How important is culture, and the written word? For Franklin Foer, it is a human imperative. The main argument in the book is that «Big Tech» (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon – GAFA) poses a threat to culture, and thus also becomes an existential threat.
Foer is himself a journalist, and former editor, and the book is a quite angry lament for the fate of media. The book ends with the description of our current media situation, with click-bait, filter bubbles, lack of respect for writers, and huge technology companies controlling how we consume media. Traditional models of revenue, through both advertising and paying for the production and consumption of content, has been decimated, and in this part of the story Google and Amazon are the main antagonists. Foer ends with the situation where writing is no longer a viable occupation, and the danger that might pose. For him, it is a step towards a world without mind.
While the introduction and the latter parts of the book revolves around issues of media and journalism, Foer is careful to first prepare the grounds. This is done through an enjoyable, and quite chilling, description of what Big Tech really is, and where it comes from. The issues he discusses are not unknown, but Foer does a good job of connecting the various facets of our digital society, and paints the picture of a world where Big Tech rules. GAFA has monopolistic ambitions, by design. We as a society has been asleep at the wheel while we allowed them to reach these ambitions, leading to such problems as lack of privacy, algorithmic power being used to influence and nudge us and that the gatekeepers of information being private companies that are largely unregulated.
That takes us back to the media companies, because while they have always been gatekeepers, there were always more than one. Monopolies, such as Google’s, when it comes to information, spells danger. But what can we do, apart from decrying the situation on Twitter and Facebook – lamenting the beast while feeding it? This is where Foer makes an important point: we must rise to the occasion, and demand that politics, once more, becomes tough on monopolies. Big Tech is not some deterministic endeavor that cannot be culled, or guided. We politics because we want to make sure that we get the societies we desire, and fighting monopolistic power has been one of the more uncontroversial roles of government in the past. Make it so again, he says. I recommend the book to anyone interested in getting a report from the inside of the media business and the current state of our digital society. Even if you are not that concerned with the media and authors of various stripes, there is plenty of food for thought relating to AI, Big Data, individual autonomy, liberty, and the companies we rely on every day for all sorts of necessities.
Foer, Franklin. (2017). World Without Mind: The existential threat of Big Tech. New York: Penguin Press. Link to AbeBooks.