At a certain point in his critical consideration of how technology is changing the world and its inhabitants, Franklin Foer is struck by a shocking realisation: “If we look at Google, Facebook and Amazon closely enough, we find out that they are similar to Italy”. To Italy? Full of Renaissance attractions and tourists? Heirs of a thousand-year-old cultural tradition? No, the common denominator is that all are places where “it’s never entirely clear how power really operates”.
In attempting to look inside the plate-glass-windowed industries of Silicon Valley – built on the rhetorical foundations of transparency – one can be confused by a distorting-mirror effect, a kaleidoscope of distractions that make it impossible to understand the methods and purposes of Big Tech, the colossal oligopoly that has control over the flow of global data and competes for the most precious resource of all: our attention.
Novelist Chuck Palahniuk’s pronouncement comes to mind: Orwell understood everything, but backwards. “Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed.” Herbert Simon, awarded a Nobel prize for economics back in the 1970s, described the same concept: “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Let’s take a step back. Foer, Atlantic magazine journalist, essayist and former editor of liberal publication New Republic, elder brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, has written a book entitled World Without Mind, an indictment of the “existential threat” posed by technology companies that as a result of their pervasiveness deeply influence key areas of human existence: social relations, work, knowledge. Foer’s book takes net positions, but has the double merit of resisting the temptation to mention the great conspiracy of the wise men of Silicon Valley to rule the world – an increasingly widespread vision – and avoiding Luddite prejudice. When talking about the book, the author makes it clear that he is not against technology per se nor calling for the return to a mythical pre-digital era, where human skills reigned supreme; one of authentic humanity. It is not the lamentation of a hermit devoted to analogue. The problem is what Foer defines as the “destruction of the possibility of contemplation”, where the word contemplation is a synonym of “privacy”, at least in the sense intended by the US jurist Louis Brandeis.
“When talking about privacy,” Foer explains, “you think first of the protection of your personal data from external intrusion. But, in its original sense, the word refers to the space of private consideration, the silent area where you can face the key questions of life. It is at this level that something has radically changed. You will not lose your privacy by transferring your own sensitive data, but by accepting the erosion of spaces of concentration where you are free from the presence of other sources of annoyance.”
As Foer is saying this he is disturbed by his smartphone – as can happen to anyone – but he does not advocate immediately giving up these “bad” devices. “It is, rather, a matter of acknowledging the deep implications of the big technological changes of our time – that we have so far, in my opinion, embraced with irresponsible enthusiasm. It is unlikely that we will have a free and healthy relationship with something we have not really understood.”
He understood it when the journal of which he was editor – New Republic – was bought by Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, and it was proposed to transform this newspaper of ideas, which had published the work of George Orwell and Virginia Woolf, into a “vertically integrated media company”. The result was not particularly encouraging, but gave Foer a better understanding of the mindset influencing the world – that of innovation technologists, to whom he had always looked with enthusiasm.
The author tackles multiple issues, from algorithms that look like neutral mathematical tools, but are not really so, to the incestuous relationship between social networks and the media – including the sciencefiction visions of engineers convinced that the defeat of death is a goal within reach. Regarding algorithms, he says that they “are meant to erode free will, to relieve humans of the burden of choosing, to nudge them in the right direction”. Foer dwells on some disquieting details, little appreciated by the public. Just one example: nobody entirely knows the code of Facebook. Armies of engineers work tirelessly on it, the treasury of Zuckerberg’s social network, but after years of extraordinary expansion and obsessive modifications, it has become so vast and stratified that nobody has a grasp of the overall picture. In other words: the medium that controls the social life of more than two billion people eludes the control of human beings.
It is because of such intuitions that it is relatively common these days to come across enthusiasts of technology who have renounced their positions to speak out against the word of Silicon Valley. Jaron Lanier, pioneer of virtual reality in the 1980s, is begging the likes of Google to make radical changes to their business models to avoid turning the world into a giant cage for hamsters running in an eternal wheel. Sean Parker, founder of Napster and first president of Facebook, is today blaming himself for not having understood, when the revolution exploded in his hands, the implications of what he was doing.
Now Parker is saying that social networks “exploit the vulnerability of human psychology”, creating mechanisms of dependence in users. It all began with the question that Facebook’s leaders have been asking themselves from the start: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” More time and more attention means more comments, more likes, an increase in value for advertisers, still more time and still more likes and comments, leading to a consequent increase of the value and so on. The answer to this question is, therefore, the universal access key, the Holy Grail that the technology industry is desperately looking for in order to secure eternal life.
“We are surrounded – or better, immersed – in a number of incremental processes of which we are not even aware.” Foer explains. “Technology resolves a lot of problems and removes some of the burden and annoyances of our daily life; just think of everything we have automated, from the payment of utility bills to the choice of friends on social networks. What frightens me is the ease with which the small choices become large choices, the small things that we have outsourced to technology become large things; we are on a slippery slope and at this point it is vital to be aware of it.”
Finally Foer calls for a paradoxical “liberation from the engineering of engineers”, whereby the efficiency of the system stops being the only criterion of development. “We must use less energy to understand how to solve everyday problems more effectively and ask ourselves more often what life is worth living for,” he says. “We might discover that efficiency is not everything.”
Mattia Ferraresi — US correspondent for Il Foglio and freelance journalist for other Italian media including Il Giornale and Panorama. He is the author of numerous essays on US politics, published in Italian. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
WORLD WITHOUT MIND
Franklin Foer’s latest book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech seeks to expose the impact of major technology companies – in particular Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – in shaping our thinking, culture and lives. Hailed in the Washington Post as a polemic "executed in the tradition of George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens", Foer says the time has come to consider the consequences of the rise of Big Tech and reassert our individuality.
Franklin Foer is an American writer and journalist who works for the monthly The Atlantic, writing about politics, culture, technology and sport. He was editor of the liberal magazine New Republic, twice, before being fired by its owner, the co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes, in 2014. Foer has also written How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization and co-edited Jewish Jocks, a collection of 50 essays on notable Jewish athletes.
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