World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by Franklin Foer

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech

Franklin Foer reveals the existential threat posed by big tech, and in his brilliant polemic gives us the toolkit to fight their pervasive influence. Over the past few decades there has been a revolution in terms of who controls knowledge and information. This rapid change has imperiled the way we think. Without pausing to consider the cost, the world has rushed to embrace...

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World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech Reviews

  • Tess Pfeifle

    Mark Crispin Miller says in his essay "Big Brother is You Watching", more or less, that no expression can wholly escape the moment that created it. Foer's, "World Without Mind" is no exception to that. However, the book acknowledges something important - the threat of big tech is not "new." I particularly enjoyed the historical treatment of the first half of the book because it was a completely new way of thinking about technology - for me, at least. My only critique is the beginning is a bit dr

    Mark Crispin Miller says in his essay "Big Brother is You Watching", more or less, that no expression can wholly escape the moment that created it. Foer's, "World Without Mind" is no exception to that. However, the book acknowledges something important - the threat of big tech is not "new." I particularly enjoyed the historical treatment of the first half of the book because it was a completely new way of thinking about technology - for me, at least. My only critique is the beginning is a bit dry, but once you're through the first 20-40 pages Foer really finds his voice and can finish the book in just a few days. This book asks some good questions and is a provocative way for interconnecting the human experience and technology. Overall, this book exceeded my expectations.

    As a note, I received this book via a GoodReads giveaway.

  • Gary Moreau

    As a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the former editor of The New Republic, Franklin Foer has had more than a front row seat during the battle between the digital and the print world over knowledge. He has been in the fray and has the scars to prove it.

    He is, as a result, more than a little resentful, a reality, however, that he readily admits, an admission in keeping with the culture of publishing nobility that the warriors of tech have so gleefully knocked from its pedestal. Truth

    As a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the former editor of The New Republic, Franklin Foer has had more than a front row seat during the battle between the digital and the print world over knowledge. He has been in the fray and has the scars to prove it.

    He is, as a result, more than a little resentful, a reality, however, that he readily admits, an admission in keeping with the culture of publishing nobility that the warriors of tech have so gleefully knocked from its pedestal. Truth and motivation, however, are not the same thing and much of what Foer says has considerable merit. His perspective deserves to be heard, not because he has suffered, but because he is right on many fronts.

    There is little question that the historical line in the sand between journalism and advertising has been obliterated by the digital stampede. A significant amount of content on every news feed is, in fact, sponsored by commercial interests. An even greater amount, we can assume, is influenced. And that’s not even counting the blatantly false, which sometimes gets uncovered, but not before the damage is done.

    He is also right that the digital world is not a virtuous world of empowered democracy, giving even the most common among us an equal voice. We all have a voice but others – or the algorithms they design - control which of our voices is heard. Those decisions may be reactive (the gatekeepers push what is already popular) but it is naïve to think that selection doesn’t yield considerable influence in a world that is drowning in raw data and images.

    Journalism, as Foer points out, is a race to clicks monitored in real time. The ability to write a headline that will get clicked is as important as the ability to write the content it refers to. And it is true that the tech giants don’t leave this to chance. They test and model in a laboratory without walls, often without our knowledge.

    There is little question that while we have immediate access to more information now than in the history of humankind, it has been homogenized to the point of banality. Even the suggestively naughty pictures and titillating headlines have lost their power to keep our attention. I, for one, have lost all interest in the daily habits of reality tv stars and the latest slap down from celebrity-seekers putting body shamers in their place.

    It is true that authors and journalists can no longer – with the exception of celebrities which is, by definition, a limited commodity – make a sustainable wage as the price of knowledge and content has been driven to zero, but the answer, I believe, is not charging for content. That’s just not going to happen and there remains an idealistic part of me that doesn’t want it to.

    One of the best points made by Foer is that the advancement of technology has, for many reasons, undermined all public interest in corporate regulation. The free net, as it were, has allowed the big technology companies to amass a monopoly power that the robber barons of the late nineteenth century could only dream of.

    But is regulation the answer? Can a faceless bureaucrat, in the end, be assumed to be any more noble-minded than the CEO of Tech Inc? I’m not so sure. To draw an analogy, I think noblesse oblige, on the political front, could be no worse than what we have now. We have “democracy” in name only.

    Foer points out that in world of book publishing paper, by some statistics, seems to be making a small comeback. I don’t believe, however, that it has anything to do with a nostalgia for books that we can touch and feel. I think it is directly explained by the fact that publishers now price their e-books at or very close to the hardcover versions. At this juncture in the evolution, I suspect, consumers are simply saying that if I can get an object for the same price as a file, why not? The trend, I suspect, will ultimately revert back in favor of the electronic. I love books, and consume 60 or more per year. And they will have to yank my Kindle out of my dead, cold hands.

    I do, however, have an intellectual commitment to diversity. And that is why I believe that Foer’s book deserves to be read and discussed. One benefit, moreover, of his being an “old school” journalist, as some will certainly refer to him, is that the book is meticulously researched and any reader is sure to learn things about the history of journalism – and algorithms – that they didn’t know before.

    I know I did. This book was very much worth my investment and my time.

  • Ietrio

    An old man and his fears. The good old times were better. But the old man is not smart enough to know the old times were better because they were past, hence easy to manage.

    Otherwise, a mindless primitivist statement. Same concerns were generated at every new item in the life of humans. The industrial was bad. But the poverty of today has a comfort few kings had only two centuries ago. The car was bad, but we all depend on it and even those hypocrite enough to dump it are glad to use it from tim

    An old man and his fears. The good old times were better. But the old man is not smart enough to know the old times were better because they were past, hence easy to manage.

    Otherwise, a mindless primitivist statement. Same concerns were generated at every new item in the life of humans. The industrial was bad. But the poverty of today has a comfort few kings had only two centuries ago. The car was bad, but we all depend on it and even those hypocrite enough to dump it are glad to use it from time to time. Synthetic fibers? Not natural, yet fewer people die of frost today than before them. And that is only about clothes.

    The problem in the end is not the argument, as everyone is entitled to their views. Is the qualifications that are lacking.

  • Charles

    Franklin Foer’s “World Without Mind” is an excellent book. It identifies important problems, ties the problems to their historical precedents, and suggests some reasonable solutions. The book is not complete, or perfect, but in the emerging literature of why and how to curb the power of giant technology companies, this book is a useful introduction, although there is a long way to go from here to there.

    Foer is primarily known as having been editor of “The New Republic,” for several years during

    Franklin Foer’s “World Without Mind” is an excellent book. It identifies important problems, ties the problems to their historical precedents, and suggests some reasonable solutions. The book is not complete, or perfect, but in the emerging literature of why and how to curb the power of giant technology companies, this book is a useful introduction, although there is a long way to go from here to there.

    Foer is primarily known as having been editor of “The New Republic,” for several years during the modern era, ending in 2014. Editors come and go, of course, but at the time his dismissal by a new owner felt like a watershed event among the chattering classes in America. This was because the new owner was Chris Hughes—a man of distinctly modest talent and even more modest accomplishments, who became filthy rich by the happenstance of being Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard. Hughes, after a brief period of operating The New Republic in close cooperation with Foer, using traditional (i.e., money-losing) journalism, hired some eighth-rate web traffic geek to turn the magazine into clickbait. In that environment, of course, Foer was of no use, so Hughes fired him in the boorish and incompetent manner typical of nouveau riche men of his generation and class. (Hughes no longer owns the magazine, having failed even at operating a clickbait site, and has since moved on to other failures.)

    In part, as he admits, Foer wrote his book in response to these events. But this is not a revenge job; it’s just that the story of The New Republic’s travails is illuminating to Foer’s points. Those points are clearly and well made. Yes, Foer seems to think that most history began in the 1960s, with perhaps a few events from the 1700s onward being mildly relevant. But that is an occupational hazard for the educated members of Generation X, and, after all, most of the relevant history to this book began in the 1990s, so if you must have a narrow historical vision, it might as well be in a book about the evils of modern technology firms.

    Foer begins with a Prologue, which in many ways is the most intriguing part of the book. Here Foer introduces a key historical parallel for the book, 1950s and 1960s food re-engineering creating the dominance of processed food and frozen dinners. He analogizes that change to the emergent dominance of the technology companies (by which he means “GAFA”—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). As far as food goes, we were promised “convenience, efficiency, and abundance.” We got it—and we also, without meaning to, hugely damaged “our waistline, longevity, soul, and planet.” We were promised similar, but more utopian, benefits by the GAFA companies, some of which we got, along with a heaping of unexpected Bad Things. This tension, between the promises of technology and its costs, is the backbone of Foer’s book.

    In his Prologue, Foer also lays out a philosophical framework, focusing on what I think is the critical point. “More than any other previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolists aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it.” Although he does not use these terms, Foer’s basic point throughout the book is that the GAFA companies and their masters deny the telos of man. They refuse to acknowledge that man has an inherent nature or purpose. Instead, they view humanity in purely instrumentalist terms, subject to unending manipulation—all for mankind’s own improvement, of course, as well as their profit. Thus, while Silicon Valley is often viewed as libertarian, it is not—it is monopolist in economic intent and collectivist utopian in social intent, even if that utopia uses the superficial language of liberty. Silicon Valley considers “the concentration of power in its companies . . . an urgent social good, the precursor to global harmony; a necessary condition for undoing the alienation of mankind.” This utopia is a collectivist one, not one personal to the individual. In fact, Foer even semi-lyrically complains (not citing Josef Pieper, though he should) that “The tech companies are destroying something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation.” And, even if such a utopia may seem desirable, Foer think that utopia is not on its way. Rather, we face enforced conformity, a total loss of privacy, the erosion of thoughtful self-government, and the hobbling of creative genius. We’re becoming Spam—a mediocre, indistinguishable, controlled mass of meat contained in a metaphysical box.

    Foer traces this desire by the masters of GAFA, for global harmony and the end of alienation, to the 1960s. More precisely, to Stewart Brand, who founded the “Whole Earth Catalog,” and to other pop culture icons like Marshall McLuhan. While I suppose this is true in part, it is a crimped vision. Seeking, and believing you have found, the key to global harmony and the end of alienation has a vastly longer pedigree—through Marxism and its variants; through 19th Century German philosophy; and through much Enlightenment thought. Of course, as Foer sometimes seems to hint, these latter day eschatons are mere secular versions of the ancient Judeo-Christian vision, and Facebook and Google merely offer different re-workings of the Serpent in the Garden, promising us that we will be as gods. Stewart Brand and other hippies are, in truth, irrelevant carbuncles on the shoulders of giants. But Foer’s basic point is true enough—this vision was influential in forming the vision of today’s tech leaders, and it is utopian in form and content. Despite the libertarian stereotype, it is “the exact opposite of Ayn Rand’s vision of libertarianism; [it is] a hunger for cooperation, sharing, and a self-conscious awareness of our place in a larger system.”

    “World Without Mind” addresses each of the GAFA firms in turn, with a focus on the history of each as it relates to Foer’s theses. None of these companies, of course, produce any relevant amount of knowledge. They are instead gatekeepers and filters, offering efficiency to consumers in exchange for a piece of the action. Foer does not object to the gatekeeper role, as such. He is perfectly well aware that the mass of information that is the Internet cannot be directly addressed by any human and still be of any use. He notes that in the past journalists (totally coincidentally, people just like him) were the honored gatekeepers of both information and its importance, as well as arbiters of much of culture. His Golden Age is the time when the owners of the Washington Post honored objectivity, de-emphasized profitability, and regarded their news outlets as a public trust. Foer is aware that this Golden Age was sometimes tarnished, although his examples tend to focus on the clichéd (they enabled Nixon!), not the real (conservatives have been suppressed for decades). But again, his basic point, that the GAFA companies are more like Cerberus out for a snack than a paladin keeping enemies out of the gate, is sound.

    Foer begins with Google, noting that Google regards its actual mission as creating strong AI, followed by augmented humanity and a world where scarcity has been eliminated and all limits on man disappear. I have long known this (it is not like Google keeps it a secret, though few seem to focus on it), but my reaction has always been that Google will ultimately collapse, since this is a stupid business model. Any company that hires Ray Kurzweil to be a top executive is delusional and wasting the shareholders’ money—if the goal is to offer the shareholders money, which here it isn’t. As Foer says, Kurzweil’s “main business is prophecy.” Prophecy does not pay the bills, or at least false prophecy doesn’t. But Foer is correct, and my old reaction was wrong—the business model doesn’t require competition to survive if Google has carved out a niche of permanent dominance, by having such an amount of data that no competitor can even begin to think of competing, and if it has, it can do whatever it wants, whether it makes any business sense or not. Next comes Facebook, whose goal is not the creation of non-human progress, but rather directly augmenting human social progress, by bringing people together, while at the same time telling them what thoughts are permitted to think, and increasingly manipulating them into what to think. Facebook’s focus is algorithmic thinking to apply that data, to which outsiders are not privy, only the priests of Zuckerberg. Finally, Amazon monopolizes power over authors (Foer mostly ignores Amazon’s non-book sales) and thereby erodes authorial incentive, thereby crushing genius. Amazon crushes authorial genius in books; Google and Facebook do it in newspapers and periodicals; Apple erodes it in music (Apple gets the least direct abuse in this book, implicitly because it has the least power of the type Foer complains of).

    But before we get to authorial incentive, we should treat Foer’s grander, if less visceral, objection to the behavior of the GAFA companies. That is, why is any of this a problem? It is because their power is destroying our ability to govern ourselves. They are “knowledge monopolies,” a new variation on an old theme. Foer’s other Golden Age is one, from roughly 1880 to 1980, when antitrust enforcement was much more aggressive than today. He divides that into two time periods, though, only one of which he feels should be our new model. In earlier years, monopoly was viewed, by men such as Louis Brandeis, through the Jeffersonian lens of an unhealthy concentration of power tending to the degradation of democracy through its corruption of the democratic process. In later years, however, from roughly 1940 on, monopolies came to be viewed by enforcers only as a problem when they harmed consumers, by raising prices or reducing choice—that is, when they were inefficient. The problem, though, is that today’s monopolies, at least on the surface, benefit consumers quite a bit. They are extremely efficient in that sense. Thus, when in the 1970s academics such as Robert Bork pushed to revise the law to, in effect, only recognize this latter theory, and this view became wholly dominant, the tools to attack monopoly as a broader menace to our society had disappeared. Foer wants to restore those tools, for, as he says, “The Framers preferred liberty to efficiency,” because any monopoly is ultimately the enemy of liberty, especially a monopoly with power over knowledge and communication, which tends to create conformity, the bane of a free people.

    As to authorial incentive, there is little doubt that the GAFA companies have reduced the power of, and payments to, authors, which must necessarily reduce incentive to create. Foer sees keeping such payments high as a key pillar of our society. To demonstrate this, he focuses on copyright. He claims that “one of [government’s] primary economic responsibilities is preserving the value of knowledge.” Although there is something to this, and Foer cites both the Constitution and the 1710 Statute of Anne, the progenitor of generally applicable copyright law, he reaches too far when he claims, in essence, that today’s copyright law is a critical element of our entire social system, and, by implication, if authors get paid less due to changing competition, it tears at the fabric of our society. For one, we got by just fine when copyright lengths were far shorter (a maximum of 28 years until relatively recently—now it’s the entire life of the author plus 70 years!). (It is both not true as a reason for the growth of copyright, and an anachronism as an argument, when, speaking of Wordsworth and early copyright, Foer says “Because poets were rarely appreciated in their own time, copyright protections needed to be lengthy—so that there was enough time for the public’s taste to catch up with genius.”) For another, we got by just fine when there was no copyright at all, and when it was spotty in framework and enforcement. Sure, there’s a good argument that more rigid copyright helps authorial creativity and production. Yes, Larry Lessig makes far too broad claims, and yes, anyone who believes “information wants to be free” is an idiot. Yes, the theory that crowdsourced authoring, such as Wikipedia, can compete in accuracy of content or style of delivery with professional, paid content has proven utterly false, as has the idea that crowdsourced anything offers a viable model to replace any paid model with something qualitatively better (other than, perhaps, reviews of consumer products and services). But let’s not elevate any of this to a core principle of good government. Moreover, Amazon is not Napster. Foer’s objection is that Amazon devalues the traditional hierarchy of authors imposed by publishing houses, instead substituting the whims of the market, and also eroding the power of the publishing houses through its economic dominance. All true, but this is not theft, and copyright law seems to be working as it’s supposed to for authors. So, it’s probably inaccurate to call Amazon a “knowledge monopoly”—it is more of a monopsonist, one whose dominance over the buyer’s market, in this case as middleman, allows it to set prices. “Monopoly” is a term better suited to Google and Facebook (although they too erode authorial incentive, as a side effort to controlling the flow of information). This is a less sexy and less compelling claim, though, than that all four GAFA companies are a monolith placing dynamite at the foundation of society.

    Regardless of which company should be focus, Foer offers a set of solutions to his two identified problems. First, we should restore the old understanding of monopoly, and the federal government should take aggressive enforcement action. Any firm that controls knowledge to a great degree, especially one that filters that knowledge in a non-neutral way, should be curbed or broken. Second, and buttressing this effort, new regulations, under the aegis of a “Data Protection Authority,” should be created to sharply limit the collection and use of data by technology companies, including requiring automatic deletion of data except upon opt-in and “insist[ing] that they provide equal access to a multiplicity of sources and viewpoints.” Third, we should all realize we need to pay, and we should go back to paying, for quality authorial work, rather than thinking content should be free, and thereby both undercutting authorship and allowing Google and Facebook to direct us, unknowingly, to content they select that we should be consciously choosing for ourselves. Fourth, as with the way much of America has recoiled from processed food, factory farming and other perceived evils (even though that is often “really purchasing the sensation of virtue and rectitude”), we should seek to restore “cachet” to “books, essays, and journalism.” In other words, we should be more highbrow.

    I think, at a minimum in the abstract, all of these are good ideas. I, at least, had already started subscribing to more and more periodicals, in paper form, and have abandoned my Kindle, as has Foer. If I’ve done it, there must be something to it! I think, though, that absolute neutrality for all non-obscene content should be required, not just offering “a multiplicity of sources and viewpoints,” which is just another word for picking and choosing what is permitted to think. Any technology company that censors any non-obscene content for non-viewpoint neutral reasons should be subject to massive government fines and a private right of action with huge statutory monetary damages. But these are details—the question now is, how can we get this party started?

    Foer explicitly thinks that while these proposals seem unlikely to be accepted, that there will be some “catastrophe,” a “Big One,” where some mass exposure of private data will cause such damage to the average person that voters will demand something be done. This is certainly possible (the recent Equifax hack tends in this direction, though it is far from catastrophic enough). Foer says “The best analogy is the financial crisis of 2008. There was nothing that the banks could do to gain political traction in the face of the catastrophe that they unleashed.” Really? In the world I live in, corrupt politicians cooperated with corrupt bankers to make sure banks were completely insulated from the effects of their actions, and exited the 2008 crisis in far better shape than before, having paid no price at all, and passed all the costs on to the average American. It’s the latter, not banks, who lack “political traction.” In fact, I am willing to bet most dictionaries today illustrate their entry for “political traction” with a line drawing of Jamie Dimon. This weak analogy suggests the key flaw in Foer’s hope—catastrophes nowadays are used by the powerful to advance their own interests, not to make changes for the benefit of society as a whole. In all likelihood, unfortunately, the same would happen in a catastrophic data breach.

    Some argue that action is not necessary, only more competition over time. Once Microsoft was dominant; now it is not (though it still dominates certain software markets). Once buggy whips were sold all over America. At some point in the near future, probably sooner rather than later, so the argument goes, the GAFA companies will also cede their dominance to new competition. Foer disagrees—he thinks that the collection of data these companies have make them nearly impossible to dislodge from their position. Another argument, made by Tim Wu in “The Attention Merchants,” is that it is primarily our job, not the government’s, to change things. Foer certainly agrees with this in part, as shown by his strong advocacy of returning to paid content and his suggestion that readers, by their consumer choices, have the ability to reverse the monopolistic dominance of the GAFA companies. That is, even aside from any government action, we have the power to redirect our attention. A third argument, related to the second, is that the system we have is what the people want. We get what we deserve, and just because it’s trashy and damaging doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it. Foer, certainly, overstates the ability of the masses to appreciate high-level thought and culture. They want Upworthy, not “The New Yorker.” Foer ascribes the decline of mass appreciation for classical music to Baumol’s cost disease (where activities that have not increased in productivity over time, such as live music performances, become relatively more expensive). That doesn’t even make any sense—live performances are not how classical music is consumed; excellent recordings have been ubiquitous for nearly a century. The decline is much more likely because the coarse tastes of the common people have become economically, and therefore socially, dominant. (For the record, I cannot myself appreciate classical music at all; it all sounds like elevator music to me. I prefer EDM, thus exhibiting my own coarseness.) While these arguments may have something to them, they do not contradict Foer’s core assertion that aggressive government control of knowledge monopolies, now, will benefit society.

    [Review finishes as first comment.]

  • Marks54

    How to begin on this well-intended but not very successful effort at painting the dark side of Internet dominance by such firms as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and the like?

    - Oh Brave New World that has such platforms in it!

    Or perhaps ...

    - Former editor of the New Republic used to be a fan of the Internet and its New Age independent spirit. What he thinks about it now will blow your mind!

    Mr. Foer is concerned about the long term threats to our freedom posed by the dominant monopoly positions

    How to begin on this well-intended but not very successful effort at painting the dark side of Internet dominance by such firms as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and the like?

    - Oh Brave New World that has such platforms in it!

    Or perhaps ...

    - Former editor of the New Republic used to be a fan of the Internet and its New Age independent spirit. What he thinks about it now will blow your mind!

    Mr. Foer is concerned about the long term threats to our freedom posed by the dominant monopoly positions of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others. (It is sort of a monopoly position, since Foer is not a fan of technical definitions by economists and lawyers - except when they support him, such as Arnold or Brandeis - but I digress.).

    What is the problem? Well by collecting and analyzing so much information and by having so many users, these large firms can control how we think about the world, what we read, who we link up with and talk to, and what we buy. We retain our free will - nominally - but without real choices what is to become of our lives? As AI gets more powerful and begins to dominate human actors, even our identities will come into question. Holy "brains in a vat" Batman, the world of the Matrix is just around the corner! While we are not quite there yet, the book is filled with examples of how these large network platform behemoths behave like monopolists and restrict the potential for anyone to effectively compete with them - or even protest what they are doing.

    There is a growing genre of business dystopian books and accounts that are interesting to read and perhaps even more valuable by providing a damper to the technological march of triumph and hype that fill a lot of the popular business press. Algorithms will not solve all of our problems - nor will big data. These ventures and the large firms they morph into are run by people who suffer from all of the moral failings and personal agendas of the rest of us - more depending on who you read. It is valuable to have a questioning chorus on the stage.

    The work of the gadfly, however, also gets scrutinized, as well as the alternative program for action, if any, that is offered in the critique. Much of what Mr. Foer presents is not new. Amazon has come in for occasional criticism by its competitors and suppliers - and even occasionally by its customers. Facebook has been accused of numerous failings, most recently for its accepting of phony ads during the recent presidential campaign, and I saw little new in this account. The same is true for Google, whose growth to dominance has received much media attention, including some criticism.

    Mr. Foer concludes his book with a call for enhanced antitrust scrutiny of the platform giants. I do not disagree with him on this, up to a point. It has never been illegal in the US to get very big - indeed to become a monopoly. The problem comes when a position of monopoly power in a market is obtained by acting in an uncompetitive way in the market that is monopolized. Very few have criticized the platform giants for inefficiency. Indeed, that is the point for Mr. Foer, that these firms are so much more efficient than their competitors from earlier generations, that the competitors do not stand a chance. Why get your news on an inky and sometimes soggy wad of paper in the morning when you can look it up anytime on your phone - for free? The problem is to identify what the market is where the anticompetitive behavior is occurring and demonstrate that such behavior is occurring and is anticompetitive. That might well be possible - and for all I know may be the subject of current litigation. We have no insight on this from Mr. Foer's account unfortunately but will have to look it up for ourselves on Google.

    For me, Mr. Foer was most insightful in discussing the fate of print media and writers under the digital onslaught, drawing on his experience at the New Republic. Even here though, while the details are fascinating there is little new to shed light on these problems which have been plaguing print media for decades (even before the Internet was upon us after Netscape). On the plight of individual writers, I am sorry but anyone who did not know this has not been paying attention. Most people who get paid anything to write need to have a day job - or a professionally employed partner.

    In terms of solutions, Mr. Foer's idea that the government is the actor that will save us from Google or Facebook is a head scratcher. The government is what gave us the Internet in the first place so why is it that some government agency (DARPA or DOJ) will be able to cope with the highly skilled and credentialed minions at Google or Amazon? There apppears to be a trace of fear that consolidation in the private sectors will consolidate everything and even take over a number of governmental functions. I understand that fear - it is literally as American as Apple Pie. In fact, we are coming up in January 2018 on the 130 year anniversary of the publication of "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy, which posits such a corporatist future -albeit with no Internet. The fact that one can envisage a corporate takeover of the US, however, does not mean that such a takeover is likely or a reasonable extrapolation from current issues of corporate power. Seriously, JK Galbraith was concerned about the corporate power of Ford in the 1960s with "The New Industrial State". How did that work out?

    Let's just say I am not persuaded.

  • Angie

    In the Prologue to this book, the author tells us he spent most of his career at the New Republic. When Chris Hughes, who happens to have been Mark Zuckerberg's college roommate, bought the paper, he made Foer editor and tasked him to remake the magazine into a modern publication, befitting the new millennium. He fired Foer 2 1/2 years later when the magazine could not meet Hughes' expectations. Foer says he hopes that this book "doesn't come across as fueled by anger." So far he has NOT lived u

    In the Prologue to this book, the author tells us he spent most of his career at the New Republic. When Chris Hughes, who happens to have been Mark Zuckerberg's college roommate, bought the paper, he made Foer editor and tasked him to remake the magazine into a modern publication, befitting the new millennium. He fired Foer 2 1/2 years later when the magazine could not meet Hughes' expectations. Foer says he hopes that this book "doesn't come across as fueled by anger." So far he has NOT lived up to his hopes.

    I may not last for the duration, especially in the face of a writing style that could be a little less informal and a bit better organized. One common annoyance is that when he is talking about history of tech he is not careful to identify the year or period he is talking about. Sometimes he mentions it in passing well into the discussion or leaves the reader to guess from mention of certain events. Sometimes I never was sure. This is important. For example, if a young person has a personal computer it makes a difference if it is the 1970s, the early 1980s, or the late 80s. One is extraordinary; one is VERY advanced; one is so-so.

    OK, I gave up. When I find myself so annoyed by the style that it interferes with my ability to absorb what the author is saying it is time to move on. The writing is just plain sloppy. I found too many instances like when he says that the great sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote a book making the case for putting engineers into power and uses this to discuss the rise of Herbert Hoover and the increasing importance of engineers as the 20th century progressed. Sounds interesting, but in neither the book nor the endnotes is the Veblen book identified!! (The endnotes are another source of annoyance. I discovered them late. Why? Because there are no footnote numbers or other references to them in the text. A reader has to guess that this might be something for which the author might cite the source and go to the notes, where references are found by page number. ) I am surprised and disappointed that the publisher put the book out for sale in this condition.

  • Anita Pomerantz

    While I confess that I didn't agree with much of this book, I found it to be fascinating.

    Foer basically argues that companies that are dominating data collection (namely Facebook, Google, and Amazon) are monopolies because they are able to use that data to (unfairly) compete. He is critical of the fact that government has allowed these monopolies to evolve and that consumers are making a bargain with the devil, trading off freedom for efficiency.

    What he fails to do, to my satisfaction, is indica

    While I confess that I didn't agree with much of this book, I found it to be fascinating.

    Foer basically argues that companies that are dominating data collection (namely Facebook, Google, and Amazon) are monopolies because they are able to use that data to (unfairly) compete. He is critical of the fact that government has allowed these monopolies to evolve and that consumers are making a bargain with the devil, trading off freedom for efficiency.

    What he fails to do, to my satisfaction, is indicate what we should do about it. He seems to have some vague ideas about the government's ability to protect privacy and that if the upper echelons of society would all just elevate reading on paper (newspapers, magazines, books) to the level it deserves, it would somehow permeate the rest of society. He has a lot more faith in the political machine than I do.

    Personally, it seems to me that the horse is out of the barn, and there's going to be no reining it in. Foer seems to imply that no company will ever compete with the Google, Facebook, and Amazon triad because only they have the computing power necessary to crunch all the data, and they are the only ones who have collected all the data to crunch. While right now, the latter may be true, I am pretty sure computing power will continue to get cheaper and more accessible. Perhaps companies will form data conglomerates to pool their data for better leverage. I believe a lot of this data is already available for sale, so not sure it's as proprietary as Foer implies.

    However, I loved the way Foer makes his case. The book is filled with passages that make you think and interwoven with historical comparisons that provide context. He strikes me as pretty biased in his thought process (the guy was an editor), but if you take it as a long opinion piece, it's a good read.

  • Murtaza

    The proliferation of information on social media combined with the massive amounts of data being raked in by tech companies every day is eroding democracy, as well as the refined culture represented by traditional journalism and writing. Reflecting on the popular sentiment that "data is the new oil," in this book Foer describes how hegemonic companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have obtained a massive and largely unregulated ability to control the minutiae of our lives and thoughts,

    The proliferation of information on social media combined with the massive amounts of data being raked in by tech companies every day is eroding democracy, as well as the refined culture represented by traditional journalism and writing. Reflecting on the popular sentiment that "data is the new oil," in this book Foer describes how hegemonic companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have obtained a massive and largely unregulated ability to control the minutiae of our lives and thoughts, by gathering enough information to paint an accurate psychological profile of any internet user. This data goldmine coupled with the devaluation of the economic value of knowledge by the internet is quickly leading us towards a world where high culture is a thing of the past, while individual people are on the way to becoming automatons who can be manipulated by unaccountable, monopolistic companies based in Silicon Valley, wielding powerful algorithms. This is the "World Without Mind" that the title alludes to.

    Foer argues that ordinary people must find a way to resist this pull towards domination, suggesting the example of the healthy food movement as an analogue. Decades ago people were enthralled with the first generation of packaged, frozen foods, before eventually realizing the harm this was causing both themselves and the environment. People thus made a conscious decision to make better food choices, even if the price was higher, because they valued their health. Likewise, people can and should pay for legitimate journalism and writing, and magazines and newspapers should encourage them to do so instead of racing to appeal to the lowest common denominator of clickbait. By building subscriber based audiences they can protect the integrity of their craft while encouraging people to develop their higher faculties, rather than gorging on the free information junk food found on Facebook for instance. Foer also calls on the government to get involved by regulating data collection and manipulation, while potentially breaking up or restricting the internet monopolies, which have been granted a level of hegemonic power we'd never tolerate in other industries.

    The uncharitable way to look at this book would be as a gripe held by an old elite, New York media people, against a new elite, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs. While the book kind of started out that way, reflecting on the catastrophic takeover of the liberal New Republic magazine by a Facebook founder, it ended up offering some constructive suggestions on how to push back against the devaluation of knowledge being wrought by tech companies. It is also quite well-written, which Foer seemed to make an effort to do in order to remind readers of the value of his craft.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    Silicon Valley dreams of merging mind and machine. If, however, minds merge with machines it will also merge with the corporations that provide the platforms for those machines and corporations dream of monopoly. Monopolies love homogeneity and reliable revenue streams and finally control. This unpleasant syllogism is the logic of GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple etc.) The book focuses on intellectual property but we are living in a sci-fi plot let's not make it a dystopian one, please.

  • Kusaimamekirai

    I’ve read some criticism of Foer and this book that it’s mainly an outgrowth of his bitterness about being fired from his job as editor of The New Republic (bitterness which he admits has lingered) and his being anti technology. It does certainly seem that in 2017 if you do not 100% worship social media or deign to criticize what it may be doing to society you are quickly labelled as backwards and wanting to go back to the Dark Ages of 20 years ago.

    I do not believe this criticism of Foer is fa

    I’ve read some criticism of Foer and this book that it’s mainly an outgrowth of his bitterness about being fired from his job as editor of The New Republic (bitterness which he admits has lingered) and his being anti technology. It does certainly seem that in 2017 if you do not 100% worship social media or deign to criticize what it may be doing to society you are quickly labelled as backwards and wanting to go back to the Dark Ages of 20 years ago.

    I do not believe this criticism of Foer is fair however.

    After reading this thought provoking book I thought Foer raised some legitimate questions about where this technological revolution is taking us. He discusses the professed altruism of companies like Google and Facebook which claim to want to make a more democratic society without gatekeepers, and yet they are the ultimate gatekeepers of knowledge. So much of the knowledge we take in is first filtered and custom sorted by them into what they believe we want. Is this more democratic or this just exchanging a small cluster of media conglomerates for one or two all powerful ones?

    For example, there is an excellent chapter where Foer discusses Google’s plan to digitize the libraries of the world. For a time Google kept its plan highly secret. Why? The massive copyright issues they ignored notwithstanding, its plan as one executive said, was not to offer these books to the public, but to feed the information into its artificial intelligence project which hopes to recreate human thought. Do companies which control an unprecedented amount of private information about so manym truly have the public’s best interest at heart or do we need to exercise more oversight over them?

    Where I particularly agree with Foer is in his assessment that it seems the public has little desire to slow Google or Facebook down or has much apprehension about relinquishing its privacy to them. The need for instant access to information and connection has become so compelling that privacy seems a small price to pay. As Foer so elegantly puts it however:

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