John Naughton

Caught in the Web

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech

By

Jonathan Cape 257pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Franklin Foer is a distinguished American journalist who has twice edited the venerable but perpetually broke liberal magazine the New Republic – once between 2006 and 2010, when he resigned, and then between 2012 and 2014, when he was enticed back by Chris Hughes, a young Facebook billionaire who had bought the publication with the intention of rejuvenating it. Foer’s second stint in the editorial chair didn’t go well. Hughes appointed a CEO who came from Yahoo and told the staff that he believed in ‘breaking things’. After enduring this nonsense for two and a half years, Foer and the magazine’s literary editor resigned, and were later followed by several of their colleagues, after which Foer wrote an entertaining account of what happens when Silicon Valley meets traditional journalism.

There is therefore a temptation to view Foer’s new book as a case study in revenge being a dish best served cold. This would be a mistake, for what he has written is of more general interest – a sustained and perceptive critique from a humanist perspective of what the big tech companies are doing to our culture. ‘This is’, he writes, ‘a book about the forces in the world that have spurred confusion, conformism, and, sad to say, stupidity.’ These forces of cultural darkness are, he argues, the big digital technology companies and the people who founded and lead them.

Foer takes several bites at this cherry. Part one of the book is an illuminating exegesis of the ideology of Silicon Valley, achieved through a study of the careers and mind-sets of three of the titans of the tech industry – Larry Page of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jeff Bezos of Amazon – followed by an account of how their companies have replaced the cultural ‘gatekeepers’ of the analogue world and, in the process, acquired political power.

Part two, entitled ‘World Without Mind’, focuses on two issues. The first is the withering of mainstream journalism as the advertising revenues that kept it afloat were siphoned off by Google and Facebook, and the resulting servile cringe that now characterises the profession’s approach to its nemeses. The second issue is what Foer perceives as Silicon Valley’s worship of the ‘hive mind’ and its implacable disdain for the idea of individual creativity. The book closes with an analysis of the industrial power of the digital giants, the unlikelihood of them being unhorsed by competition and the feebleness of antitrust legislation (at least in the USA) in loosening the grip of their monopolies.

World Without Mind thus joins a lengthening list of blistering critiques of our networked world that already includes works by Jonathan Taplin, Andrew Keen, Frank Pasquale, Astra Taylor, Cathy O’Neil and others. In its take-no-prisoners attitude to the digital giants, it echoes these protests against the hijacking of our culture by youthful moguls imbued with the invincible arrogance that often accompanies great – and suddenly acquired – wealth. What sets it apart is the style and verve of the writing. In this respect, it is more reminiscent of a much earlier critique of digital culture – Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, which was published over two decades ago.

But whereas Birkerts’s predominant tone was wistful, Foer’s is steely and hostile. The tech monopolies, he believes, ‘aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it. They believe they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine – to redirect the trajectory of human evolution.’ He sees them as akin to the companies that transformed the market for food in the postwar era. And as with food, the tech giants ‘have given rise to a new science that aims to construct products that pander to the tastes of their consumers’ – a process that leads, ultimately, to homogeneity (not to mention the cultural equivalents of obesity, diabetes and heart disease).

World Without Mind is full of sharp insights, elegantly expressed. Like the companies, Foer devotes a lot of attention to algorithms. ‘The origins of the algorithm’, he writes, ‘are unmistakably human, but human fallibility isn’t a quality that we associate with it.’ And although it’s at the heart of computer science, the algorithm ‘is not precisely a scientific concept’ – it’s a tool created for specific purposes. ‘Algorithms upend the scientific method,’ he writes at another point. ‘The patterns emerge from the data, from correlations, unguided by hypotheses. They remove humans from the whole process of inquiry.’

He’s not overly impressed, either, by the way Google and Facebook hide behind the supposedly impersonal objectivity of their algorithms: ‘We know that Google has explicitly built its search engine to reflect values that it holds dear. It believes that the popularity of a Web site gives a good sense of its utility; it chooses to suppress pornography in its search results and not, say, anti-Semitic conspiracists; it believes that users will benefit from finding recent articles rather than golden oldies. These are legitimate choices – and perhaps wise business decisions – but they are choices, not science.’

Foer rails against the blatant hypocrisy of companies that demand complete transparency from their users, in terms of making users’ digital trails and personal information available for monetisation, while themselves being pathologically secretive. But that is an inevitable consequence of the perverted business model that underpins social media, which provides ‘free’ services in return for the right to refine, package and sell our data for advertising purposes. The essence of it is that we do all the work – create all the ‘content’ – while Facebook gets the rewards. It’s what the critic Nicholas Carr calls ‘digital sharecropping’ and other scholars call ‘surveillance capitalism’. It’s at the root of many of the evils of our networked world and until either it fails or we change it the pernicious effects on our culture that Foer highlights will continue. The irony is that we could fix it by paying for services, but so far that penny hasn’t dropped.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter