In the Shadow of Big Tech

August 22, 2018

‘World Without Mind’ lays out the inherent dangers in corporations wielding so much control, and offers solutions, too.

Read an excerpt from “World Without Mind”

If you have been so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of emails and social media postings that you fall hopelessly behind in reading them, much less answering them; if you have been haunted everywhere you go on the internet by targeted ads because you once ran a Google search for “remedies for leg cramps”; and if you have received “Friend” requests on Facebook from attractive young women in exotic foreign countries who appear to have no other Facebook friends and are interested in you alone — well, then, you already know what Franklin Foer is so worried about in his revelatory and even revolutionary book, “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech” (Penguin Books), which has been recently released in paperback.

Foer does not merely wring his hands over the hyper-technologized world in which we find ourselves. Rather, he describes the danger of high technology in the hands of a few corporate behemoths as something out of a dystopian science fiction novel.

“More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it,” Foer writes in “World Without Mind.” “They believe they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine — to redirect the trajectory of human evolution.”

Foer’s target is the four-headed monster that “the Europeans have charmingly, and correctly, lumped together as GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). Not only do these corporations invade our privacy, disregard the rights of authorship, manipulate the markets, and operate as monopolies, as Foer sees it, but they willfully seek to redefine how we experience life itself. “They hope to automate the choices, both large and small, that we make as we float through the day,” he writes. “It’s their algorithms that suggest the news we read, the goods we buy, the path we travel, the friends we invite into our circle.” Such cosmic ambitions make the hacking of the Democratic National Committee server by Russian trolls during the 2016 presidential campaign seem almost quaint, but Foer is just as worried about the way in which the internet can be weaponized when it comes to politics and public discourse.

Foer started his journalism career at Slate, an early experiment in online journalism that was conceived by Bill Gates and launched by Microsoft. Today, Foer is the national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and a fellow at the New America foundation, and his CV includes “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” (co-edited with Marc Tracy), which won a National Jewish Book Award in 2012, and “How Soccer Explains the World,” a book with such global appeal that it has been translated into 27 languages. But the episode that reveals the most about Foer’s vexed relationship with Big Tech took place at The New Republic, where he served as editor of the magazine during two stints from 2006 to 2014.

Foer insists that what’s at risk in the era of Big Tech is not his job or anyone else’s job but nothing less than the vitality and longevity of American civilization.

The New Republic, founded in 1914, is one of America’s legacy publications, a journal of politics, arts and letters that used to advertise itself as “The In-Flight Magazine of Air Force One.” Like many of America’s most important newspapers and magazines, The New Republic relied on the philanthropy of a few wealthy and well-intentioned benefactors for its continued existence. “The one year we turned a profit,” recalls Foer, “we celebrated with a pizza party that pushed us back into the red.”

In 2012, The New Republic was acquired by Chris Hughes, then 28 years old, who had the epochal good luck to room with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard and ended up a Facebook billionaire. Unlike the previous owners, Hughes was not willing to spend a tiny fraction of his fortune on preserving a crown jewel of American journalism. “Chris wasn’t just a savior,” Foer recalls. “He was the face of the zeitgeist.” Two and a half years into his make-over of The New Republic into a “vertically integrated digital-media company,” Hughes fired Foer and thereby provoked a mass walk-out of the editorial staff — “a bust-up interpreted widely as a parable of Silicon Valley’s failure to understand the journalistic world over which it now exerted so much influence.” 

Foer expresses his hope that “this book doesn’t come across as fueled by anger,” but neither does he deny his anger. Indeed, he insists that what’s at risk in the era of Big Tech is not his job or anyone else’s job but nothing less than the vitality and longevity of American civilization. “The tech companies are destroying something precious,” he argues. “They have created a world in which we’re constantly watched and always distracted. … Their most precious asset is our most precious asset, our attention, and they have abused it.”

“The tech companies are destroying something precious. They have created a world in which we’re constantly watched and always distracted…. Their most precious asset is our most precious asset, our attention, and they have abused it.” —  Franklin Foer

Ironies abound in “World Without Mind.” Foer credits Stewart Brand, author of the “Whole Earth Catalog” and a guru of the counterculture of the 1960s, as “one who would shape the future of technology” precisely because he “inspire[d] a revolution in computing.” Steve Jobs, for example, described the “Whole Earth Catalog” as “a ‘Bible’ to his generation,” by which he meant the “techies and hackers” who were the pioneers of Silicon Valley. And yet, even though faceless corporate behemoths like IBM were the bogeymen of the counterculture, the techies and hackers were long ago replaced by some of the greatest monopolies the world has ever known.

“Big tech considers the concentration of power in its companies — the networks they control — an urgent social good,” Foer explains, “the precursor to global harmony, a necessary condition for undoing the alienation of mankind.” What they have actually accomplished, as Foer sees it, is “the catastrophic collapse of the news business and the degradation of American civic culture.” 

The saga of Silicon Valley, as retold by Foer, includes both the sweep of history and a provocative collection of vignettes about its founders. Larry Page, one of the co-founders of Google, was given an Exidy Sorcerer computer (“a cult favorite of European programmers,” writes Foer) by his father and boasts that “I was the first kid in my elementary school to turn in a word-processed document.” Zuckerberg “is a good boy, but he wanted to be bad, or maybe just a little bit naughty,” which explains why, as a high school student, he hacked into AOL under “the nom de hack Zuck Fader” and “added his own improvements to its instant messaging program.” And he points out that success has only stoked the imaginations of the newly minted moguls. “If Jeff Bezos wants to launch rockets into space,” Foer observes, “then Elon Musk will do him one better and colonize Mars.” 

A poignant clue to Foer’s approach to solving the problem of Big Tech appears in the dedication of his new book: “To Bert Foer, Ardent Trustbuster, Gentle Father.” The paterfamilias, whose sons include not only Franklin Foer but also Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything Is Illuminated”) and Joshua Foer (“Moonwalking With Einstein”), is the founder of the American Antitrust Institute and formerly served in the Bureau of Competition in the Federal Trade Commission. 

For the younger Foer, too, the trust-busting tradition in American history — the same era when The New Republic was founded — is the weapon that may constrain or even reverse the decline and fall of American civilization.

“To manage the threat, government needs a dramatic updating, a bolder program for regulating the Internet, a whole new apparatus for protecting privacy and the competitive marketplace,” Foer declares. “What we need is a Data Protection Authority to protect privacy as the government protects the environment.” And he is daring when he imagines what a new wave of antitrust litigation might accomplish: “The health of our democracy demands that we consider treating Facebook, Google, and Amazon with the same firm hand that led government to wage war on AT&T, IBM and Microsoft.”

Of course, it is hard to imagine how the current president could be convinced to regulate Big Tech even as he is rolling back environmental regulation. And here, too, is a painful irony. The internet demonstrated the crucial importance of “click-bait” — the eye-catching morsel, whether true or false, that drives traffic to a website. “This is the definition of pandering,” Foer points out, “and it has horrific consequences,” one of which is Donald Trump himself.

Foer is worried about the way in which the internet can be weaponized when it comes to politics and public discourse.

“He understood how, more than at any moment in recent history, media need to give the public what it wants, a circus that exploits subconscious tendencies and biases,” Foer explains. “Even if media disdained Trump’s outrages, they built him up as a character and a plausible candidate.” And they did so, as Trump himself likes to point out, because coverage of Trump was good for ratings. “Stories about Trump yielded the sort of traffic that pleased the Gods of Data and benefited the bottom line.” 

Recalling the media sensation over a Minnesota hunter who killed a lion called Cecil, Foer admonishes us all when he concludes: “Trump began as Cecil the Lion, and then ended up president of the United States.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. 

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