World Without Mind

Franklin Foer manages to land a fist or two on the belly of today’s Internet giants in his new short book ‘World Without Mind’. But not anywhere close to a knock-out blow, not even a decent face-shot. He’s winded them, basically, a bit. Maybe in this age of click-bait and fast-reads, it won’t ever be a single book which makes the definitive case against Google, Amazon and Facebook. Its going to take several rounds, several fighters - ha, who I am kidding, its going to take the internet swarm to properly take them on - an unco-ordinated movement of investigators, activists, tweeters, protestors, reporters, politicians, and judges. And the regulation that results will do some good and do some bad - and their dominance will likely still grow. And that won’t be wholly for our ill, I suspect.

Froer has written a thoughtful book - and that’s really the key strength, as well as the key weakness of his case. Its also intentionally one-sided - since he’s rallying the troops. He’s got Descartes and Leibnitz on quick-dial, he waxes lyrical about McLuhan and some ’60s hippies who spawned the valley, and he’s got his personal experience failing to get the New Republic magazine profitable a few years ago. Its interesting, its nicely tied together. Leibnitz wanted to automate reasoning, Descartes envisioned a world of pure reason, while the hippy-chiefs preached a beautiful counter-culture where the group overcame the selfishness of its individuals. These chaps, Foer argues, were the progenitors of Page, Zuckerburg and Bezos. Their interwoven behemoths have taken these values to the extreme, Foer writes.

Strike one. The internet giants are killing our ability to really think. Algorithms understand and deliver us books, movies and news which it ‘thinks’ we’ll like. They snuggle us into a super-friendly world. You don’t ever get offended by reading an alternative point of view. Your thinking muscle dies. And on other side of the thinking market, the smart folk don’t ever get paid for thinking an issue though deeply - and if they ever did, you’d never be able to read it as your attention is too easily distracted. Foer notes that the average member of the US Authors’ Guild has seen a 50% real pay decline since 1981. So we don’t think much anymore.

Strike two. They are monopolies. Facebook/Apple/Amazon sucked the money out of news/music/book content, onto their platforms. There is little space for competition since the virtuous lock of “data acquisition - more client understanding - better client targeting - more clients - more of their data” is unpenetrable. Data is like oil, in that it powers these monopolies, but data is unlike oil in that there’s always new data; but the giants are the ones who collect it. Think Standard Oil with a monopoly on the wells and a magical ability to create the black stuff too.

Strike three. The giants think of themselves as beneficent providers, but are actually the new totalitarians. They think they are uniquely able to progress society. They can catelogue the world’s knowledge, drive down all your shopping costs, deliver you a world community. Their monopolies are good; competition is for losers, they say. But, Foer suggests, their dark web secrets - Google’s record-beating abuse of copyright when they scanned every book, Facebook’s ‘provision’ of news that the newspapers pay money to report, the scant pennies paid to musicians, the hacking - all of it is destructive. In doing all that, the giants have jolted a pillar on which our liberal society stands, and now wobbles. Microsoft, for all the criticism it got, never got that far.

So? Foer calls for government to do its thing, to recognise these giants as monopolies and to protect our personal data. He also wants publishers to charge through subscriptions for their content. He thinks they can be Whole Foods vs. the free-to view Walmart.

And that, ultimately, is that. And this is why Foer lands a blow, but nothing like a knock-out blow. There’s a little too much Descartes, and not enough empirics for me. I guess that is not the book Foer set out to write. But I think its ultimately going to be needed, if its western civilisation which is at stake. I worried that algorithms and AI remained a little too much dark magic in his mind, and that he did not have an intuitive sense of the math. I wanted an old-fashioned investigation of the problems he mentions. Just how does their lobbying work? How bad exactly are their warehouses? Just how are the algorithms designed?

And, call me old-fashioned, but it all felt a bit one-sided. It was hard to find a good word about Google - despite our daily reliance upon it to learn and grow. There are a few other reasons for our collective loss of mind, whether its TV news, the state of education, our politics. Mark looks a bit silly jogging through Tiananmen Square or talking to his AI assistant at home, but its a fair stride from that to blaming him for the collapse of western civilisation. I guess the giants have their fair share of worship. But still.

I guess at the end of the day I wanted the problems laid out clearly, precisely, with evidence marshalled. Like the anti-trust court case that Foer envisions will one day be necessary. OK, I thought, there are these bad things which have happened; how bad are they and what should we do about them?

Foer’s book should hopefully usher in other books which show how Amazon negotiates with publishers and treats its staff and does its taxes. Lets see if Amazon highlights them on your concerned-liberal feed. Another fistful of books might unearth how Facebook was perhaps negligent in allowing its platform to be repurposed to undermine American democracy by a hostile power. And maybe we’ll end up with a google of legal scholars who can explain exactly how these new-style monopolies can be best regulated. If our personal data is to be “protected”, how to do that? If Amazon’s platform is a utility, should the government be setting price guidelines? If they are to be broken up, how would one do that? If their de facto taxes are to rise, how should we collect them? Foer is perhaps the Marshall McLuhan of this movement; he’s got the big ideas, and he can write a great line, but the detail, the old-school reporting, and the really tricky questions, others will need to deliver.

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