How might we go about ravaging our mental landscape? We might begin by cheering while ascendant tech monopolies claim more and more of the public sphere; we might allow our attitudes and tastes to then be moulded by those monopolies; we might stand by while privacy collapses, authorship is disregarded and intellectual property goes undefended; we might watch choices become automated and lives become directed by algorithms; we might allow Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon to concentrate their powers to such a degree that divergent conversations, idiosyncratic ideas, become like so many Davids against a few Goliaths in the cloud.
Of course, all that has already happened. Or so goes the argument in Franklin Foer's lucid and ambitious new book, World Without Mind, which paints a grim portrait of intellectual life in an online world.
Back in 2005, Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, told a journalist, "Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain." Happy day. In our present age of Russian news bots and Facebook-filtered politics, Brin's musing about a jacked-in supplement to human intelligence sounds more than naive; it sounds deeply dangerous. And it is that danger Foer confronts as he details not just the business ambitions but the screwy philosophies that animate the empires of Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and all of Silicon Valley's oligarchs. A dream of oneness and permanent connection fuels their desire for total monopolies.
What the Zuckerbergs of the world see as a utopian whole, the Foers of the world see as a homogenized populace with a deeply constrained ability to originate new ideas. Algorithms, he warns, "remove humans from the whole process of inquiry." What's more, when a company's algorithm nudges you this way or that, it always "reflects the subconscious of its creators."
Foer is an ex-editor of The New Republic and during his tenure there he had his own run-in with California's chosen tribe. The New Republic, long a bastion of intellectual liberalism, struggled through the early 2000s (as with most publications). When Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes purchased the magazine in 2012 – a vanity project, charged many – he brought an infusion of cash and the sort of radiant optimism only a twentysomething billionaire can muster. However, when The New Republic failed to produce the hockey-stick growth that tech startups aspire to, Hughes infamously canned Foer and put the magazine up for sale. It is difficult not to read World Without Mind, then, as a thinly veiled response to this affront – the bookish Foer getting in his rejoinder after the humiliation of watching Hughes toy with a pillar of American letters.
Whatever the instigation, Foer is smart and trenchant when he attacks. The book is, of necessity, fast-moving, though – there's a great deal of ground to cover and sometimes it reads like a series of dispatches more than a single arc. Such breeziness has its casualties; his take on Marshall McLuhan seems oversimplified, the tech overlords too easily become bogeyman. And yet the argument does pile up. Only a Snapchat employee could read Foer's book without alarm. Tech monopolies insist on their own style of thought, elbowing aside anything that fails to go viral within those narrow parameters. This amounts to de facto censorship, a silencing of the odd and untested; ultimately, for Foer, tech monopolies bring on an impoverishment of public discourse and then an imperilling of democracy itself. (And who, watching the news, would doubt him?)
Foer's solution is antitrust law – the body of laws we rely on to prevent monopolies and maintain a competitive economy. He makes the trenchant point that, while our antitrust laws are thought of as saving the public from monopolies that would worsen the consumer experience, "some of the biggest corporations in America now give their products away for free … " and so we begin to think that monopolies don't need to be broken apart any more. (Foer points out that the Obama administration brought forward only two cases against existing monopolies.) We need a new approach to antitrust law, one with a different end in mind: a mission of preserving a competitive thought economy where new ideas, strategies and approaches are allowed to have their day. The alternative, argues Foer, is an Orwellian morass controlled by a handful of thought authorities.
Those who doubt whether tech giants have an interest in policing public thought should consider the charge that Google donates enormous sums to dozens and dozens of non-profit groups in an effort to expand the company's "public policy toolbox," allowing them to derail the formation of regulations that would threaten their monopoly. (In the European Union, where Google has less political influence, they were struck with a $2.7-billion (U.S.) antitrust penalty this summer.)
Foer subtitles his book "The existential threat of big tech" – and the recklessness of Silicon Valley's assault on intellectual life does, here, feel epic. Global villages have global stakes. Unfortunately, so long as Trump-style tycoons hold office, Foer's solution – real government oversight, a new fleet of antitrust laws with updated weaponry – will remain as unlikely as it is needful.
Michael Harris is the author of Solitude and The End of Absence, which won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction