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Saving the Mind from Big Tech

Stephen Phillips

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer, Penguin, 272 pp, $27, ISBN: 978-1101981115

Over the last five years, while the frictionless bliss of the app economy and the co-dependency of social media have clasped us ever tighter in their solicitous clinch, a small but obstinate band of conscientious objectors has gathered off to the side.

The internet is addling us, the dissidents cry. Its enervating din is hijacking our powers of cerebration and intellectual equipoise, impoverishing our discourse and sodality, write journalist Nicholas Carr and sociologist Sherry Turkle. We’re being diverted from fulfilling our Promethean nature by clickbait-mongering “attention merchants” bent on ransacking our precious supply of this resource as fodder for advertisers, legal scholar Tim Wu contends. We’re beholden to a facile “technological solutionism” that would reduce complex human transactions to hackable problems, says provocateur Evgeny Morozov.

Yet the robust generalism of these critiques has kept them at a remove from the companies that may be considered paradigmatic of the information age, its conveniences and sensibilities: Google, Facebook and Amazon. For the internet’s big three, they registered, if at all, as distant cannonade and frail threads of smoke. In April however, Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy struck closer to home. Now, Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, tilting at the same subjects, fires off a salvo into their midst with a sharp report and the acrid tang of cordite.

This much is clear from the title’s snarling pejorative – “big tech”, as in big tobacco. Foer, a former editor of The New Republic, announces his intent early on. “It’s hard not to marvel at these companies and their inventions, which often make life infinitely easier. But we’ve spent too long marveling.”

Interposed between ourselves and the otherwise amorphous wastes of the web, Google, Amazon and Facebook mediate our access to its informational riches. They’re the conduits through which we traverse and mine the internet, conduct commerce on it and connect with one another; hence their awesome cultural, economic and political power – sufficient to “influence the fate of the republic”, writes Foer, with a nod to the assist dealt to the Trump campaign from fake news planted on Facebook.

These companies now rank among “the most powerful gatekeepers the world has ever known”, yet they shirk the elementary curatorial responsibilities associated with such a role, Foer argues. Instead, they grab our attention through the hidden hand of opaque algorithms and traffic in our personal data for private gain. Greasing their ascent is a self-serving disdain for intellectual property that has laid waste to entire industries, notably journalism and publishing.

It is customary to view such losses as the collateral damage of paradigm shifts, the casualties of creative destruction. Thus, Google and Facebook are incidental beneficiaries of the carnage. But Foer argues that they openly abetted it, favouring free content in their algorithms and business models while parasitically appropriating through ad sales most of the revenue that traditionally accrued to content creators. Meanwhile, enchanted by their baubles and disarmed by their self-justifying pieties, we overlook their delinquencies and abuses.

In our defence, in their sheer miscellany it is hard to get a handle on what these companies even are, Foer notes. Bankrolled by the profit-gusher of search, Google has branched into activities ranging from autonomous vehicles to life-extension. To corral this ever-burgeoning agglomeration it created a holding company whose very name seems to invite further diversification – Alphabet. And what to make of the remorselessly protean Amazon, variously online bazaar, bricks-and-mortar retailer, publisher, cloud computing vault, device-maker, streaming service and movie studio? Facebook might be hard-pressed to tell you what it is itself. It’s the social network but also, by some measures, among the world’s largest media entities. Meantime the company exists in a perpetual state of identity crisis, lurching “from self-description to self-description” on a quest to invest itself with suitable gravitas, writes Foer. In an unguarded moment of regulation-courting candour, CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg perhaps came closest to the mark in 2007, calling his creation “a utility”.

Rising above this eclecticism there’s an abiding impression of Google and Facebook as scarcely profit-oriented ventures at all; more like quasi-philanthropic vehicles with their “moonshot” initiatives and efforts to extend internet access (a public good that conveniently generates more web traffic against which to sell ads).

With its twee early tagline, “Don’t be Evil”, Google’s white hat has been clamped on since its inception. Burnishing the impression of high-minded altruism is the post-competitive state of grace in which the company exists in its core search market, affording it latitude, unmolested by serious rivals, to pursue its good works. Lending further credence are its academic credentials. Conceived by two Stanford graduate students, the algorithm through which Google sorts web pages is fashioned after the citation-based ranking of research papers. Today, as a point of pride, the company prefers brainiac PhDs to money-grubbing MBAs. Thus, its image as utopian ideas factory – Ted Talks meets Bell Labs.

But it’s Google’s earnest idealism that’s most dangerous of all, Foer contends. Cofounder and now Alphabet CEO Larry Page subscribes to a brand of futurism in which artificial intelligence matches and then surpasses the human brain. Fomenting this “singularity”, a kind of techno-rapture in which technological advances converge to make AI self-sustaining – ushering in a “New Jerusalem” of automation, abundance, leisure, even everlasting life – represents a corporate “master project”, he writes. Imbued with messianic faith in the rectitude of this goal, the company is little troubled by self-reflection: “In its pursuit of the future, Google often finds itself pondering and developing technology that will significantly alter long-standing human practices. Its approach is to barrel forward with alacrity, confident in its own goodness.”

Such heady aspirations supply a convenient pretext for blowing off conventions such as copyright. Thus have Facebook, which advertises fealty to its own lofty goals, and Google undercut the economics of “cultural production”, Foer argues. Completing a pincer movement, Amazon, in “its reification of low prices”, has screwed down book prices, squeezing the margins that permitted publishers to nurture new authors and pay living-wage advances. Collectively, they imperil the robust “sociology of American letters”, threatening to cede the field to trust-fund-types, he writes. This is by way of introduction to one of World Without Mind’s most solemn disclosures: Foer’s discovery, perusing The New Republic’s archive, that the magazine paid $150 per book review in the 1930s – which is still the going rate for online reviews in the US today. “Eighty years of inflation … and stagnation,” he notes. “Writers are still paid precisely the same sum they received at the lowest moment in the economic history of the modern world.”

“By collapsing the value of knowledge,” Foer adds, “they have diminished the quality of it,” promulgating a retrograde view of creativity as iterative group project – content copied, annotated or repurposed – a throwback to a pre-Enlightenment age when plagiarism was rife and “writing wasn’t meant to change the world [but] aspired to reflect and mimic it”.

Foer is intriguingly situated to write of this disruption as one of the disrupted himself (though far from the most abject, as national correspondent for The Atlantic and a fellow at the New America Foundation). Installed in his second term as New Republic editor when the magazine was acquired in 2012 by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, he quit before he could be fired less than three years later, taking with him many of the senior editorial names on the masthead, who were collectively balking at knuckling under to the cold calculus of crafting superior clickbait. He describes the episode merely as “a road bump on Silicon Valley’s route to engulfing journalism”. It’s big tech’s world, we just live in it.

If resistance can seem an exercise in fogeyish futility, Foer does tender some constructive suggestions. With their no-to-low pricing, Google, Amazon and Facebook scarcely qualify to enter the consumer protection field which has long been considered the province of regulators. But Foer reprises an earlier case for regulation that calls for curbs on big tech on the grounds of the concentration of power in its hands and the menace this poses to independent free thinking. The bridgehead for such a move: “a Data Protection Authority to protect privacy as the government protects the environment”.

To forestall such an eventuality, Google is spending lavishly to court opinion formers. Foer documents the tentacular reach of the company’s lobbying as well as its exercise of “soft” influence: notably, its cultivation of the American Left, a natural constituency for pro-regulation sentiment. Some of this largesse has come close to home. Days before World Without Mind’s US publication, progressive Washington DC think-tank the New America Foundation, where Foer was a fellow in 2016, the recipient of $21-plus million from Google and Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt, dismissed Google critic Barry Lynn after Schmidt griped about Lynn’s approbation of the European Union’s ruling that Google favoured its own shopping service at the expense of rivals in its search results. Google and New America have strenuously discounted any link between Lynn’s ousting and Google’s patronage.

But big tech is facing growing censure. Besides the EU’s antimonopoly verdict, which levied a €2.42 billion fine, Germany recently enacted legislation holding internet firms liable for failing to remove hateful postings while Britain is reportedly considering regulation of Google and Facebook as media outfits. In America, the reckoning has been stoked by indignation over big tech’s role as a backdoor for Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Last month, Google, Facebook and Twitter were hauled before Congress to be grilled by lawmakers. Among the hearings’ revelations: Russian fake news was viewed by 146 million people across Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram; and black ops in the age of social media come cheap ‑ Russia splashed out just $100,000 to sow mayhem on Facebook. Still, there seems little immediate prospect of regulatory redress in the US. Meanwhile, just hours after its attorney was through sparring with lawmakers (all three companies declined to field their top brass), the infinitely more plum assignment of announcing Facebook’s latest quarterly financial results fell to CEO Zuckerberg: profits up almost 80 per cent from a year ago at $4.7 billion on sales totalling $10.3 billion ‑ the Russia affair registering nary a blip.

Beyond regulatory remedy, Foer calls for media organisations to forget ad sales and revert to subscriptions. Extending an analogy drawn by Sherry Turkle, Foer compares big tech, in its rearrangement of our mental metabolism, to the “midcentury food revolution” that dyspeptically reordered eating habits. Therein lies redemption though: the organic backlash against processed food can be seen as a “precedent of consumers rejecting the primacy of convenience and low prices”.

A nontrivial percentage of the populace has come to passionately care about what it puts in its mouth, which suggests it can be persuaded to apply the same care to what it ingests through the brain. Caring about the quality of food and the morality of its conditions of production has become a symbol of social status, which raises the question, why can’t concern for books, essays, and journalism acquire the same cachet?

That’s a high-flown way of talking about restoring the paywall. Or, it’s an intriguing proposition – the traditional handcrafted publication as prestige product; its consumption equal parts virtue-signalling, status display and enlightened cost-benefit calculus.

This is not as quixotic as you might suppose. Foer cites the New York Times’s post-election subscription bump as an example of media consumption as value statement. Additional endorsement comes from, of all people, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who as Washington Post proprietor said recently, “When you’re writing, be riveting, be right, and ask people to pay. They will pay.” The Irish Times, the only Irish newspaper to put up a paywall (albeit a decidedly lenient one compared with US models), has posted steady growth in digital subscriptions. In Britain, The Guardian has so far resisted a paywall, fearing this could constrict its “reach and influence” and its compact with readers, but it has found other ways to build a community of paying customers: peddling “memberships” for access to premium content and hitting on readers for donations (though a paywall is reportedly at the ready should these gambits miss revenue goals). Demand for subscription-based television streaming services, now fulfilling TV’s original promise as a creative medium, further attests to the premium consumers have come to place on an ad-free fastness. If all this sounds rather noble, worthy and small bore, Foer suggests that traditional “artisan” editorial products might tap into the same mass-market strain of “status anxiety” mined by mid-century American cultural offerings like the Book of the Month Club.

It’s possible to quibble with the finer points of World Without Mind. Amazon can feel at times like a force-fit beside Google and Facebook; ticking some of the same boxes as a locus of economic concentration and oppressor of the publishing industry but otherwise surely belonging to a different corporate genus ‑ certainly far less of a pure exercise in coding. Is Amazon really a “knowledge monopoly” a la Google and Facebook? This small objection seems less than consequential to Foer’s overall thesis and prescriptions however.

At bottom, World Without Mind is a defence of age-old humanistic values and the pretentions they come with. These include the self-conception of newspapers and other old-school gatekeepers as objective arbiters and the notion of the individual genius as creator. Foer assails both as “shams” but casts them as useful conceits, incentives to moral probity and artistic achievement. Conversely, he essays a takedown of the algorithm—the stock-in-trade of Google, Facebook and Amazon. We’ve come to deify it as a bridge to a future free from human frailty and bias. In Foer’s telling, though, it’s a glorified “recipe” puffed up by the inferiority complex of programmers keen to bask in its reflected glory as a supposed “mathematical truism”. Certainly, the future it’s unspooling suddenly seems small.

1/12/2017

Stephen Phillips is a writer on America’s West Coast. His work has appeared on the websites of The Atlantic and NPR and in Smithsonian Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, the Financial Times, Times Higher Education, the South China Morning Post and Business 2.0 among other publications.

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