Do tech titans aim to erase our in­di­vid­u­al­ity?

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - Franklin Foer is the au­thor of World With­out Mind: The Ex­is­ten­tial Threat of Big Tech. Wash­ing­ton Post

Un­til re­cently, it was easy to de­fine our most widely known cor­po­ra­tions. Any third-grader could de­scribe their essence. Exxon sells oil; McDon­ald’s makes ham­burg­ers; Wal­mart is a place to buy stuff. This is no longer so.

To­day’s as­cen­dant mo­nop­o­lies as­pire to en­com­pass all of ex­is­tence. Google de­rives from googol, a num­ber (1 fol­lowed by 100 ze­ros) that math­e­ma­ti­cians use as short­hand for unimag­in­ably large quan­ti­ties. Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google with the mis­sion of or­ga­niz­ing all knowl­edge, but that proved too nar­row. They now aim to build driver­less cars, man­u­fac­ture phones and con­quer death. Ama­zon, which once called it­self “the ev­ery­thing store,” now pro­duces tele­vi­sion shows, owns Whole Foods and pow­ers the cloud. The ar­chi­tect of this firm, Jeff Be­zos, even owns the Wash­ing­ton Post.

Along with Face­book, Mi­crosoft and Ap­ple, these com­pa­nies are in a race to be­come our “per­sonal as­sis­tant.” They want to wake us in the morn­ing, have their ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware guide us through our days and never quite leave our sides. They as­pire to be­come the repos­i­tory for pre­cious and pri­vate items, our cal­en­dars and con­tacts, our pho­tos and doc­u­ments. They in­tend for us to turn un­think­ingly to them for in­for­ma­tion and en­ter­tain­ment while they cat­a­logue our in­ten­tions and aver­sions. Google Glass and the Ap­ple Watch pre­fig­ure the day when these com­pa­nies im­plant their ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in our bod­ies. Brin has mused, “Per­haps in the fu­ture, we can at­tach a lit­tle ver­sion of Google that you just plug into your brain.”

More than any pre­vi­ous co­terie of cor­po­ra­tions, the tech mo­nop­o­lies as­pire to mould hu­man­ity into their de­sired im­age of it. They think they have the op­por­tu­nity to com­plete the long merger be­tween man and ma­chine — to re­di­rect the tra­jec­tory of hu­man evo­lu­tion. How do I know this? In an­nual ad­dresses and town hall meet­ings, the Found­ing Fa­thers of these com­pa­nies of­ten make big, bold pro­nounce­ments about hu­man na­ture — a view that they in­tend for the rest of us to ad­here to. Page thinks the hu­man body amounts to a ba­sic piece of code. “Your pro­gram al­go­rithms aren’t that com­pli­cated,” he says. And if hu­mans func­tion like com­put­ers, why not has­ten the day we be­come fully cy­borg? To take another grand the­ory, Face­book chief Mark Zucker­berg has ex­claimed his de­sire to lib­er­ate hu­man­ity from phoni­ness, to end the dis­hon­esty of se­crets.

“The days of you hav­ing a dif­fer­ent im­age for your work friends or co-work­ers and for the other peo­ple you know are prob­a­bly com­ing to an end pretty quickly,” he has said. “Hav­ing two iden­ti­ties for your­self is an ex­am­ple of a lack of in­tegrity.”

Of course, that’s both an ex­pres­sion of ideal­ism and an elab­o­rate jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Face­book’s busi­ness model.

There’s an oft-used short­hand for the tech­nol­o­gist’s view of the world. It is as­sumed that lib­er­tar­i­an­ism dom­i­nates Sil­i­con Val­ley, and that isn’t wholly wrong. High-pro­file devo­tees of Ayn Rand can be found there. But if you lis­ten hard to the titans of tech, it’s clear that their world view is some­thing much closer to the op­po­site of a lib­er­tar­ian’s ven­er­a­tion of the heroic, soli­tary in­di­vid­ual. The big tech com­pa­nies think we’re fun­da­men­tally so­cial be­ings, born to col­lec­tive ex­is­tence. They in­vest their faith in the net­work, the wis­dom of crowds, col­lab­o­ra­tion. They har­bour a deep de­sire for the atom­istic world to be made whole. (“Face­book stands for bring­ing us closer to­gether and build­ing a global com­mu­nity,” Zucker­berg wrote in one of his many man­i­festos.) By stitch­ing the world to­gether, they can cure its ills.

Rhetor­i­cally, the tech com­pa­nies ges­ture to­ward in­di­vid­u­al­ity — to the em­pow­er­ment of the “user” — but their world view rolls over it. Even the ubiq­ui­tous in­vo­ca­tion of users is telling, a pas­sive, bu­reau­cratic de­scrip­tion of us.

The big tech com­pa­nies (the Euro­peans have lumped them to­gether as GAFA: Google, Ap­ple, Face­book, Ama­zon) are shred­ding the prin­ci­ples that pro­tect in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Their de­vices and sites have col­lapsed pri­vacy; they dis­re­spect the value of au­thor­ship, with their hos­til­ity to­ward in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty.

They in­tend for us to turn un­think­ingly to them for in­for­ma­tion and en­ter­tain­ment while they cat­a­logue our in­ten­tions and aver­sions.

In the realm of eco­nomics, they jus­tify mo­nop­oly by sug­gest­ing that com­pe­ti­tion merely dis­tracts from the im­por­tant prob­lems like eras­ing lan­guage bar­ri­ers and build­ing ar­ti­fi­cial brains. Com­pa­nies should “tran­scend the daily brute strug­gle for sur­vival,” as Face­book in­vestor Peter Theil has put it.

When it comes to the most cen­tral tenet of in­di­vid­u­al­ism — free will — the tech com­pa­nies have a dif­fer­ent way. They hope to au­to­mate the choices, both large and small, we make as we float through the day. It’s their al­go­rithms that sug­gest the news we read, the goods we buy, the paths we travel, the friends we in­vite into our cir­cles.

It’s hard not to marvel at these com­pa­nies and their in­ven­tions, which of­ten make life in­fin­itely eas­ier. But we’ve spent too long mar­vel­ling. The time has ar­rived to con­sider the con­se­quences of these mo­nop­o­lies, to re­assert our role in de­ter­min­ing the hu­man path. Once we cross cer­tain thresh­olds — once we re­make in­sti­tu­tions such as me­dia and pub­lish­ing, once we aban­don pri­vacy — there’s no turn­ing back, no restor­ing our lost in­di­vid­u­al­ity.

Over the gen­er­a­tions, we’ve been through rev­o­lu­tions like this be­fore. Many years ago, we de­lighted in the won­ders of TV din­ners and the other new­fan­gled foods that sud­denly filled our kitchens: slices of cheese en­cased in plas­tic, ooz­ing piz­zas that emerged from a crust of ice, bags of crunchy tater tots. In the his­tory of man, these seemed like break­through in­no­va­tions. Time­con­sum­ing tasks — shop­ping for in­gre­di­ents, te­diously pre­par­ing a recipe and tack­ling a trail of pots and pans — were sud­denly and mirac­u­lously con­signed to his­tory.

The rev­o­lu­tion in cui­sine wasn’t just en­thralling. It was trans­for­ma­tional. New prod­ucts em­bed­ded them­selves deeply in ev­ery­day life, so much so that it took decades for us to un­der­stand the price we paid for their con­ve­nience, ef­fi­ciency and abun­dance. Pro­cessed foods were feats of en­gi­neer­ing, all right — but they were en­gi­neered to make us fat. Their de­lec­ta­ble taste re­quired mas­sive quan­ti­ties of sodium and siz­able stock­piles of sugar, which hap­pened to reset our palates and made it harder to sate hunger. It took vast quan­ti­ties of meat and corn to fab­ri­cate these dishes, and a spike in de­mand re­made Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture at a ter­ri­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal cost. A whole new sys­tem of in­dus­trial farm­ing emerged, with penny-con­scious con­glom­er­ates cram­ming chick­ens into fe­ces-cov­ered pens and stuff­ing them full of an­tibi­otics. By the time we came to un­der­stand the con­se­quences of our re­vised pat­terns of con­sump­tion, the dam­age had been done to our waist­lines, longevity, souls and planet.

Some­thing like the mid­cen­tury food rev­o­lu­tion is now re­order­ing the pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of knowl­edge. Our in­tel­lec­tual habits are be­ing scram­bled by the dom­i­nant firms. Gi­ant tech com­pa­nies have be­come the most pow­er­ful gate­keep­ers the world has ever known. Google helps us sort the in­ter­net, by pro­vid­ing a sense of hi­er­ar­chy to in­for­ma­tion; Face­book uses its al­go­rithms and its in­tri­cate un­der­stand­ing of our so­cial cir­cles to fil­ter the news we en­counter; Ama­zon be­strides book pub­lish­ing with its over­whelm­ing hold on that mar­ket.

Such dom­i­nance en­dows these com­pa­nies with the abil­ity to re­make the mar­kets they con­trol. As with the food gi­ants, the big tech com­pa­nies have given rise to a new sci­ence that aims to con­struct prod­ucts that pan­der to their con­sumers. Un­like the mar­ket re­search and tele­vi­sion rat­ings of the past, the tech com­pa­nies have a bot­tom­less col­lec­tion of data, ac­quired as they track our trav­els across the Web, stor­ing ev­ery shard about our habits in the hope that they may prove use­ful. They have com­piled an in­ti­mate por­trait of the psy­che of each user — a por­trait that they hope to ex­ploit to se­duce us into a com­pul­sive spree of binge click­ing and watch­ing. And it works: On av­er­age, each Face­book user spends one-six­teenth of their day on the site.

In the realm of knowl­edge, mo­nop­oly and con­formism are in­sep­a­ra­ble per­ils. The dan­ger is that these firms will in­ad­ver­tently use their dom­i­nance to squash di­ver­sity of opin­ion and taste. Con­cen­tra­tion is fol­lowed by ho­mog­e­niza­tion. As news me­dia out­lets have come to de­pend heav­ily on Face­book and Google for traf­fic — and there­fore rev­enue — they have rushed to pro­duce ed­i­to­ri­als that will flour­ish on those plat­forms. This leads to a du­pli­ca­tion of the news like never be­fore, with scores of sites across the in­ter­net pil­ing onto the same daily out­rage. It’s why a pic­ture of a mys­te­ri­ously coloured dress gen­er­ated end­less ar­ti­cles, why seem­ingly ev­ery site re­caps “Game of Thrones.” Each con­tri­bu­tion to the genre adds lit­tle, ex­cept clicks. Old me­dia had a pack men­tal­ity, too, but the in­ter­net promised some­thing much dif­fer­ent. And the preva­lence of so much data makes the temp­ta­tion to pan­der even greater.

This is true of pol­i­tics. Our era is de­fined by po­lar­iza­tion, war­ring ide­o­log­i­cal gangs that yield no ground. Di­vi­sion, how­ever, isn’t the root cause of our un­work­able sys­tem. There are many causes, but a pri­mary prob­lem is con­formism. Face­book has nur­tured two hive minds, each re­sid­ing in an in­for­ma­tional ecosys­tem that yields head-nod­ding agree­ment and pe­nal­izes dis­sent­ing views. This is the phe­nom­e­non that the en­tre­pre­neur and au­thor Eli Pariser fa­mously termed the “Fil­ter Bub­ble” — how Face­book mines our data to keep giv­ing us the news and in­for­ma­tion we crave, cre­at­ing a feed­back loop that pushes us deeper and deeper into our own amen cor­ners.

As the 2016 pres­i­den­tial election so graph­i­cally il­lus­trated, a hive mind is an in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­ca­pac­i­tated one, with di­min­ish­ing abil­ity to tell fact from fic­tion, with an un­shak­able bias to­ward party line. The Rus­sians un­der­stood this, which is why they in­vested so suc­cess­fully in spread­ing du­bi­ous ag­it­prop via Face­book. And it’s why a raft of com­pa­nies sprouted — Oc­cupy Democrats, the An­gry Pa­triot, Be­ing Lib­eral — to get rich off the Fil­ter Bub­ble and to ex­ploit our sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to the low­est-qual­ity news, if you can call it that.

Face­book rep­re­sents a dan­ger­ous de­vi­a­tion in me­dia his­tory. Once upon a time, elites proudly viewed them­selves as gate­keep­ers. They could be syco­phan­tic to power and snob­bish, but they also felt duty-bound to el­e­vate the stan­dards of so­ci­ety and read­ers. Ex­ec­u­tives of Sil­i­con Val­ley re­gard gate­keep­ing as the stodgy en­emy of in­no­va­tion — they see them­selves as more neu­tral, sci­en­tific and re­spon­sive to the mar­ket than the elites they re­placed — a per­spec­tive that ob­scures their own power and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. So in­stead of shap­ing public opin­ion, they ex­ploit the public’s worst ten­den­cies, its trib­al­ism and para­noia.

Dur­ing this cen­tury, we largely have treated Sil­i­con Val­ley as a force beyond our con­trol. A broad con­sen­sus held that lead-footed govern­ment could never keep pace with the dy­namism of tech­nol­ogy. By the time govern­ment acted against a tech mo­nop­oly, a kid in a garage would have al­ready con­cocted some in­no­va­tion to up­end the mar­ket. Or, as Google’s Eric Sch­midt, put it, “Com­pe­ti­tion is one click away.” A nos­trum that sug­gested that the very struc­ture of the in­ter­net de­fied our his­toric con­cern for mo­nop­oly.

As in­di­vid­u­als, we have sim­i­larly ac­cepted the om­nipres­ence of the big tech com­pa­nies as a fait ac­com­pli. We’ve en­joyed their free prod­ucts and next-day de­liv­ery with only a nag­ging sense that we may be sur­ren­der­ing some­thing im­por­tant. Such blitheness can no longer be sus­tained. Pri­vacy won’t sur­vive the present tra­jec­tory of tech­nol­ogy — and with the sense of be­ing per­pet­u­ally watched, hu­mans will be­have more cau­tiously, less sub­ver­sively. Our ideas about the com­pet­i­tive mar­ket­place are at risk. With a de­creas­ing prospect of top­pling the gi­ants, en­trepreneurs won’t bother to risk start­ing new firms, a pri­mary source of jobs and in­no­va­tion. And the pro­lif­er­a­tion of false­hoods and con­spir­a­cies through so­cial me­dia, the dis­si­pa­tion of our com­mon ba­sis for fact, is cre­at­ing con­di­tions ripe for au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. Over time, the long merger of man and ma­chine has worked out pretty well for man. But we’re drift­ing into a new era, when that merger threat­ens the in­di­vid­ual. We’re drift­ing to­ward mo­nop­oly, con­formism, their ma­chines. Per­haps it’s time we steer our course.

Over time, the long merger of man and ma­chine has worked out pretty well for man. But we’re drift­ing into a new era, when that merger threat­ens the in­di­vid­ual.


Tech gi­ants like Google, Ap­ple, Ama­zon and Face­book have ex­panded their scope to be­come in­volved in vir­tu­ally ev­ery as­pect of our lives, writes Franklin Foer.


How ubiq­ui­tous has tech be­come? “Per­haps in the fu­ture, we can at­tach a lit­tle ver­sion of Google that you just plug into your brain.” says Google founder Sergey Brin.


Ap­ple’s new 175-acre “space­ship” cam­pus — dubbed “Ap­ple Park” — is near­ing com­ple­tion in Cu­per­tino, Calif. The new $5-bil­lion fa­cil­ity will house 13,000 em­ploy­ees in over 2.8 mil­lion square feet of of­fice space. It’s time we con­sid­ered the ef­fects tech...

San Fran­cisco’s East Bay is the hub of the world­wide tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion that Franklin Foer ar­gues is ir­re­vo­ca­bly chang­ing our world, do­ing away with pri­vacy, the com­mon ba­sis for fact and the role of the in­di­vid­ual.

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