by Franklin Foer
This book will give you more conversation starters than the finale of Game of Thrones. It will have you examining your navel and feeling bad about your online presence. You’ll question every choice you’ve made in the last decade as having possibly not been your own. While we continue to acquiesce to Big Tech, Franlin Foer is reminding us that with convenience and tailoring comes manipulation and gate keeping.
World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by Franklin Foer is an interesting, historical look at how Big Tech–companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon–are no different than other big corporations that have pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable until they were finally regulated into treating people like they’re people and not just more money in their coffers. As I read this book, I couldn’t help but picture Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and others sitting back and tapping their fingers together like Mr. Burns.
Meanwhile, we eat up everything Big Tech puts in front of us until we can’t make our own choices anymore; we rely on the computer to tell us what to say, think, eat, do, etc. Case in point: I was on one of these websites the other day trying to return something, so I fired up a chat. I think it used to be with a person, but now it is clearly a chat bot. And the website literally gave me the options as to how to respond to the chat bot with no option to chat otherwise. Was I happy with how quick and efficient the process was? Yes. Is the company getting me used to interacting like I, too, am a robot? It sure seems that way…
And that’s where Foer’s book comes in. He talks about the culture in which Silicon Valley and Big Tech spawned. This culture helps explain why Big Tech thinks the way it does and makes decisions that seem radical and reckless. There’s complete transparency with respect to Big Tech’s desire to infiltrate every aspect of our lives and “collaborate”–not compete–with other companies to be every person’s only resource.
On the topic of competition, Foer discusses Big Tech’s approach to undercutting and buying up any and all of it. Big Tech has been so successful at this strategy that startups apparently pitch themselves to investors these day as hoping to one day be bought by [insert applicable Big Tech company here]. That’s an incredible phenomenon because Big Tech does not even have to do the work of making sure startups are funded or that the startup’s tech is consistent with Big Tech’s coding system/[other tech jargon] because the startups are designing their apps, programs, etc. to be bought by one of them some day.
Don’t get me wrong, some of Big Tech’s pursuits are noble. An open exchange of ideas. Anyone and everyone who can type can publish a book. The entire internet at your beck and call. But the problem is in how these goals and accomplishments are used and twisted, e.g., our data being pushed into algorithms and predicting our next move so often that we think we came up with the idea ourselves, or every conspiracy theorist who couldn’t get published suddenly has a platform. That’s where Big Tech doesn’t get to wash their hands of the moral responsibility of policing their products or recognizing they are cultural gatekeepers.
We’re on the cusp of an age of algorithmically derived art and ideas. Machines are increasingly suggesting the most popular topics for human inquiry, and humans are increasingly obeying. Instead of experimentation and novelty, data is leading the way, propelling us toward formula. The myth of cultivation gives way to crass manipulation.
In the last section of the book, Foer shifts from the era of Big Tech taking over our lives to what he sees as the people’s rebellion. According to Foer, people are beginning to see how much they are giving up in the current system and rejecting it. As each new story comes out about how Google or Facebook didn’t protect users’ privacy, people become a little more jaded to their products. Foer also discusses Kindle books versus paper books, and how people are going back to the joys of solitude and flipping pages while reading. I don’t know if I buy his theory, but I have heard more and more people say “I thought we were all getting off of social media.”
I know I, for one, take Google with me wherever I go. It tracks my footsteps and suggests food, news and activities to me every day. I have even let Google into my home and I unwittingly teach it every day to be better, to be more natural, to predict what I like to listen to, and to anticipate what questions I have throughout the day (the “Good Morning Google” option now answers all my Hey Googles in the morning about the weather, news, my calendar, etc). Neal and I even joke through it sometimes. Am I training the next version of Google Home? Or am I training the AI that will eventually kill all humans?
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