“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”
-Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, now executive chairman of Alphabet, Inc.
Big tech firms like Facebook, Google and Amazon have become indispensable presences in our lives. We are addicted to these platforms as they steer us to unseen news, gossip, products and entertainment. We check our mobiles through the day, attempting to skate over micro-moments of anxiety and boredom through the endorphins that clicks and ‘likes’ generate. We are experiencing a civilizational transition and thinkers in various disciplines are grappling with the significance of the moment.
Among them is Franklin Foer, a former editor of the New Republic, who offers a fascinating look at how Big Tech is reshaping humanity, democracy and world culture at large in his new book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. His argument is straightforward – data is indeed the new oil, big tech firms are harvesting our personal data in granular detail; they build user profiles to provide us services we seek and push targeted advertising alongside. More crucially their (secret) algorithms decide what we see and do not see; they are constantly curating the knowledge we are exposed to, they determine “the news we read, the goods we buy, the path we travel, the friends we invite into our circle.” Our thought-life is, to a significant extent, being shepherded by machines.
This plays out in several ways. Producers of content, like newspapers and magazines, are dependent on these platforms for distribution of their material but users have little control on what appears on their feed. Facebook users ordinarily go through a fraction of what they expect to see because its algorithms prioritise the material. Google, likewise, classifies knowledge and imposes order, as Foer says, on the bewildering mass of material and tailors our engagement with journalistic and academic material.
The thing about algorithms is that while they scan data for patterns, they can be also manipulated to serve specific purposes – to reflect “the minds of its creators, the motives of its trainers”. Amazon “steers you to the sort of books that you’ve seen before” while “Netflix directs users to the unfamiliar”, because “obscure fare” is cheaper for the company to stream rather than blockbuster films. Google can “suppress pornography” and “not…anti-Semitic conspiracists”, its search results privilege recent articles rather than older ones. Facebook’s ability to influence people is increasingly well-known; it has run experiments to see if emotions are contagious, it has “bragged about” increasing voter turnout and organ donations “by subtly amping up the social pressure that compel virtuous behaviour.” The impact of political ads on Facebook placed by Russia-based entities during the US presidential election is now being unravelled. The Trump campaign used Facebook effectively while Barack Obama’s reportedly drew on Google Analytics during the 2012 election.
Foer argues that the capacity of Big Tech firms to act as gatekeepers of knowledge and actively influence peoples’ views gives these firms “tremendous cultural power”. People are increasingly accessing worlds of knowledge primarily through Facebook, Google and Amazon and this leads Foer to conclude that humans are outsourcing thinking to machines, that algorithms are relieving humans of the burden of choosing and thereby eroding free will itself.
One of the problems with this situation is that Big Tech platforms are agnostic about quality and are not particularly interested in elevating people’s sensibilities. They focus on capturing attention and
as a result pandering to popular tastes is the norm. If people want videos instead of words then that’s what they will increasingly get, never mind if traffic to serious, print sources will plummet. Facebook and Google are thus having a devastating impact on journalism, and by extension democracy, as a result. News outlets cannot do without the platforms to distribute content and yet they get very little in return in terms of revenue. And since income from ads depends on numbers of page views there is a tendency to produce shallow, clickbaity material. Content is produced at a frenzied pace while resources for deep, research-based, time-consuming journalism are simply not available. All this, Foer says, has a created a narrow culture and “put on a path to a world without private contemplation, autonomous thought, or solitary introspection”, a world, in his view, “without mind.”
Foer’s book is valuable for the way it charts the rise of Big Tech firms. It traces Silicon Valley’s success to the intellectual endeavours of Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Alan Turing and the 1960s counterculture; it relates the intellectual convictions of the founders of Google, Facebook and Amazon, their optimism about technology’s ability to address the world’s problems and the scope of their ambition (that include Google’s aim to achieve AI complete, “the creation of machines with the ability to equal and eventually exceed human intelligence.”) He also explains how the evolving application of anti-trust law in the US enabled these monopolies to emerge in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past.
Foer points to several factors that will sustain the dominance of Big Tech companies. One is their tax evasion practices and their ability to “transfer their core assets, their intellectual property, to whatever tax haven offers the sweetest deal.” Tech companies lobby governments and have “culturally and electorally” aligned themselves with the left and the Democratic Party and “defanged their most likely critics”. They are also far ahead of the competition because “they have such a large stockpile of a precious asset”, which is data. Bruce Schneier has famously said that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”; harvesting personal data is vital for the operations of tech firms and that would entail continued invasion of user privacy.
Foer concedes that the internet may be unusable without these platforms as they organise knowledge in helpful ways but he sharply highlights the trade-offs in terms of personal autonomy and privacy and the effects informational monopolies like Facebook and Google have on democracy.
Is there a way to counter these trends? Foer has several prescriptions. They include getting back to paper –in the form of books, magazines, and newspapers –to cultivate a space beyond the monopolies “where we don’t leave a data trail, where we are untracked.” He wants constraints on data that can be collected. Citizens, not corporations, should own their own data and have the right to purge it from servers. He wants consumers to pay for content and calls for a revolution in approaches to reading along the lines of the counterculture’s approach to food, where it influenced people to jettison the cheap in favour of the healthy. He advocates breaking up of the monopolies, treating Facebook, Google and Amazon “with the same firm hand that led government to wage war on AT&T, IBM and Microsoft – even dismembering them into smaller companies if circumstances…demand a forceful response.”
These ideas will be debated and have some way to go. Foer is of the view that tech companies may be one mega-hack away (e.g. massive leak of personal data) from a backlash that could make them vulnerable to regulation. World Without Mind is a fluent read and makes a compelling argument on the costs of dependence on Big Tech and the challenges the latter face heading into the future.