World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech
by Franklin Foer.
Penguin Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $27.
“What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the twentieth?” asked Henry Adams in his autobiography. In his new book World Without Mind, Franklin Foer presents himself as an editor and writer from an ink-stained century now required to play a new digital game. Facebook and Google share an advertising duopoly. Amazon dominates book sales. Their market share is enough to worry Foer, the son of an antitrust attorney, but he cautions that this is not your father’s Standard Oil. These businesses have a monopoly on our most precious resource: our time. With command of our attention, Foer warns that they control the creation and spread of ideas.
Not content with frightening us with their economic power, Foer wants to lead us through a haunted house filled with the digital gurus, technotopians, and pseudo-philosophers that influence the leadership of large technology companies. We are expected to gasp as Foer reveals their sinister influences and motives. But is there anyone left who has not read Tom Wolfe’s chronicles of the 1960s counterculture? Should we fear or pity “transhumanists” dreaming of uploading their brains to the cloud? Google’s mission to catalogue all the world’s information is no secret. CEO Jeff Bezos once let slip the black magic behind Amazon’s success: “we start with the customer and work backwards.” Customers, not cabals, explain their success.
To counter the power of Big Tech, Foer urges new antitrust action. If American antitrust regulators traditionally monitor rising consumer prices for a leading indicator of a monopolist’s might, a new standard may be needed for digital platforms. While they may avoid the pricing antitrust trigger with free apps, or extraordinarily low prices such as when Amazon set new-release Kindle ebooks at $9.99, their network effects are a unique advantage against upstart competitors. If antitrust action is justified, what does digital trust-busting look like?
Two legislators may have a better strategy: Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Robert Portman (R-OH) sponsored the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.” Oracle publicly broke with Google and Facebook to support the bill, arguing that if enacted it “will establish some measure of accountability for those that cynically sell advertising but are unprepared to help curtail sex trafficking.” Every push notification may make us feel like slaves to our smartphones, but we owe more urgent action on behalf of the millions in modern slavery enabled by Internet sex trafficking.
Foer is most interesting when describing his tenure as the editor of The New Republic during its digital transformation under the new ownership of dorm-room-era Facebook employee Chris Hughes. They shared an initial vision: “We would resistthe impulse to clutter it with an endless stream of clicky content, splayed with little sense of hierarchy. Our digital pages would prize beauty and finitude; they would sacrifice any ambitions for a broad audience and would brashly announce the idealism of our project—which he would describe as nothing less than the preservation of cultural seriousness and long-form journalism.”
Hopeful that the same standards that satisfied the magazine’s devoted print subscribers would be appreciated by digital readers, Foer threw himself into the challenging daily work of an editor but soon felt new pressure. Growth in web traffic and digital advertising revenue became urgent priorities. Recommendations came from above to follow the lead of peer digital publications, chasing trending stories and paying close attention to the real-time analytics dashboard displayed on the office flat screen TV. As at Belshazzar’s feast, the data on the wall revealed which articles were weighed in the balance and found wanting.
If Foer wants the reader’s sympathy, he gets it. Who has not struggled to meet the unclear expectations and changing requirements of a manager, coach, or teacher? But despite his personal frustration with the owner’s mandates, he is not fully convincing that the primary problem was managerial obsession with data and revenue, rather than a lack of clarity about the mission of the magazine and how that should guide their editorial decisions, set readership goals, and, inevitably, determine funding sources. Foer loves reading and ideas, and he has a steward-like regard for his readers. Did he see any opportunity to use new readership data to strengthen this treasured relationship? Niche industry and trade publications are one alternative model of news, research, and conferences under a single media entity. Bloomberg’s news, software network, and data licensing bundle is another model. Instead, The New Republic staff lashed themselves to the mast of programmatic advertising (sold and delivered on automated exchanges like a stock market) and rode the choppy waves of web traffic churned by Facebook’s unpredictable, opaque News Feed algorithm.
Foer held a unique insider’s position and one hoped he would return to how a mission-driven publication could best achieve its social and policy goals. The New Republic magazine has a long and interesting history. How did its previous editor, the old and now discredited liberal lion Leon Wieseltier, judge his own successes or failures? The new ownership preferred a mass audience against a smaller but more influential readership. Several small publications (including City Journal, National Affairs, and First Things) satisfy their modest number of subscribers while aiming to get their ideas across to popularizers with louder microphones. Henry Adams understood the strategy a century ago: “The difference is slight, to the influence of an author, whether he is read by five hundred readers, or by five hundred thousand; if he can select the five hundred, he reaches the five hundred thousand.“
Throughout the book, Foer reminds us of what we are losing. He is entirely correct that the interruptions of technology “are destroying something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation. They have created a world in which we’re constantly watched and always distracted.” The beeping, vibrating, flashing alerts of our phones are a deafening distraction. The endless ephemera of the web is crowding out the real intellectual and spiritual nourishment we need. Foer encourages a return to paper books and magazines. It might surprise him to learn that his ally in this fight is Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and author of The Power of Silence: Against the Tyranny of Noise.
Foer counsels that the “contemplative life remains freely availableto us through our choices—what we read and buy, how we commit to leisure and self-improvement, the passing over of empty temptation, our preservation of the quiet spaces, an intentional striving to become masters of our mastery.” Here he just misses the mark. What is the object of our contemplation? Do we contemplate in order to “master our mastery?” Is our contemplation best directed inward or outward? When Henry Adams returned to Washington, DC from abroad, he sat in contemplation of the bronzememorial statue of his late wife made by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. “Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of Saint-Gaudens’ correctness of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new.”
What is the aim of the contemplative, interior intellectual life Foer seeks? It cannot merely be better politics. When we receive real news, what ought we do? Henry Adams was touring Rome when he received the news of the assassination of President Lincoln. He immediately went to meditate on the steps of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. Adams understood that when confronted with tragedy or the transcendent, we do not need to tweet or react; we must perhaps instead contemplate the One Who makes tragedy or the transcendent comprehensible.
Stephen Schmalhofer works in venture capital in New York City, and is a graduate of Yale University.