In times like these, critics of progress gain in relevance and interest: perhaps they’re on to something.
Franklin Foer made me laugh. Though his dystopian World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech contains plenty to make a reader cringe, his ready wit shines through the gloom. That’s not to say I found the book altogether persuasive. I did not. But it’s worth reading: Foer raises questions we should consider, even if there are limits to his analysis.
The Four Horsemen of the Tech Apocalypse—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (with its own acronym, GAFA)—have bizarre views about life, the universe, and everything. Foer helpfully details the transition of Silicon Valley from hippies to hipsters and from mushrooms to microchips. People got rich—very rich—but a countercultural ethos doesn’t leave you just because you switched your VW bus for a Lexus RX450h. Sure, you’re a blue jean billionaire, but you just want to help people. Right?
Wrong. Foer convincingly argues that Silicon Valley hides its authoritarian impulse behind its lip service to libertarianism. Big tech rhetoric obscures, and does not clarify, what’s really going on. Far from being enablers of individual spirit, tech companies embrace a collectivist esprit de corps. Everyone talks about a global village. Foer rightly underscores the dangers of this striving: “There can be only one global village.” Foer quotes Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who openly yearns for “a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about.” One law to rule them all, one law to find them, one law to bring them all and with glowing screens bind them?
If one world is the long-term goal, one marketplace is the short-term one: “In the great office parks south of San Francisco, monopoly is a spiritual yearning, a concept unabashedly embrace.” A spiritual yearning? Absolutely. Steward Brand served as an early prophetic voice from the 1960s onwards. “His gift,” Foer writes, “was to channel the spiritual longings of his generation, and then to explain how they could be fulfilled by technology.”
Fast forward a generation. In anodyne prose, today’s technologists offer effervescent talks with a now routine formula: A big problem that has plagued humanity for a long time has been overcome just yesterday by technology.
Well, what’s wrong with that? The hypocrisy, for one: The big gears of profit turn behind the hippie scenery of personal improvement. Foer notes how Amazon offers you books that resemble the one you just bought, but Netflix suggests less well-known films. Is this difference connected to Amazon’s love of books and Netflix’s desire to turn you into an arthouse aficionado? Not at all. On the contrary, Amazon makes profits on books you buy, so wants to sell you more of them. Netflix pays more when you watch mainstream blockbusters, so it encourages less expensive offerings—for Netflix. (You pay the same whatever you watch.)
Losing Critical Distance
Foer proves this point, but he also goes too far, in part because he believes big tech’s propaganda. Consider three topics: metaphysics, economics, and politics.
First, metaphysics. Artificial intelligence (AI), far from being an eccentric sideshow for Google, is “precisely the source of the company’s greatness.” Hence Google’s ability to complete your search before you have even finished typing it. But Google’s search success has given Larry Page, a cofounder, an audacious confidence in AI’s future: “If you solve search that means you can answer any questions, which means you can do basically anything.” It gets worse: “Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain.”
Foer, understandably, freaks out. Google wants, in his words, to “redirect . . . the course of evolution” and “to create a superior species, a species that transcends our natural form.” But Google cannot do what it wants to do. Though strong AI advocates think the mind is to the brain as software is to hardware, such a view is obviously false, as John Searle convincingly argues in his famous Chinese Room experiment.
That’s why the hope for singularity—when our minds become uploaded to the cloud, and we live forever—is one science fiction too far. Ray Kurzweil says one day “we will be software, not hardware.” But he’s just wrong: Uploading my mind onto a computer so I live forever is just impossible. I’m either my mind—so irreplaceable by software—or I’m a mind-body composite—so irreplaceable by software and hardware. You won’t continue to live on as software, even if other people wrongly think you’re alive. Even if your friends cling creepily to your technological successor, you will be dead.
A bizarre avoidance of the human body plagues tech thinking, at times to the point of hilarity. Even if virtual sex will be, in the words of one tech advocate, “more intense and pleasurable than conventional [that is, actual] sex,” the people having it, rather than the baby-making kind of sex, will be the ones who will, in the words of Peter Diamandis, “die out.” If you don’t have babies, your genes die with you.
Second, economics. Foer notes that Google pays $1 billion a year so Apple uses its search engine, and that a Google CEO served on Apple’s board. He uses this evidence of coziness to conclude that “like nineteenth-century European powers, each company does little to impinge on the other’s sphere of influence, competing only on the fringes of empire.” Collusion between GAFA supports ever increasing domination of us serfs.
Though no historian myself, Foer’s metaphor works, but it works against him: Google is Napoleon’s France, and Amazon is the United Kingdom under George III; Facebook is the Russian Empire, and Apple, the Ottoman. Competitions on “the fringes of empire” lead to the heartland, if the powers can exploit rivals’ weaknesses. If Google is paying for traffic, it has a problem if Amazon is limiting its ability to sell its own traffic-generating devices. Hence the YouTube spat late last year, with Google announcing plans to pull YouTube from some Amazon devices.
Far from being a coalition of male cheetahs that hunts us wildebeests as we migrate an internet Serengeti, Silicon Valley companies are lions and hyenas. Sure, they want to eat us, but they also want to eat each other.
There are non-tech threats, too. Even Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods suggests not strength but weakness in comparison to its rivals: Walmart, for one, already has plenty of local stores to entice customers and to demonstrate new products. And people may simply tire of it all: “Why teens are leaving Facebook: It’s ‘meaningless,’” announced one Washington Post headline.
Third, politics. Foer observes that “Google executives set foot in the Obama White House more often than those of any other corporation—its head lobbyist visited 128 times.” He makes a compelling case for the strength of GAFA’s Democratic, rather than Republican, alliance:
The tech monopolies have aligned themselves with the left, culturally and electorally, which has defanged their most likely critics. That’s the wise way to hedge: Republicans might not especially care for donations that the tech companies send to Democrats, but they have no ideological interest in placing them under the thumb of government.
That’s a clever insight. But all-powerful tech may not be so powerful in the final analysis. Foer cites The Intercept’s conclusion that “Google has achieved a kind of vertical integration with the government” as definitive, but administrations come and go. Sometimes GAFA is with her—lopsidedly so in terms of contributions—but the nation is, apparently, with him. If GAFA wants to use its power to influence American elections, it will have to try harder. According to mediaQuant, Donald Trump received approximately $5 billion in free advertising in the last election, and much of that free advertising happened online. Rather than thinking that GAFA executives conspired to Make America Great Again, we should conclude instead that Trump played GAFA effortlessly, albeit bombastically. The point: greater market share does not necessarily make for greater political influence.
Getting Realistic about Progress
Perhaps Foer’s afraid because he’s insufficiently pessimistic about the state of our culture—a culture produced in part by the sensibilities Foer and GAFA now mutually embrace. We are not now going through a great civilizational transition. We have gone through one already. Minimal brain activity before glowing screens did not commence with an iPhone running Facebook. It started with television. In fact, Facebook is almost television for smart people: You actually have to read to use Facebook. No wonder there’s SnapChat, which is for people who find the intellectual rigors of Facebook cumbersome. Social media may foster bad thinking about the world and influence people in undesirable ways. But we have been here before. Do television ads for politicians ever suggest something that may not be the case?
Though Franklin Foer’s World without Mind didn’t make me fear the future, it sure made me laugh about the present. His discussion of what the internet did to journalism made me roar with face-stretched mirth, tears springing from my eyes. The section describing the “data guru” a Facebook multimillionaire installed at the New Republic to “produce pieces in sync with the seasonal interests of readers” makes for delicious reading: “‘Chipotle has run out of pork and it’s all over social. What can we generate?’ Questions like these were usually greeted by hostile silence.” Whatever the New Republic used to stand for, apparently it now needed to create “snackable content” for the “bored at work crowd.”
It gets worse, or better: Foer had a “dashboard” telling him how much people were paid and how often their pieces were read. “I kept these dashboards under lock and key for fear of demoralizing the rest of the staff. They had already demoralized me. We had the best art critic in the world, a true shaper of taste, and the metrics showed only how few readers clicked on his pieces.”
But even here, it’s not as bad as all that. What the internet has exposed is how national journals, and even national newspapers, are far more parochial than their creators want to believe. Most people want to watch sports on television. Very few want to read the New Republic or Foer’s book—or this review of it. Recognizing one’s limited audience creates an existential threat of a different kind, but it’s not one produced by big tech. It’s part and parcel of the human condition.