Wide-eyed ideologues run giant tech companies that threaten to reduce adult citizens to toddlers and to undermine the country's democratic institutions. The galling part of these companies' pursuits, according to Franklin Foer's unapologetically tweedy and yet completely accessible World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, is their blatant but unacknowledged hypocrisy.
Standing on conference stages in their T-shirts and blue jeans, the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon might not look like the robber barons of the 19th century, but their hunger is just as insatiable, their lust for monopoly just as acute, and their vision for the future more terrifying.
Foer helpfully if roughly sketches out each company's broad goals. Google wants to control knowledge, and they do that by controlling what you see when you look for information and by disregarding copyright law. Amazon demands to be the nexus of all commerce, and they do that by buying entire cities and eating up companies like birthday cake. Facebook wants to become the master of all media and to use its algorithms to curate each customer's sense of reality. Apple wants to become the entire entertainment industry.
Foer surprisingly but convincingly argues that these companies find their ideological roots not in the strain of techno-libertarianism that animates the minds of Silicon Valley's successful "thought leaders," but rather in the utopian communalism of the late 1960s, which was preached by early tech evangelists like Stewart Brand, and which is carried on today by futurists such as Ray Kurzweil.
The world's problems can be solved, in this radically populist view, only when the whole human race is connected by networks. Peace will only come once all the gatekeepers of knowledge are done away with, when the "wisdom of the crowd" reigns.
But the dream of a fully-networked planet pulsing with shared knowledge has been commandeered by "corporate imperialists" who, along with governments, used the internet to turn everyone into "mere objects of surveillance," as legendary cryptographer and former techno-libertarian Bailey Whitfield Diffie predicted, according to Salon's Ellen Ullman, back in 2000.
And the populist talk is particularly rich, Foer points out, coming from a bunch of Harvard-educated guys who still worship the figure of the loner hacker, or the guy in the garage with a good idea, and who keep careful watch of their gates while sneakily scooping up customer data so they can augment algorithms to more effectively influence the way large swaths of the population think. When we accepted the terms of agreement for infinite access and limitless knowledge, we handed over to these camouflaged gatekeepers the keys to a golden fortress we didn't know we had: our data.
Besides supercharged consumerism, increasingly tribal political realities, and a supposed "convenience," what do we get for this trade? Massive credit-card hacks and more vulnerable elections. These inconveniences of convenience won't compare to what Foer calls The Big One, a cataclysmic tech event that could disrupt our personal relationships, our financial system, or the country's physical infrastructure.
How to counter tech tyranny and prevent a digitally powered Armageddon? Foer modestly prescribes switching back to print, instituting paywalls, founding government agencies to protect data, and at least starting to talk seriously about how one unelected man, Mark Zuckerberg, could massively influence a US presidential election (maybe even his own) in his favor with a quick algorithm shift.
Foer was the editor of the venerable but volatile New Republic when Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes bought the magazine and set out to transform it into a profit making "vertically integrated digital media company." It's no surprise that Foer's sentences find most of their fire when he's describing the ways big tech has devalued the profession of writing. These sections, as well as the sections on big tech's monopolistic aims, should be required reading.
These companies ultimately dream of turning humans into balls of light who know everything and live forever. So does your local pastor. Just as the church thinks God is the answer to the problems God wrought, so big tech believes more tech is the answer to the problems they've wrought. This vision must be resisted like the bad religion it is, or else Armageddon is on us.