The dan­ger of let­ting Google, Ap­ple, Face­book and Ama­zon run our lives.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY JON GERTNER Jon Gertner is the au­thor of “The Idea Fac­tory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of Amer­i­can In­no­va­tion.”

Sil­i­con Val­ley’s achieve­ments are typ­i­cally viewed through the lens of in­no­va­tions that have trans­formed mod­ern life. We can go back a few decades and look to In­tel’s de­vel­op­ment of the in­te­grated cir­cuit, for in­stance, or Ap­ple’s reimag­in­ing of the per­sonal com­puter. More re­cent are planet-span­ning web­sites, such as Face­book; search en­gines that re­sem­ble magic mir­rors, such as Google’s; and bazaars with­out end, such as Ama­zon’s. Many of us over 35 see this as a mixed bless­ing, of course: Ac­cess to won­drous tech­no­log­i­cal tools has also brought us too much email, too many dis­trac­tions and too much vul­ner­a­bil­ity — hack­ings, trollings, stalk­ings and worse. But what if the trade-offs are much larger than we re­al­ized? In the midst of our dig­i­tal lives, Franklin Foer ar­gues, doesn’t it seem pos­si­ble that Sil­i­con Val­ley’s darkest, stealth­i­est tri­umph has been to merge per­sonal tech­nolo­gies that im­prove our ef­fi­ciency with per­sonal tech­nolo­gies that al­ter our hu­man­ity?

On a ba­sic level, Foer’s book aims to ex­pose the dan­gers that four tech­nol­ogy giants — Google, Ap­ple, Face­book and Ama­zon — pose to our cul­ture and ca­reers. In their meth­ods of con­sumer ob­ser­va­tion and data gath­er­ing, and in their in­ten­tion to re­place hu­man de­ci­sion­mak­ing with mer­ci­less al­go­rithms, these com­pa­nies, Foer says, “are shred­ding the prin­ci­ples that pro­tect in­di­vid­u­al­ity.”

It’s even worse than that, ac­tu­ally. Bent on dom­i­nat­ing our mar­kets as well as the world, the four cor­po­ra­tions have lulled us into a sense of pli­ant de­pen­dency as they in­flu­ence our think­ing and ac­tiv­i­ties. Far more pow­er­ful than the elite “gate­keep­ing” in­sti­tu­tions of the past — the ma­jor tele­vi­sion net­works, for ex­am­ple, or the lead­ing news­pa­pers — this fear­some four, as Foer char­ac­ter­izes them, are the new ar­biters of me­dia, econ­omy, pol­i­tics and the arts. By mak­ing their ser­vices cheap and in­dis­pens­able, and by tai­lor­ing their com­plex al­go­rithms to our data pro­files, they can gen­tly push us to­ward prod­ucts they want us to buy or, say, YouTube videos they want us to watch. Yet the meth­ods by which we get such rec­om­men­da­tions — for news, con­sumer goods, movies, mu­sic, friends and the like — re­main opaque. Face­book’s ac­cep­tance of thou­sands of Rus­sian ads dur­ing the re­cent elec­tion may be a case in point. As Foer re­minds us, through an al­go­rith­mic dis­per­sal of mis­in­for­ma­tion, the so­cial-me­dia gi­ant pos­si­bly helped elect to the pres­i­dency of the United States a fre­quently bank­rupt real es­tate de­vel­oper with­out any po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence what­so­ever.

The heart of the prob­lem, as Foer sees it, “is that when we out­source think­ing to ma­chines, we are re­ally out­sourc­ing think­ing to the or­ga­ni­za­tions that run the ma­chines.” It’s an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion. Foer isn’t an anti-tech­nol­ogy zealot; he cops to be­ing a Twit­ter ad­dict and an en­thu­si­as­tic user of screens and smart­phones, even as he ad­mits that his fa­vorite in­dul­gence is read­ing a book in his bath­tub at home. What he most wants us to see, though, is how the com­pa­nies that dom­i­nate the world’s tech­nol­ogy ecosys­tem have as­sumed the roles of mo­nop­o­lists, even if by an econ­o­mist’s def­i­ni­tion they more closely re­sem­ble oli­gop­ol­ies, which is to say they are im­mensely pow­er­ful within cer­tain mar­kets (Web search, for in­stance, or so­cial me­dia) where there is lim­ited com­pe­ti­tion.

I don’t think he’s ex­ag­ger­at­ing the point. As the in­vestors Peter Thiel and Marc An­dreessen make clear, in the tech busi­ness, mo­nop­oly is not a forbidden zone but a de­sired des­ti­na­tion. And as Foer notes, An­dreessen has even ar­gued that it may be the nat­u­ral or­der of things — that while nor­mal mar­kets might have a Coke and a Pepsi com­pet­ing against each other, “in tech­nol­ogy mar­kets in the long run you tend to only have one.”

Mo­nop­o­lies or quasi-mo­nop­o­lies that seem to be ex­ploit­ing con­sumers — West­ern Elec­tric, AT&T, IBM, Mi­crosoft — have of course long been tar­gets for gov­ern­ment scru­tiny. But Foer thinks ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies may be cre­at­ing a more dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion than what we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced in the past. The tech com­pa­nies’ wealth, mar­ket share, in­ge­nu­ity and grow­ing power on Capi­tol Hill make them in­creas­ingly for­mi­da­ble. As Foer fre­quently points out, “We have be­gun to out­source our in­tel­lec­tual work to com­pa­nies that sug­gest what we should learn, the top­ics we should con­sider.” But by carv­ing out for them­selves im­mense net­works of in­flu­ence and in­tel­li­gence, these com­pa­nies, he ar­gues, have also de­vel­oped what may prove to be unas­sail­able ad­van­tages. They know our pref­er­ences bet­ter than their up­start com­peti­tors ever could, so the more they win, the more they win. And the longer this goes on, Foer fears, the worse it will get.

The first half of Foer’s book is a take­down of what he terms the “sham pop­ulism” of the big tech com­pa­nies. While he of­ten seems less crit­i­cal of Ap­ple, he is scathing on the am­bi­tions of Google’s Larry Page, Face­book’s Mark Zucker­berg and Ama­zon founder (and Wash­ing­ton Post owner) Jeff Bezos. About half­way through his book, though, Foer moves his ar­gu­ment in a more per­sonal di­rec­tion — to­ward his ex­pe­ri­ences as an edi­tor at the New Repub­lic magazine, where he was van­quished by a data-driven owner who bought the magazine with wealth gained from his Face­book stock. Foer’s overly sen­ti­men­tal at­tach­ment to TNR nar­rows the shock-and-awe at­tack he began wag­ing at his book’s start. But it does al­low him to il­lus­trate the dif­fi­cul­ties of try­ing to run a strug­gling cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion in the dig­i­tal age, and it gives him in­sight into how the Web en­vi­ron­ment cre­ated by the tech­nol­ogy be­he­moths ex­erts pres­sure on mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers to make knowl­edge free on­line, of­ten with di­min­ish­ing re­turns to the con­tent pro­duc­ers.

Also, it leads him even­tu­ally — and per­sua­sively, I thought — to­ward some pre­scrip­tions for less­en­ing the dan­gers he per­ceives. For one thing, he asserts that we need to per­ma­nently re­ject the no­tion that knowl­edge should be free and that dig­i­tal me­dia shouldn’t charge users. For an­other, we need the hand of gov­ern­ment to in­ter­vene in a va­ri­ety of novel ways. One place to start would be to give cit­i­zens a mea­sure of con­trol over in­for­ma­tion that tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies col­lect. “What we need,” Foer writes, “is a Data Pro­tec­tion Author­ity to pro­tect pri­vacy as the gov­ern­ment pro­tects the en­vi­ron­ment.” He posits that this idea would let Amer­i­cans purge their data that sits on com­pany servers while also hav­ing the choice to opt out of sur­veil­lance.

By the end, one can’t help but see “World With­out Mind” as a polemic. And it hap­pens to come in the wake of other pow­er­ful tech­nol­ogy cri­tiques — by Jaron Lanier and Ni­cholas Carr, for in­stance, who cov­ered re­lated ground in their own su­perb books. 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. To be sure, he pens at least a few du­bi­ous, at­ten­tion-grab­bing sen­tences of car­i­ca­ture and fear-mon­ger­ing. (For in­stance, he warns us that Google in­tends “to im­pose its val­ues and the­o­log­i­cal con­vic­tions on the world.”) And I would pre­sume that Foer does not ac­tu­ally think he, or any­one else, can stop the march of tech­no­log­i­cal progress, even if he some­times comes off that way. His es­sen­tial point seems that at the very least we should pause and con­sider act­ing, on both a pub­lic and a per­sonal level, be­fore we find that we’ve lost more of what makes us hu­man — our in­di­vid­u­al­ity, agency and spon­tane­ity — than we ever bar­gained for. And be­fore we dis­cover that the cre­ative in­dus­tries that sup­port our cul­ture have been so eroded by lower wages and ma­chine learn­ing that they are in dan­ger of in­fras­truc­tural col­lapse.

We might ask if this is an un­winnable bat­tle. We love tech­nol­ogy; we need tech­nol­ogy. And in an era when reg­u­la­tion has in­creas­ingly fallen out of fa­vor, the like­li­hood in the near fu­ture of a tight yok­ing of big tech (or a whole­sale re­vamp­ing of our gov­ern­ment’s anti-trust poli­cies) seems un­likely. But I don’t think it’s un­rea­son­able to be­lieve, judg­ing by the growth tra­jec­tory and rav­en­ous ap­petites of the tech giants, that their day of reck­on­ing will even­tu­ally come, just as it came for mo­nop­o­lies such as West­ern Union and AT&T.

Un­til then, Foer sug­gests that a num­ber of re­fusenik de­ci­sions — read­ing a book on pa­per, say, rather than in an elec­tronic for­mat, which al­lows for the col­lec­tion of in­for­ma­tion on our read­ing habits — are a good place to draw the line. Now, isn’t that silly and small bore? At first I thought so, but then his mod­est ar­gu­ment struck me as hav­ing both sym­bolic and prac­ti­cal im­port. It’s a starter kit for think­ing deeper. Even if in­no­va­tions in per­sonal tech­nol­ogy can’t be stopped, their true value should al­ways be ques­tioned. And em­brac­ing some tech­nolo­gies while re­ject­ing oth­ers is not an in­stance of hypocrisy. As Foer re­minds us, the stakes are high, the mar­ket­ing pitch is deaf­en­ing, and say­ing no to big tech — at least some­times — is an in­creas­ingly cru­cial mat­ter of per­sonal choice and civic re­spon­si­bil­ity.

WORLD WITH­OUT MIND The Ex­is­ten­tial Threat of Big Tech By Franklin Foer Pen­guin Press. 257 pp. $27

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