets an ideal version of the past against the damages of a tech business-oriented present.»
The New Republic was at first open to chase what mattered and to tell important stories well. In time the magazine switched to an ever-increasing obsession for clicks and numbers. The conflict between a tech business-like approach (focused on demand, revenue and generating traffic) and the role of journalism (which is to showcase relevant stories and expose the kind of important truths readers might not know exist) has been a subject of interest for many years. But Foer adds depth and personal insight to the topic, as he reveals a generalised pathology in which no media outlet stands on its own enough to escape applying a business logic. They must follow the «clicks» road.
An idealised past
At the opposite of today’s situation is the way things used to be. Foer’s portrayal of the past hits some current neuralgic spots to make his points. It leaves no space for criticism and finds no flaws in how things used to be. He doesn’t see any positives in the opportunities technology has created – that there are new breathing spaces where ideas can flourish and truths can be expressed openly. Foer sets an ideal version of the past against the damages of a tech business-oriented present, and this comparison is one-sided.
A benefit of looking at things this way is that it creates the mental space to take distance from both past and present. If in the past life was possible and fine without technology, couldn’t we now live without it? If we could make all technology in our lives disappear at once, what would we actually keep? How should things actually be?
I believe the internet and technology have impacted our lives in many positive ways, some so subtle and ingrained in our daily lives that they are difficult to see. We are tempted to see the chaos only, but technology has helped so many scientific discoveries, and access to information changed our lives for the good in many ways. So did the possibility of expressing ideas and meeting and gathering like-minded people through the internet. The so-called «hive mind» concept has more than one meaning.
«If we could make all technology in our lives disappear at once, what would we actually keep?»
Foer’s criticism in World Without Mind is valid and important, but instead of idealising the past, it’s perhaps time to look forward – to strive for balance and much needed regulation. To me, what Foer’s book essentially calls for is to question our passivity. His solution – reading more books and taking time to reflect – might not apply to everyone, but what we could all do is question more, be more involved in how we get our news, and be less passive in our acceptance of technology. In doing this, perhaps we as citizens along with the government could make technology work to the benefit of society as a whole.