The Atlantic’s staff writer talks big tech (and whether or not we should just throw our smart phones into the sea).
By Charles Russo
It still doesn’t seem all that long ago that the likes of Google and Facebook were still just enterprising young companies, with slogans like “Don’t Be Evil,” pointing us towards a dynamic futurism. In the last decade, the sweeping influence and staggering power of those same corporations has exhibited increasingly dystopian overtones as these exciting young startups have morphed into global tech juggernauts. It has been like watching the neighborhood kids grow up to be 19th Century railroad barons.
Franklin Foer, staff writer for the Atlantic and former editor of the New Republic, has taken a close look at the trajectory of these forces in his new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech in which he explores the key questions of how we got to this point and where it appears to be taking us. Foer wasn’t the first to raise these issues, and judging from the recent congressional hearing concerned with how the big tech companies factored into meddling of the 2016 U.S. elections, he certainly won’t be the last.
We caught up with Foer ahead of his upcoming event at Stanford, titled: What Did Silicon Valley Do to Democracy and the Media?
As I was reading your book, I was wondering if there was an event, or tipping point moment, which sparked your interest to pursue writing it?
Back in 2014, Amazon was renegotiating its ebook contract with publishers, and they kept squeezing and squeezing until the French publishing giant Hachette said — “no more.” Amazon then basically punished Hachette for refusing to submit to its terms. I published a book with Hachette and I saw the way in which their authors were being penalized by Amazon: buy buttons were stripped from their books and searches redirected buyers to authors who had written on similar subjects. So it got me thinking about the power of the platform companies.
And of course, writers are narcissists and they can only view problems through their own lives (laughs), so that was a wakeup call for me.
I thought one of the most scathing lines in your book is, “Like Donald Trump, Silicon Valley is part of the great American tradition of sham populism.” For people who haven’t read your book, can you give a tangible example that illustrates that assessment?
These companies pose as if they are enemies of elites, claiming to be taking down the old gatekeepers and empowering individuals. But really they are the most imposing gatekeepers in human history. Facebook acts as if they are your friends, sharing photos and news, but really Facebook sorts information and makes judgement about what is more important, what rises to the top of its newsfeed. And that’s incredible power. And the fact that it is invisible, makes it even more powerful.
It’s really interesting that you are about to participate in this Stanford panel titled, “What did Silicon Valley do to democracy and the media?” and just recently we saw these same companies called in front of a congressional hearing. So I was curious what your reading was of those hearings and how the big tech companies responded?
Well it’s the first time that Facebook has gotten sustained political pushback, and they acted with incredible surprise and hamfistedness.
Google is used to playing politics, they have experienced Washington operatives, and they have an understanding of what it’s like to be criticized, so they tend to react more shrewdly than Facebook. It is also interesting because Facebook kind of exists as a cult of personality built around one guy, and then there is this kind of shock and horror that they have upon the discovery that the world does not share that same cult of personality.
And yet this is also a company that has always advocated “radical transparency”…..
Yeah, radical transparency for everyone but themselves. If they pursued a position of radical transparency they could have dealt with the Russian hacking issue a long time ago. They could have made it clear that Russians were exploiting their platform, and it would have disposed of the issue, but instead they made it seem as if they were obfuscating.
My sense from talking to people is that Facebook understood what was happening during the election, but as a matter of principal, they did nothing about it. And there is a respectable position that they can take that their platforms are neutral, that their platforms exist to be used by everyone — racists, anti-semites, Al Qaeda — and that they have a hands-off approach to it. That is a coherent, respectable position, but I think that they are a bit trapped. They claim to be good citizens as well as a neutral platform. And it turns out that you can’t be both.
One of the developments that has transpired since you published your book was Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, can you speak to that development and how it fits into the concerns expressed in the book?
Amazon is moving into this dominant position within American retail where everything falls within their orbit. Our anti-trust laws don’t have anything to say about Amazon’s size, but still we are right to have anxiety about a company that can exert such dominance over markets.
Whole foods — because elites shop there — happens to have triggered a wave of elite anxiety about Amazon’s growing hegemony. So the question of — “Can Amazon ever be too big?” is a really important one. And to answer that question we are going to need to rethink a lot of our paradigms about monopoly and markets.
You write in your book that the sensibility among top tech executives is that “monopoly is the natural, desirable order of things. That’s why start-up companies no longer dream of displacing Google or Facebook, but launch themselves with the ultimate aspiration of getting bought out.” I read that and immediately thought of Snapchat. So do you see Snapchat’s independent streak as a glimmer of hope or are they a case study of how companies are treated for not falling in line?
We’ll see. I consider them a glimmer of hope, that it is possible that we can have multiple platforms. The point is that we want there to be competition and pluralism when it comes to platforms, so anybody who is forging away in the world independent of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple is really striking a stance of resistance.
One of the big stories out of Silicon Valley in the last year is how many tech execs are using their wealth to build huge doomsday compounds, but isn’t that a mismatch to all the idealistic notion that they’re putting out into the world with relation to the tech they create?
When I think about the CEOs of the tech companies, I think of them as more idealists and relentlessly optimistic, than I think of them as apocalypse-minded. The one consistent strain of apocalypse in terms of Silicon Valley thinking is the fear of super intelligence; this idea that artificial intelligence is going to spin out of control. I’ve always found that to be a weirdly flattering way to think about the end of the world, that it is really their genius to create these machines that are so smart that they’ll rule humankind. Only an engineer can devise that fantasy because only an engineer could imagine themselves as creating that kind of power.
Throughout reading your book, I kept thinking back to a quote by William S. Burroughs: “The junk merchant does not sell the product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product.” So in thinking about the citizenry, and the individual’s use of these technologies, is it as simple as us just choosing to not participate at times, and policing ourselves against our own worst habits?
Exactly. When it comes to food or drink we are able to practice moderation, so it seems absurd to think that we couldn’t do the same when it comes to technology. It’s not that hard to carve out spaces in our lives where we don’t permit the machine. It is true that some of the behavioral experiments being run on us are extremely powerful, and we are being manipulated like crazy. But still….there are many many people who sleep with their phones, and it shouldn’t be that hard to put your phone in another room while you sleep, so you just have a few hours where that temptation isn’t haunting you.
But people like it, and why not? Google search engine is amazing, and the iPhone is a masterpiece. But we shouldn’t have to throw our phones into the sea, so it’s not really a matter of boycotting, but figuring out how to harness these things for our own purposes rather than letting them rule us.
Stanford University will host Franklin Foer on Monday, November 13th, in Cubberly Auditorium for a program titled: What Did Silicon Valley Do to Democracy and the Media? A Conversation with Franklin Foer and Nate Persily
Foer’s new book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech is available now on Penguin Press