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World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech Hardcover – September 12, 2017
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"But Foer’s writing is deft enough to make this a polemic in the best sense of the word, which is to say a relentless intellectual argument, executed in the tradition of George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, which often eschews nuance in favor of wit and aggression." – Washington Post
“Foer conjures concise, insightful psychological profiles of each mover-and-shaker, detailing how they've mixed utopianism and monopolism into an insidious whole. He also offers compelling mini-bios of everyone from Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's nephew and the father of modern propaganda, to Stewart Brand, publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog and a massive influence on Silicon Valley . . . . World Without Mind is a searing take, a polemic packed with urgency and desperation that, for all its erudition and eloquence, is not afraid to roll up its sleeves and make things personal.” – NPR.org
“Lucid and ambitious new book . . . Foer is smart and trenchant when he attacks.” – Globe and Mail
“World Without Mind is an argument in the spirit of those brave democracy protestors who stand alone before tanks. Franklin Foer asks us to unplug and think. He asks us to recognize and challenge Silicon Valley’s monopoly power. His book is a vital response to digital utopianism at a time when we desperately need new ethics for social media.”
—Steve Coll, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars and Private Empire
“A provocative, enlightening, and above all, important book that is asking the most important question of our times. It is nothing less than an examination of the future of humanity and what we like to call ‘free will.’ It is also a good read—Foer writes with an engaging vibrancy that makes the book a page-turner.”
—Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants and The Master Switch
“As the dust settles from the great tech upheavals of the early 21st century, it turns out that the titans of Silicon Valley have not ushered us into a utopia of peace and freedom. Instead, as Foer so convincingly shows, by monopolizing the means of distribution, they have systematically demonetized and degraded the written word. World without Mind makes a passionate, deeply informed case for the need to take back culture—knowledge, information, ideas—from the Facebooks and Amazons. Its message could not be more timely.”
—William Deresiewicz, New York Times bestselling author of Excellent Sheep and A Jane Austen Education
“Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is a fascinating biography of the biggest players in big tech—a handful of humans that, through their decisions, govern the lives of seven billion tech consumers. Foer shows that these decisions are robbing us of our humanity, our values, and our ability to grapple with complexity. World Without Mind is an important and urgent book that should be required reading for anyone who’s ever shopped on Amazon, swiped the screen on an Apple device, or scrolled through the Facebook newsfeed—in short, for all of us.”
—Adam Alter, New York Times bestselling author of Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink
“Essential reading – while we still know what reading is – Foer's terrifying analysis of the cyber state we're in is both portrait gallery of the robber barons, the monopolists, the tax dodgers and the fantasists who own the data troughs from which we feed, and passionate plea for the retention of those values of privacy, nonconformity, contemplation, creativity and mind, which the Big Tech companies are well on their way to destroying, not out of cynicism but the deepest ignorance of what a person is and why individuality is indispensable to him. This book leaves us in no doubt: no greater threat to our humanity exists.”
—Howard Jacobson, Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Dog’s Last Walk and The Finkler Question
About the Author
Franklin Foer is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of How Soccer Explains the World, which has been translated into 27 languages and a winner of a National Jewish Book Award. For seven years, he edited The New Republic magazine.
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Thirty years ago, college campuses were alive with protest and rebellion. It wasn’t anything like the sixties, but students still embraced the spirit of freedom and insisted on personal choice. The most political camped out in makeshift shantytowns demanding divestiture from South Africa and organized Take Back the Night marches. If a prophetess had appeared and told them that by the time their children were living in dorm rooms they’d be happily tracking their children’s every move via a smartphone app, buying clothing, books, and music recommended by the world’s largest and most secretive corporations, and voluntarily giving those corporations their most sensitive documents and precious memories for safekeeping—those students would not have believed her.
Foer is not a modern-day Cassandra predicting a dystopian future. Rather, he is a veteran journalist whose book “World Without Mind,” describes the world we already live in, but whose power dynamics we have, as a species, almost unanimously failed to grasp. The consequences for continuing to Snapchat and Facebook IM our lives away in blissful ignorance are likely to be profoundly disturbing, but they are also easy to avert.
In one of history’s most ironic twists, the students who were most equipped to rage against the machine—the best and the brightest and the most technologically savvy—spent the sixties, seventies and eighties preparing the ground for the growth of the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen. As Foer documents in his engaging and smart polemic, they were not motivated by an evil desire for control but by a craving for knowledge, community, and connection. Unfortunately for humanity, their motivations did not matter. The power of the tools they build did.
The Trojan horse of corporate control is now inside our gates. It has replicated a billion times and shape-shifted into tools we use hundreds of times a day without thinking. In many cases, a message delivered by one of the four big tech companies is the first thing an ordinary person looks at when they wake up and the last thing they consult before they fall asleep.
It might sound like Foer is against technology. But “World Without Mind” is not a call to revert to a less-connected, pre-Internet age. Foer does not advise throwing away your smartphone and deleting your Facebook account. What he advocates is informed consent fueled by an understanding of the agendas of the biggest technology firms and what they will do to achieve them. The bulk of his book is an engaging discussion of the ideology behind and the motivations of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, with fascinating digressions into Descartes' view of automata, Abraham Lincoln’s use of the telegraph key, and how the 1891 copyright law transformed writing from a hobby into a profession.
“It’s hard not to marvel at these companies and their inventions, which often make life infinitely easier,” Foer says. “But we’ve spent too long marveling. The time has arrived to consider the consequences of these monopolies, to reassert our role in determining our human path.”
Foer uses a good blend of history, philosophy and current events to tell us how tech companies and especially the "big four" (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) are not just distracting us to no end but transforming our lives into ones which are managed and controlled by their products every waking (and sleeping) moment. He is especially good at describing how some of these new technologies like AI reflect both promises and fears laid out by pioneering philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz. Also interesting is Foer's discussion of how the counterculture movement of the 1960s that envisaged everything as part of a socialist connected network paradoxically spawned the era of Big Tech, even as people like Steve Jobs who purportedly embraced a communal philosophy turned into billionaires caring about their bottom lines. For all the talk of individualism and free thought that the counterculture and tech leaders touted, much of Big Tech is really geared toward telling us how our lives should be lived. In the past other companies have also told us the same things, but Big Tech poses a unique fear in its all-pervasive influence and ubiquity. The author is right when we tells us not to trust the utopian-sounding but ultimately self-serving mottos offered by these companies, like "Information wants to be free" and "Don't be evil". None of that really matters to tech companies which fundamentally are corporations.
There is also an interesting section in the book on how the increasing sales of paper books and brick-and-mortar bookstores speaks to a deep need for private contemplation that humans beings seem to crave. To me this fundamental need provides the biggest hope for why individuals will ultimately reject total control of connected technology. In his "No Place to Hide", journalist Glenn Greenwald has also effectively communicated this message, reminding us how the most heretical and intelligent thinking arose in history only when men were free to think without being watched. Books still offer us one of the best refuges for both uninterrupted thinking and true privacy. Even devices like the Kindle are ultimately connected to the Internet and can be tracked. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Big Tech's influence is how, partly influenced by kowtowing to their advertisers rather than heeding their customers' preferences, they have started to control the news (Bezos's purchase of the Washington Post is a case in point). This is largely to the detriment of all, even as people are immersed in their bubble chambers and shut out from substantive content. Last year's election made this paradoxical isolation quite clear.
All these points in the book are made in engaging language grounded in a sensitive and broad understanding of history, philosophy and the media. But the solutions to reducing Big Tech's influence over our lives are not clear; in that sense the volume is big on describing the problem but sparse on answers, perhaps because the problem is too new to offer comprehensive answers. Perhaps the most interesting analogy the author offers for how we might wean ourselves from the constant barrage of pings and alerts is with the processed food industry. Processed food once threatened to wipe out organic and local food, and yet people have returned to the latter, although the cynical view of this "return to nature" movement also sees it inspired by social status and fads. Nonetheless, the history of the food industry shows that countercultural activism actually made a true dent in people's perception of food. Similarly one can take heart in the fact that, contrary to doomsday predictions about the obliteration of paper books, e-book sales have actually dropped in recent years and paper book sales have improved. Perhaps there is a soul in all of us after all.
Ultimately it's hard to see how the solutions can come from anything other than deliberate self-control and self-improvement. As Foer says at the end, "The contemplative life remains available to us through our choices". Perhaps when we truly begin to suffer from the harmful effects of information overload and the very control of that information to begin with, there will be another movement back to our contemplative selves. One can certainly hope, and Foer's book grounds this hope in a glimmer of hard facts.
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