(Image from Amazon)
Why does Foer refer to Google, Facebook, and Amazon as existential threats? He gives many reasons over 250-something pages, but here are three themes I thought I'd highlight from his book.
Power vs. Privacy
One reason is that these companies have amassed a lot of economic power over our data—too much power. As a result, only a handful of corporations (Google, Facebook, and Amazon, in addition to Twitter, Apple, and Microsoft) control nearly all of our personal information. Foer calls them “monopolies” (although technically, the correct term is “oligopoly”).
For our own protection, Foer recommends regulating big tech as trustees of our data, subject to the same privacy protection laws and standards that other media corporations must adhere to.
It's worth quoting Foer on this point:
It’s a basic, intuitive right, worthy of enshrinement: Citizens, not the corporations that stealthily track them, should own their own data. The law should demand that these companies treat this data with the greatest care, because it doesn’t belong to them. Possessing our data is a heavy responsibility that must come with ethical obligations. The American government has a special category for corporations that profit from goods that they don’t truly own: We call them trustees. This is how the government treats radio and television broadcasters. These companies make money from their use of public airwaves, so the government requires that these broadcasters adhere to a raft of standards (201).
The poverty of attention
Another reason big tech is an existential threat is that social media and digital technologies have serious psychological consequences with respect to our mental wellbeing: too much time with them kills our ability to provide sustained attention and focus. Again, to quote Foer:
This abundance of free material, however, created a new form of scarcity—with so much to read, see, and hear, with the unending web of links, it became almost impossible to grab an audience’s attention. David Foster Wallace called the condition Total Noise. With it, our reading became peripatetic, less focused. Back in the seventies, Herbert Simon, the Nobel-winning economist, took these inchoate sentiments and explained them rigorously: “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” The poverty of attention, the inability to hold a reader’s attention for sustained time, that’s the crucial concept (88).
The threat to civic dialogue
Just as attention and focus suffer, so too does our capacity to engage in civic dialogue. That's because platforms like Facebook aren't designed to expand our minds. Quite the opposite. The algorithms are designed to seal us inside information bubbles. To quote Foer once more,
Facebook’s algorithms supply us with the material that we like to read and will feel moved to share. It’s not hard to see the intellectual and political perils of this impulse. The algorithms unwittingly supply readers with texts and videos that merely confirm deeply felt beliefs and biases; the algorithms suppress contrary opinions that might agitate a user. Liberals are deluged with liberal opinions; vegetarians are presented with endless vegetarians agitprop; the alt-right is fed alt-right garbage; and so on. Facebook shields us from the sort of challenging disagreement—although not from the idiocy of trolls and the blather of comments sections—that might change our minds or help us to better understand the views of our fellow citizens.
In economics, the peril of the network is monopoly—where a competitive market comes under the sway of big corporations. In culture, the peril of the network is conformism—where a competitive marketplace of ideas ceases to be so competitive, where the emphasis shifts to consensus (177-178).
An existential threat, really?
Is Foer right that big tech is an existential threat?
I admit, I'm sympathetic to Foer's point of view, even if his premise is a bit hyperbolic. His points about privacy, mental health, and civic dialogue are entirely valid. For those reasons, World Without Mind is definitely a book I'd recommend, especially for those who would like to challenge their assumptions about technological progress.
Franklin Foer, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (New York: Penguin Press).