This book is disturbing.
All of us know that our privacy has eroded in the internet era. All of us know that self-driving cars are the wave of the future. All of us at one time or another have been entangled in a phone conversation with an automated answering system that serves as sentry to the world of people.
But all of us do not know the extent to which the big tech companies have reshaped reality in their desired image. In this book, Franklin Foer offers the specifics through which Google, Amazon, Facebook, and (though discussed least) Apple — the Europeans call them GAFA — have gained their monopoly standing. The result is a net loss not only of privacy, but of free access to diverse sources of information, self-formation, competitive footing for business, and — it is not alarmist to say it — humanity.
The book is an eye-opener because of its specific details. I wonder how many of us are aware of the ambitions of Google, for example. Though we may think of the company primarily as a search engine that makes the sprawling internet navigable, at its roots is the dream of AI as the next stage of human evolution. Google longs to free humanity from these pesky bodies with their reflexes, physical appetites and vulnerabilities, their networks of association and memory and bias — all these features that keep us from the perfectly consistent rationality of the machine. In the words of Sergey Brin, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off… Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain.” It is impossible to find a view of humanity more antithetical to my worldview a a Christian. Gone is the concept of wisdom or inspiration, gone the individuality and diversity of humanity. Intelligence has been reduced to the yawningly monotonous concept of data. Maybe we’ve seen the car commercial in which a young woman says, “I can park this car with my brain,” lifts her hands from the wheel, and allows the car to parallel park itself. How ironic. Her brain is the last thing involved. It has been replaced.
Then there is Amazon. Who doesn’t love the convenience, vast selection, free shipping, and low prices of Amazon? This book introduces a bitter taint to the online everything store. Foer’s exposition of Amazon’s business practices and its use of algorithms to manipulate users (or producers of the products they sell) turns the stomach. Can you imagine being able to strip the buy buttons from works by a publisher who is not giving you your way with its wares? Can you imagine “disappearing” said publisher from the eyes of Amazon’s users by altering the site’s algorithms to make some books invisible, and recommend competitors’ books instead? In World Without Mind, we read about the effect such power has on critics’ willingness to speak freely, as well as on consumer choice. What we learn only reinforces the sense that Bezos’s ownership of a major newspaper, The Washington Post, is simply an extension of Amazon’s monopoly in the world of ideas.
I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, now under fire for the free flow of “fake news” allowed in the 2016 election. I wasn’t aware that “most Americans” get their news from Facebook, through which the regular mining of personal information yields sufficient data to permit Facebook’s algorithms to select the news that aligns most nicely with your preferences, age, beliefs, political persuasions, institutions and friendships. Facebook can make you visible or invisible as easily as as the changing of an algorithm. Recent news of Mark Zuckerberg’s possible political ambitions should force the issue of data collection and manipulative power.
But will it? Foer discusses the sea change that has occurred in our perception of monopoly. A monopoly used to be seen as a negative thing, and federal regulations would carefully guard diverse choices for citizens. How could we have a free society without free access to many news sources, for example? How can our consumer choices mean anything unless we have a variety of real options to choose from? Somehow the tech industry has changed all that. Their increasing control over the range of ideas and products goes unchallenged, and the strength and extent of their political lobby is unrivaled in Washington. I remember reading with incredulity in Steve Jobs about the tech companies meeting with President Obama to discuss education policy. Foer only increases our unease by providing more evidence of the influence big business has on a corrupt Washington.
It’s a deeply depressing book, yet I recommend it. While I do not subscribe to the technophile’s view of intelligence as mere access to information, there is a range of specific information in this book that everyone should have in order to make informed choices. Even though it may be impossible to erase the footprint of big tech from our lives, we can make smarter choices about setting boundaries if we know more about these companies and their values. If we want to preserve agency as human beings in a free society, we have to take the time to inform ourselves about the worldviews, aims and business practices of these companies that wield such an incredible influence. Surely it is clear by now that political action is not the avenue to any real solutions to the problems we face today. Instead, freedom has to be enacted through informed personal choices about how we live. World Without Mind is required reading because it startles us out of passivity by showing us the personal, daily ways these companies restrict our lives to their own dreary, data-driven, self-interested scope.