French philosopher Rene Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” But in the digital age, what we think and how we live are being influenced in a big way by just a handful of tech firms: We are informed by Google and entertained by Apple; we socialize on Facebook and shop on Amazon. It’s time to reclaim our identities and reassert our intellectual independence, according to Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and former editor of The New Republic, in his book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. He recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111, to explain why these firms’ hold on society is a cautionary tale for the future.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: Tech companies such as Amazon have truly transformed themselves over the last couple of decades [and become a big part of our lives].
Franklin Foer: Amazon is really one of the most impressive specimens in the entire history of American business. It started off as a bookstore, then it morphed into becoming the ‘everything’ store. And it’s morphed beyond that. We know about Amazon Web Services and how it powers the cloud. We’ve seen how it just keeps expanding, culminating most recently in its decision to purchase Whole Foods. The same could be said for Google, which set out to organize knowledge but then became Alphabet, which has this massive portfolio, including a life-sciences company that aims to make us immortal.
Where do these companies end? Do we have a problem with their size? These are questions that go to the fundamental nature of our economy and whether we can really have a competitive, capitalistic system. There are more fundamental questions [we need to ask] about the future of our culture and our democracy because these companies amass tremendous troves of data about us. Those troves of data are portraits of our psyche. They use this incredibly powerful information about us in order to alter our behavior. There’s a huge amount of convenience that comes with that, but there are also real, important questions that need to be asked of these companies.
In the last couple of months, we’ve started to ask some of these questions. The outcome of the last election, with the proliferation of fake news and the debate over Facebook’s culpability in that question, has triggered a real backlash against that company. There are a number of flashpoints that have shifted the debate [about society and technology] considerably.
“In Silicon Valley, the greatest ambition now is not to displace Google or Facebook. It’s to get bought by Google and Facebook.”Knowledge@Wharton: There are three or four companies, which are giants in the tech world, that have unbelievable amounts of control over so many things in our society.
Foer: Absolutely. The Europeans call them GAFA: Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. There are a couple of reasons why these guys have triggered so much anxiety and why I found myself drawn to asking hard questions of them. The first is the accumulation of data. The second is the way in which that data ends up getting leveraged. We’re in the realm of algorithms and machine learning and artificial intelligence, where the advantages that accrue to the companies that have mastery over those things end up compounding over time.
So the gap grows between those big four and everybody else. We may already have reached the point where people have stopped trying to chase them. In Silicon Valley, the greatest ambition now is not to displace Google or Facebook. It’s to get bought by Google and Facebook. There’s a real question about [the future of] entrepreneurship here. Where are the opportunities? If you cease to exist in an economy where you can displace those big players, the incentive to aim for the stars and to try to create those kinds of unicorn companies diminishes.
Knowledge@Wharton: You write in the book, “As these companies have expanded, marketing themselves as champions of individuality and pluralism, their algorithms have pressed us into conformity and laid waste to privacy. They’ve produced an unstable and narrow culture of misinformation and put us on a path to a world without private contemplation, autonomous thought or solitary introspection. A world without mind.”
Foer: There’s so much about technology that’s so wonderful. I have a daughter who’s 12 years old. When she was born, there was no iPhone, there was no Kindle, there was hardly social media. Over the course of this decade, incredible things have happened. They’re real monuments to human creativity, and it’s hard not to bow down before these creations.
But the magical qualities of these creations shouldn’t distract us, shouldn’t preclude us from asking skeptical questions because the stakes here are supremely high. Over the course of the long history of humanity, we’ve always had tools that have been extensions of us. You could argue that technology is one of the things that defines us as a species....MORE