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Amazon, headed by CEO Jeff Bezos, is one of the four big tech firms that author Franklin Foer warns are ‘shredding the principles that protect individuality’. Photo: AP

ReviewBook review: World Without Mind – how big four tech firms are taking over our lives and why we need to do something about it

Author Franklin Foer says that with Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook eroding what makes us human and lulling us into an ever greater sense of pliant dependency, the time has come to start saying no to big tech

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech

by Franklin Foer

Penguin Press

4 stars

Silicon Valley’s achievements are typically viewed from the perspective of innovations that have transformed modern life.

We can go back a few decades and look to Intel’s development of the integrated circuit, for instance, or Apple’s reimagining of the personal computer. More recent are planet-spanning social media platforms, such as Facebook; search engines that resemble magic mirrors, such as Google; and bazaars without end, such as Amazon.

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Many of us over 35 see this as a mixed blessing, of course: access to wondrous technological tools has also brought us too much email, too many distractions and too much vulnerability – hackings, trollings, stalkings and worse.

But what if the trade-offs are much larger than we realised? Franklin Foer argues that in the midst of our digital lives, does it not seem possible that Silicon Valley’s darkest, stealthiest triumph has been to merge personal technologies that improve our efficiency with personal technologies that alter our humanity?

As the owner of YouTube, Google can influence the videos we watch and thus the information to which we are exposed. Photo: AP

On a basic level, Foer’s book aims to expose the dangers that four technology giants – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – pose to our culture and careers. In their methods of consumer observation and data gathering, and in their intention to replace human decision-making with merciless algorithms, these companies, Foer says, “are shredding the principles that protect individuality”.

Actually, it is even worse than that. Bent on dominating our markets as well as the world, the four corporations have lulled us into a sense of pliant dependency as they influence our thinking and activities. Far more powerful than the elite “gatekeeping” institutions of the past – the major television networks, for example, or the leading newspapers – this fearsome four, as Foer characterises them, are the new arbiters of media, economy, politics and the arts.

By making their services cheap and indispensable, and by tailoring their complex algorithms to our data profiles, they can gently push us toward products they want us to buy or, say, YouTube videos they want us to watch. Yet the methods by which we get such recommendations – for news, consumer goods, movies, music, friends and the like – remain opaque.

When we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organisations that run the machines
Franklin Foer

Facebook’s acceptance of thousands of Russian ads during last year’s US presidential election may be a case in point. As Foer reminds us, through an algorithmic dispersal of misinformation, the social media giant possibly helped elect to the presidency of the United States a frequently bankrupt real estate developer without any political experience whatsoever.

The heart of the problem, as Foer sees it, “is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organisations that run the machines”. It is an important distinction.

Foer isn’t an anti-technology zealot; he admits to being a Twitter addict and an enthusiastic user of screens and smartphones, even as he admits that his favourite indulgence is reading a book in his bathtub at home.

What he most wants us to see, though, is how the companies that dominate the world’s technology ecosystem have assumed the roles of monopolists (even if, by an economist’s definition, they more closely resemble oligopolies – they are immensely powerful within certain markets, such as web search or social media, where there is limited competition).

Thousands of Russian ads were placed on Facebook during the 2016 US presidential election campaign that could have had an influence on voters who use the social media platform. Photo: Reuters

Monopolies or quasi-monopolies that seem to be exploiting consumers have of course long been targets for government scrutiny. But Foer thinks advanced technologies may be creating a more dangerous situation than what we have experienced in the past. The tech companies’ wealth, market share, ingenuity and growing power within the US government make them increasingly formidable.

As Foer frequently points out: “We have begun to outsource our intellectual work to companies that suggest what we should learn, the topics we should consider.” But by carving out for themselves immense networks of influence and intelligence, these companies, he argues, have also developed what may prove to be unassailable advantages. They know our preferences better than their upstart competitors ever could, so the more they win, the more they win. And the longer this goes on, Foer fears, the worse it will get.

His essential point seems to be this: that at the very least we should pause and consider acting, on both a public and a personal level, before we find that we have lost more of what makes us human – our individuality, instrumentality and spontaneity – than we ever bargained for. So, too, should we do something before we discover that the creative industries that support our culture have been so eroded by lower wages and machine learning that they are in danger of infrastructural collapse.

Companies like Apple, Foer says, are more formidable than elite ‘gatekeeping’ institutions of the past, such as major television networks. Photo: Reuters

We might ask if this is an unwinnable battle. We love technology; we need technology. And in an era when regulation has increasingly fallen out of favour, the likelihood in the near future of a tight harnessing of big tech (or a wholesale revamping of governments’ antitrust policies) seems unlikely.

But it is reasonable to believe, judging by the growth trajectory and ravenous appetites of the tech giants, that their day of reckoning will eventually come – just as it came for monopolies such as US telecoms giant AT&T. Until then, Foer suggests that a number of refusenik-like decisions – reading a book on paper, say, rather than in an electronic format which allows for information on our reading habits to be collected – are a good place to draw the line.

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Even if innovations in personal technology cannot be stopped, their true value should always be questioned. And it is not hypocritical to embrace some technologies while rejecting others. As Foer reminds us, the stakes are high, the marketing pitch is deafening, and saying no to big tech – at least sometimes – is an increasingly crucial matter of personal choice and civic responsibility.