Why the path through Sil­i­con Val­ley will lead us to our doom

The Nation - - FRESH INK -

TO MANY of us, large tech­nol­ogy firms em­body much of what’s good about the mod­ern world. Google holds the key to new depths of knowl­edge. Ama­zon is the white-knight saviour of im­pulse shop­ping. Face­book builds the con­nec­tive tis­sue to old friends and col­leagues.

Franklin Foer has a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. In his new book, “World With­out Mind”, the vet­eran jour­nal­ist lays out a more omi­nous view of where Big Tech would like to take us – in many ways, al­ready has taken us.

In­ves­ti­gat­ing the practices of th­ese dig­i­tal gate­keep­ers, he has crafted an anti-Sil­i­con Val­ley man­i­festo that while oc­ca­sion­ally slip­ping into alarmism makes a co­gently scary case against the in­flu­ence of US tech firms (but not, cru­cially, tech­nol­ogy it­self ). Sil­i­con Val­ley, he ar­gues, may say it wants to im­prove the world. But its true endgame is the ad­vance­ment of an ide­o­log­i­cal agenda. And it’s a ter­ri­fy­ing one.

By in­tro­duc­ing ad­dic­tive new fea­tures, the book says, th­ese com­pa­nies have made us hope­lessly de­pen­dent. Once hooked, con­sumers are robbed of choice, milked for profit, de­prived of pri­vacy and made the sub­jects of stealth so­cial engi­neer­ing ex­per­i­ments. “We are,” Foer writes, “the screws and riv­ets in their grand de­sign.”

Those sound like some grandiose claims. Foer sup­ports them – to a point.

The author pre­vi­ously wrote an­other glob­al­ist study through a par­tic­u­lar lens, the en­ter­tain­ing and in­sight­ful sports so­cial his­tory “How Soc­cer Ex­plains the World.” He also served as ed­i­tor of a revamped (un­til it wasn’t) New Repub­lic.

It was that lat­ter ex­pe­ri­ence that fu­els this book – and, clearly, Foer’s pes­simism. The pres­ti­gious NewRepub­lic was bought in 2012 by Face­book co-founder Chris Hughes, who hired Foer in a fit of shared rosy think­ing about long­form jour­nal­ism. But Hughes would a few years later come to em­brace Sil­i­con Val­ley’s prin­ci­ples of ef­fi­ciency and data, a pivot that ul­ti­mately drove out Foer and many long-time writ­ers. That opened up the author’s eyes.

Th­ese firms have a pro­gramme: to make the world less pri­vate, less in­di­vid­ual, less cre­ative, less hu­man.

Foer lays out in elab­o­rate de­tail how the data-driven sci­ence of web traf­fic can hold good jour­nal­ism hostage, as he says it did at TNR and con­tin­ues to do else­where. He also goes com­pany by com­pany, dig­i­tal be­he­moth by dig­i­tal be­he­moth, pre­sent­ing the mo­ti­va­tions, meth­ods and mind-sets he says present a threat to in­di­vid­u­al­ity.

In some of the more sur­pris­ing and fu­tur­is­tic sec­tions, he ar­gues that Google’s ex­pan­sions have less to do with new busi­nesses than with a sweep­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence-driven ide­ol­ogy meant to re­duce hu­man au­ton­omy. (Any­one who has ever found their brains un­able to process di­rec­tions with­out the help of Google Maps has be­gun to get a small taste of what will be, in Foer’s es­ti­ma­tion, a much larger meal.)

Or take Ama­zon, he says, which has sub­ju­gated book pub­lish­ing to its rule by con­trol­ling many parts of the dis­tri­bu­tion chain. The book ar­gues that the com­pany has con­sol­i­dated so much power that even up­stand­ing jour­nal­ists, wor­ried about their own books, be­come afraid to crit­i­cise it. (Mo­nop­o­lies form the core of the threat, ac­cord­ing to the author, with each of th­ese tech gi­ants di­vid­ing up con­trol of dif­fer­ent as­pects of mod­ern life like a chef carv­ing a roasted chicken.)

The author saves some of his most provoca­tive rhetoric for Face­book. Call­ing its MO a “pa­ter­nal­is­tic nudg­ing”, he de­scribes a com­pany that treat hu­mans as a gi­ant data set, not­ing how Face­book em­ploy­ees can run “ex­per­i­ments” on the ser­vice’s tens of mil­lions of users. The Mark Zucker­berg-led firm, he says, fur­nishes the il­lu­sion of free will and in­di­vid­ual iden­tity. But what re­ally com­pels it is the achieve­ment of cer­tain so­cial out­comes. By ma­nip­u­lat­ing the news feeds of its mas­sive user base, Face­book seeks to do ev­ery­thing from getting pre­ferred po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates elected (by sub­tly mo­ti­vat­ing the Amer­i­cans who would vote for them) to con­trol­ling col­lec­tive emo­tions (by adding or re­mov­ing pos­i­tive ad­jec­tives in feeds). The point is not demon­strated con­clu­sively, but Foer of­fers a num­ber of smok­ing guns.

Big Tech has im­posed its will on the res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion with nei­ther our in­put nor our per­mis­sion.

Foer could hardly be called a Lud­dite: He ad­mits pur­chas­ing and own­ing myr­iad dig­i­tal de­vices over the years and read­ily ac­knowl­edges the im­prove­ments they’ve af­forded. But such con­ve­niences mask a dirt­ier agenda, he ar­gues.

“[It’s] chilling to hear [co-founder Larry Page] con­tem­plate how Google will some­day em­ploy more than one mil­lion peo­ple,” Foer writes as he de­scribes the com­pany’s ef­fort to blend hu­mans with ma­chines and di­lute the hu­man will. “That’s not just a boast about dom­i­nat­ing an in­dus­try where he faces no true ri­vals, it’s a boast about some­thing far vaster, a state­ment of Google’s in­tent to im­pose its val­ues and the­o­log­i­cal con­vic­tions on the world.”

Or, as Foer says of all the com­pa­nies’ ef­forts to decode peo­ple like a string of data: “They have built their em­pires by pul­veris­ing pri­vacy; they will fur­ther en­sconce them­selves by push­ing bound­aries, by tak­ing even more in­va­sive steps that build to­ward an even more com­plete por­trait of us.”

In its march to Wall Street and pop-cul­tural dominance, Big Tech has cer­tainly had its prophets of doom – the you-are-not-a-gad­get-ism of Jaron Lanier, to take one ex­am­ple. But it has rarely had one like Foer, as much jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian as so­cial critic, who dived into the world a re­searcher and emerged a par­ti­san. Foer draws on nu­mer­ous his­tor­i­cal tech in­no­va­tions, from Descartes’ au­toma­tons to West­ern Union’s cosy re­la­tion­ship with the

As­so­ci­ated Press, to of­fer the early tem­plates for mod­ern Big Tech practices.

The nar­ra­tive also traces the roots of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia – par­tic­u­larly 1960s prophet Ste­wart Brand, who long be­fore Steve Jobs was plant­ing the hip­pie seeds from which all this has sprung. It is here, he as­serts, that counter-cul­tural ideals of im­prove­ment would be­gin mor­ph­ing into the ego­ism that th­ese were the peo­ple who should best de­cide how to en­act them.

Some may also find his uni­fy­ing the­o­ries a lit­tle too grand. A Google cre­at­ing a hu­man-chal­leng­ing AI and an Ama­zon ship­ping books at a dis­count may not be united in con­spir­acy; their re­spec­tive con­se­quences may also not be equally sig­nif­i­cant.

But he mostly and per­sis­tently, with the zealotry of the com­pa­nies he de­rides, builds a strong philo­soph­i­cal case. Like an oc­cu­py­ing power di­vid­ing up ter­ri­tory, he as­serts, Big Tech has im­posed its will on the res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion with nei­ther our in­put nor our per­mis­sion. Th­ese firms have a pro­gram: to make the world less pri­vate, less in­di­vid­ual, less cre­ative, less hu­man.

Are th­ese com­pa­nies merely the lat­est wave of cap­i­tal­ist en­ter­prises, slightly drunk on power, yet not fun­da­men­tally that dif­fer­ent from many of their non-tech coun­ter­parts? Or is the com­bi­na­tion of vast wealth, am­bi­tion, know-how and ide­o­log­i­cal cer­ti­tude an in­sid­i­ous force – ca­pa­ble, with our love and per­mis­sion, of bend­ing us to their will?

Foer makes his po­si­tion clear. Readers may be less cer­tain, but they’re cer­tainly left with a lot to fear.

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