Review: World Without Mind

I finished reading World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech last week.  Given the Zuckerberg hearings in the past fortnight…this book is certainly of-the-moment, which means that (among other things) it’s overdue at the library.

In some respects, Franklin Foer strikes me as Neil Postman’s heir.  As Technopoly warned, technology has changed and expanded (and continues to do so) so quickly that it is difficult for anyone to be certain exactly what ideas, mores, or other cultural artifacts might be jettisoned as a matter of course.  There is no time to appreciate, much less anticipate, all the changes technology can wreak.

Foer alternates his attention between the tech itself and those who wield it.   GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple), he says, have “imperiled the way we think” by leveraging their “intoxicating convenience” to “press [people] into conformity.”  He discusses the power of GAFA’s curation as manipulation of knowledge and an erasure of free will, but I’m convinced that Amazon making it easy to click on a book does not mean Amazon has forced me to buy it.  The gap between consideration and action is still, thankfully, large.

Among Foer’s other concerns is the fact that, increasingly, decision-making – and, perhaps, more creative work – is being given over to algorithms instead of humans.  Given his profession (staff writer/editor), one can understand why he’d feel threatened by the specter of automatically-composed reports.  He also seems somewhat concerned by Google’s pursuit of AI.  I don’t believe AI is actually possible, despite what Descartes thinks about humans as complex organic machines, so it seems to me that the bigger problem is Google’s tendency to ignore copyright law in its quest to digitize all published books as grist for the AI mill.

Foer is also Postman’s heir in that the solutions he proffers are weak in the face of the huge problems he diagnoses.  He describes how much these corporations lobby in Washington, details some of the strategies they’ve used to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes, notes how the overlap of data and personal transparency is three steps away from a certain sort of authoritarianism, and notes again the ascendancy of algorithms – then states a need for antitrust legislation to break up this new type of monopoly, and a Data Protection Agency to force GAFA to give consumers a way to purge their data.

I don’t know enough about the industry to know whether this is even possible, much less likely.  If these corporations are already guilty of tax evasion on a huge scale, how would you force them to play nice with data, and why would you expect them to obey new laws about it?  “Google’s leadership doesn’t care terribly much about precedent or law,” according to one of the company’s attorneys (regarding the book digitizing effort in particular, but surely it applies more broadly).  Wired’s writeup of the hearings seems to agree: “Because these businesses operate differently from those in more traditional industries, they must be regulated differently. Congress, and by extension regulators, don’t understand enough about these businesses to regulate them, and risk further entrenching their power by attempting.”

Silicon Valley apparently believes that regulations or anti-trust efforts can’t threaten Facebook’s dominance, that privacy controls won’t make Facebook more appealing to consumers, and that those currently at the helm have good intentions.

I’m skeptical as to that last point.  As Lewis put it:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

So, what do we do about this, aside from government-based solutions that will probably fail in the face of an army of attorneys?  Foer has some recommendations for fighting at the grassroots level.  The popularity of organic, whole foods (and similar food-based trends) gives him hope that people who care about what they put in their mouths will also come to care about what they put in their brains, and where it came from.

He also proposes that “cultivated” people pay to keep journalism alive, that the pursuit of objectified cultural capital would draw sufficient funding to support journalism as a livelihood.  I rather think he conflates journalism with any and all writing or publishing, but either way the point stands.

(An aside: reading this book in between movements of Verdi’s Requiem was curiously appropriate and beneficial.  It gives one hope for the continuation of the arts; it reminds the soul of God, of religion, of miracles; and it also grants some perspective: no wonder how much control these companies have, they cannot destroy my inheritance.)

 

Some may find Foer too liberal for their taste; others might long for an orderly history of technological development that reads less like an old boys’ club.  Some, like me, might find Foer unable or unwilling to discuss humans as humans: interested in convenience until the tipping point where other considerations take precedence; stubborn; guided by the intangible and the numinous, not merely by what Big Tech serves up.  But overall, World Without Mind is a warning well worth reading, illuminating how privacy is all too often the price paid for convenient consumption.  Hopefully it is a timely admonition, rather than a moment too late.

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