'World Without Mind': How Tech Companies Pose An Existential Threat | KERA News

'World Without Mind': How Tech Companies Pose An Existential Threat

Sep 11, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 7:16 pm

Journalist Franklin Foer worries that we're all losing our minds as big tech companies infiltrate every aspect of our lives.

In his new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Foer compares the way we feel about technology now to the way people felt about pre-made foods, like TV dinners, when they were first invented.

"And we thought that they were brilliant because they did away with pots and pans — we didn't have to go to the store to go shopping every day — and then we woke up 50 years later and realize that these products had been basically engineered to make us fat," Foer says. "And I worry that the same thing is happening now to the things that we ingest through our mind."


Interview Highlights

On why tech companies' control of the market is problematic

They pose as these neutral marketplaces, yet when they have their own things to sell, they give them special advantages. We saw this with Yelp and Google, where Yelp was this great way to get recommendations about what restaurant to go to, and it used to be when you type in a restaurant name into Google, the Yelp review was the first thing that came up. Well, Google saw that this was a good business to be in and so they started to publish their own user reviews of restaurants, and suddenly, those leap-frogged over Yelp.

And so I think we accept these platforms as being neutral, they pose as neutral. Even if you look at their looks — a search engine seems like it's a mechanical thing, but it's not a mechanical thing. It imposes the economic interests of these companies on the platform, and it imposes their values on the platform as well.

On how tech companies' algorithms are not impartial

All these algorithms are constructed by human beings to serve human purposes. They're systems, and these systems are devised in order to create certain outcomes. And so the fact that they're so invisible, I think actually enhances their power because most people have the dimmest awareness, if any awareness at all, that Facebook is being patterned to try to give them some information above others.

Right now, Facebook is obsessed with promoting video because that's where money is to be had. So right now, Facebook is loading up your News Feed in order to give you much more video. And there are all these media companies — I bet NPR is one of them — that makes certain commitments to certain editorial processes and investments in certain editorial apparatus in order to achieve certain results on Facebook because Facebook brings a lot of traffic. It's where users are. And then when Facebook, somewhat capriciously, decides to change its strategy, it hurts all of the organizations that are dependent upon Facebook.

Disclosure: Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams that run on the site.

On why the threat of big tech companies is an existential one

If you're of a certain age, you have a good appreciation for the ways in which we've all become a little bit cyborg. I grew up using maps and having a sense of direction, and now I have a phone. I used to try to remember numbers, and now I ... can just call them up instantly. And that's great. But what's happening right now is that we're in a phase of human evolution where we're merging with machines.

It's not necessarily a bad thing, but we're not just merging with machines. We've been merging with tools since the beginning of human evolution and arguably, that's one of the things that makes us human beings. But what we're merging with [now] are machines that are run by companies that act as filters for the way in which we interact and process the world.

And so the values of those companies become our values. We become dependent on these companies in a way in which we've never really been dependent on companies before. And this could all work out in a utopian, beautiful sort of way, or it could unfold as a dystopian, sci-fi nightmare. And I just think that because the stakes are so high, we have to be extra skeptical.

On the lack of regulation to limit the influence of tech companies

The Internet was invented in an age when our entire approach to regulation has been extremely lax, and so you'd think, "OK, there might be a law on the books that governs how these corporations can handle our data."

Well, you could kind of pull pieces of [legal] code ... that shows maybe instances where companies could potentially cross boundaries, but there really isn't a coherent approach that we have to regulating these companies, and so they have an incredible amount of freedom. ...

There's this proud American tradition of worrying about the power of communication companies. That going all the way back to the founding, we've tried to limit the power of monopolies that played a role in our democracy. And so even with the U.S. Postal Service to take the first communications monopoly in the United States, we didn't let them get into the telegraph business. And when Western Union got a monopoly in the telegraph business, we were careful not to let them get into telephony.

And this extends even into our own era back up into the Clinton administration when they put pressure on Microsoft, and really hemmed them in it came to the browser. And were it not for the case that the United States brought against Microsoft, Google probably would've been strangled in its crib.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I'm Ari Shapiro with All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Journalist Franklin Foer worries that we're all losing our minds as big tech companies infiltrate every aspect of our lives. In his new book, Foer compares the way we feel about technology now to the way people felt about pre-made foods like TV dinners back when they were first invented.

FRANKLIN FOER: And we thought that they were brilliant because they did away with pots and pans. We didn't have to go to the store to go shopping every day. And then we woke up 50 years later and realized that these products had been basically engineered to make us fat. They disrupted the whole food economy in our world and made things entirely concentrated. And I worry that the same thing is happening now to the things that we ingest through our mind.

SHAPIRO: Foer's book is called "World Without Mind: The Existential Threat Of Big Tech." He says one problem is that companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon control so much of the market.

FOER: They pose as these neutral marketplaces, yet when they have their own things to sell, they give them special advantages. We saw this with Yelp and Google where Yelp was this great way to get recommendations about what restaurant to go to. And it used to be when you type in a restaurant name into Google, the Yelp review was the first thing that came up. Well, Google saw that this was a good business to be in, and so they started to publish their own user reviews of restaurants. And suddenly those leapfrogged over Yelp.

And so I think we accept these platforms as being neutral. They pose as neutral even if you look at their looks. A search engine seems like it's a mechanical thing, but it's not a mechanical thing. It imposes the economic interests of these companies on the platform, and it imposes their values on the platform as well.

SHAPIRO: Part of the underlying challenge seems to be that all of these companies - Amazon, Google, Facebook - use algorithms to decide what to show us. And we don't know what those algorithms are.

FOER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And if we don't think about those algorithms, we can assume that this is some kind of impartial, objective analysis when really it's not.

FOER: Right. All these algorithms are constructed by human beings to serve human purposes. They're systems. And these systems are devised in order to create certain outcomes. And so the fact that they're so invisible I think actually enhances their power because most people have the dimmest awareness, if any awareness at all, that Facebook is being patterned to try to give them some information above others. Right now Facebook is obsessed with promoting video because that's where money is to be had. So right now Facebook is loading up your news feed in order to give you much more video.

There are all these media companies - I bet NPR is one of them - that makes certain commitments to certain editorial processes and investments in editorial apparatus in order to achieve certain results on Facebook 'cause Facebook brings a lot of traffic. It's where users are. And then when Facebook somewhat capriciously decides to change its strategy, it hurts all the organizations that are dependent upon Facebook.

SHAPIRO: This is where I drop the now somewhat loaded editorial disclosure that NPR receives money from Facebook to produce video content which appears on NPR's Facebook pages.

FOER: But look how virtuous you are, having a critic of Facebook on air.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) In this book, you don't just argue that we should be clear-eyed about the costs of these free services. You argue that this is actually an existential threat. Explain what that threat is.

FOER: So if you're of a certain age, you have a good appreciation for the ways in which we've all become a little bit cyborg. I grew up using maps and having a sense of direction, and now I have a phone. I used to try to remember numbers, and now I have - I can just call them up instantly. And that's great. But what's happening right now is that we're in a phase of human evolution where we're merging with machines. And...

SHAPIRO: But why is that a bad thing? Like, so what?

FOER: So these companies - it's not necessarily a bad thing. But we're not just merging with machines. We've been merging with tools since the beginning of human evolution. And arguably, that's one of the things that makes us human beings. But what we're merging with are machines that are run by companies that act as filters for the way in which we interact and process the world. And so the values of those companies become our values.

We become dependent on these companies in a way in which we've never really been dependent on companies before. And this could all work out in a utopian, beautiful sort of way, or it could unfold as a dystopian sci-fi nightmare. And I just think that because the stakes are so high we have to be extra skeptical.

SHAPIRO: Are there regulations, are there checks to make sure that, for example, Facebook doesn't manipulate the outcome of an election or Amazon doesn't bury the search results for a book that's critical of Amazon?

FOER: So the Internet was invented in an age when our entire approach to regulation has been extremely lax. And so you'd think, OK, there must be a law on the books that governs how these corporations can handle our data. Well, you can kind of pull pieces of code - I mean U.S. code - from here and there...

SHAPIRO: Not digital code...

FOER: Not digital code.

SHAPIRO: ...But legal code.

FOER: Legal code that shows, you know, maybe instances where companies could potentially cross boundaries. But there really isn't a coherent approach that we have to regulating these companies. And so they have an incredible amount of freedom.

SHAPIRO: Europe is way ahead of the U.S. on regulating these companies. They've levied fines against Google for monopolies and other things like that. What's going on here?

FOER: In my view, the Europeans are acting more American than the Americans, that there's this proud American tradition of worrying about the power of communication companies, that going all the way back to the founding we've tried to limit the power of monopolies that played a role in our democracy. And so even with the U.S. Postal Service, to take the first communications monopoly in the United States, we didn't let them get into the telegraph business. And when Western Union got a monopoly in the telegraph business, we were careful not to let them get into telephony.

And so when I look at what the Europeans are doing and the concerns that they're showing for privacy, which is a concept that Americans essentially invented, when you look at their concern for preserving a competitive marketplace, which is a very, very American concept, I say bravo. Thank you for behaving in a very apple-pie-and-baseball sort of way.

SHAPIRO: Franklin Foer's new book is "World Without Mind: The Existential Threat Of Big Tech." Thanks for talking with us.

FOER: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIE XX'S "OBVS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.