Q+A: Franklin Foer On Big Data

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Sam Bromer

Franklin Foer’s lat­est book, “World With­out Mind: The Ex­is­ten­tial Threat of Big Tech,” posits that tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies’ mo­nop­oly on knowl­edge, as well as our col­lec­tive at­ten­tion span, is chang­ing the way we think. In ex­change for the ef­fi­ciency and con­ve­nience pro­vided by the “Big 4” firms — Ap­ple, Google, Face­book and Ama­zon — he ar­gues that we are pressed into con­form­ity. By con­stantly in­ter­act­ing with these com­pa­nies’ prod­ucts, we have al­lowed them to in­trude upon our in­ner lives, de­stroy con­tem­pla­tion and ma­nip­u­late our be­hav­iors.

The For­ward’s Sam Bromer met with Foer and they spoke about how spir­i­tu­al­ity and Jewish con­cepts in­flu­enced “World With­out Mind,” Foer’s ad­mi­ra­tion for Jus­tice Louis Bran­deis, and the steps that can be taken to com­bat tech’s in­tru­sion on our col­lec­tive psy­ches.

SAM BROMER: Your fa­ther, Bert Foer, worked in an­titrust law for many years. How did he in­flu­ence “World With­out Mind,” if at all? Be­cause clearly there’s a huge an­titrust ele­ment to what you’re writ­ing about.

FRANKLIN FOER: My dad went to law school. He trained to be an an­titrust lawyer. And then my grand­fa­ther, as he was dy­ing, asked my dad to come work in the fam­ily busi­ness, which was jewelry. So he had this kind of decade-long di­ver­sion into be­ing a small busi­ness­man. But an­titrust was kind of his burn­ing pas­sion, as much as an­titrust can be any­one’s burn­ing pas­sion. So, I’m sure I ab­so­lutely ab­sorbed from him the ba­sics of what con­sti­tutes preda­tory pric­ing and anti-com­pet­i­tive be­hav­ior. And like ev­ery good Jewish boy, I wanted to please my dad. So I’m sure that all that was in the back of my mind.

To what ex­tent did your up­bring­ing in a Jewish house­hold af­fect ei­ther your views on the pre­cious­ness of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism or your fear of mo­nop­o­lis­tic cor­po­ra­tions as au­thor­i­tar­ian?

I think that some of my skep­ti­cism and hos­til­ity to the big tech com­pa­nies grows from a Jewish sense of time, and just the idea of there be­ing a Sab­bath, which is a break in the ar­chi­tec­ture of the week, where there’s a mo­ment where you’re dis­con­nected. And this idea that there were these sources that are try­ing to hi­jack our at­ten­tion and over­run our lives, leav­ing no space for

con­tem­pla­tion. I think that idea is in some ways at the core of my hos­til­ity to Face­book and Google and Ap­ple and Ama­zon.

So spir­i­tu­al­ity and con­tem­pla­tion are sort of hand in hand in how you view the world?

Ab­so­lutely. To put the Jewish spin on it, I would say that a lot of my think­ing about this rose out of my read­ings of Bran­deis, who is the ul­ti­mate Jewish sec­u­lar saint. Bran­deis made a fetish of con­tem­pla­tion. He in­vented a con­cept of pri­vacy and also was the great critic of mo­nop­oly.

But I think it’s im­pos­si­ble to think meta­phys­i­cally, im­pos­si­ble to think about the things that go beyond the world of ap­pear­ance, if your at­ten­tion is con­stantly be­ing di­rected and if you’re con­stantly be­ing dis­tracted. So I think that con­tem­pla­tion is the nec­es­sary in­gre­di­ent that makes a spir­i­tual life pos­si­ble. Bran­deis had a the­ory of in­tel­lec­tual pri­vacy, and spoke of the need

for pro­tec­tion from sur­veil­lance and in­ter­fer­ence while gen­er­at­ing ideas and pri­vate opin­ions. What do you think reg­u­la­tors or Supreme Court mem­bers or gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials can learn from his ideas?

Well, pri­vacy is some­thing that ev­ery­body claims to want, but no­body ar­tic­u­lates why. Pri­vacy is beyond just hav­ing some­body get a peek through your win­dow. The threat isn’t just that your space is be­ing crowded and vi­o­lated. What Bran­deis was wor­ried about was that idea that the fear of some­body look­ing over your shoul­der as you think would start to af­fect your thought — that as soon as we know we have an au­di­ence, we start to bend our opin­ions to try to please our au­di­ence.

And so he was re­ally wor­ried most in­tensely about the dis­ap­pear­ance of in­de­pen­dence. And when you put it that way, what he’s ar­gu­ing is that as the creep of pri­vacy de­scends upon us, we be­come less able to be cit­i­zens be­cause we’re less able to for­mu­late opin­ions that are en­tirely our own.

Are you skep­ti­cal of col­lec­tivist so­lu­tions to the prob­lems posed by these tech com­pa­nies? Take, for ex­am­ple, union­iza­tion at me­dia com­pa­nies that are af­fected by tech­no­log­i­cal change, like Vox or the Los An­ge­les Times.

I’m def­i­nitely pro-union. I think that the preser­va­tion of good jour­nal­ism in some ways de­pends on union­iza­tion. If you look around news­rooms, it’s hard to find any­body who has any gray hairs. I’ve al­ways won­dered what hap­pens to all these peo­ple. And part of what hap­pens to all peo­ple is that they get pushed out be­cause there’s not a pay struc­ture that works for peo­ple who have fam­i­lies or who age in their pro­fes­sion.

What hap­pens in jour­nal­ism is that there is a race to the bot­tom, where a lot of these out­lets hire young peo­ple be­cause the prod­uct that they pro­duce of­ten­times re­quires less skill and less ex­pe­ri­ence and less ex­per­tise. Ag­gre­ga­tion is the sim­plest and cheap­est type of jour­nal­ism. And so I think as unions fight to ex­ist and then as they fight to make it more pos­si­ble to have an ex­tended ca­reer in jour­nal­ism, what they’re ac­tu­ally fight­ing for, at the end of the day, is a cer­tain idea of qual­ity.

Do you think that no mat­ter what these com­pa­nies like Face­book do, as gate­keep­ers they are go­ing to have an ef­fect on our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem? And what are the con­se­quences of that?

Face­book is in the process right now of reck­on­ing with its size and power. And we would have never had an in­ter­nal reck­on­ing over that had they not been ac­cused of mess­ing with the re­sults of the 2016 elec­tion or if there hadn’t been this scan­dal about Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence.

I think that Face­book is just re­ally un­com­fort­able “own­ing” its power. To be the most pow­er­ful me­dia out­let in the world means that what you pub­lish has tremen­dous im­pact and there­fore should be held to pretty high stan­dards. But Face­book is not built to hold its con­tent up to high stan­dards.

And so to ac­cept the power that they ac­tu­ally have, and the re­spon­si­bil­ity to the power that they ac­tu­ally have, means that they would have to be­come a dif­fer­ent sort of com­pany that is a less prof­itable com­pany. So they’re in a real co­nun­drum.

You write in the book about Face­book’s in­fa­mous lab rat-like ex­per­i­men­ta­tion on its users, and then also Google’s in­volve­ment in the 2012 elec­tion. Do you think that these kinds of ac­tiv­i­ties should be reg­u­lated? Should these com­pa­nies be bound to a code of con­duct, or re­quire more in­formed con­sent from their users?

I think we need to find some re­sponse to the prob­lem of ad­dic­tion, and I think it should be viewed as a pub­lic health prob­lem. I’m not ex­actly sure whether that means post­ing a Sur­geon Gen­eral’s warn­ing on iPhone and Face­book pages, but I do think that needs to be ad­dressed.

Se­condly, there’s the prob­lem of pri­vacy, and we have this gob­s­mack­ing fact that there is no com­pre­hen­sive leg­isla­tive regime that pro­tects peo­ple’s pri­vacy, which stands in stark con­trast to the di­rec­tion [in which] the Euro­peans are quickly mov­ing. And so I think that’s the most ur­gent thing. And then, you’re right, they need to be held to some sort of code of con­duct. And when aca­demics con­duct re­search on sub­jects, they are duty bound to a code of ethics that wires them to dis­close cer­tain ma­nip­u­la­tions or to give the sub­jects a sense of their in­volve­ment in ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, and I think it would be nice if there [could be] some­thing akin to that for the tech com­pa­nies.

Per­haps the tech com­pa­nies could draw from academia, where the same sort of process re­quires more pro­tec­tions for the peo­ple in­volved.

At the same time, the amount of ma­nip­u­la­tion that hap­pens at Face­book on a daily ba­sis is en­demic. Ev­ery­thing is be­ing con­stantly tested. And that’s true at most me­dia com­pa­nies as well, where head­lines are con­stantly be­ing tested. And I don’t think we want to elim­i­nate that; I don’t think we want the gov­ern­ment try­ing to elim­i­nate that. But when it comes to ex­per­i­ments that are de­signed to de­lib­er­ately ma­nip­u­late emo­tions or elec­toral re­sults. I don’t want to be a prude, but ma­nip­u­la­tion of elec­tions is a bridge too far.

‘Pri­vacy is some­thing that ev­ery­body claims to want, but no­body ar­tic­u­lates why.’

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