Review of “A world without mind,” by Franklin Foer

A book that deserves a longer review than I have here. In it, journalist Franklin Foer argues, as in the subtitle, that big tech companies are an existential threat to many (good) modern institutions, and that it must be stopped. In particular, he lays out the case that big tech companies have killed journalism, our mental faculties, culture, and our society. He draws on his personal experience at the New Republic, from which he was eventually fired as editor after it was acquired by a Facebook co-founder.

The book itself is more a call to arms than it is a battle plan. I won’t summarize his claims here (see this interview for his own words), rather focusing on the challenges various actors face in solving the problem. Once you believe his diagnosis, a few questions emerge, all concerning how various entities respond to the fact that efficiency and excess power are inextricably tied:
a) how can government effectively regulate big tech
b) what can a well-intentioned tech leader do without destroying their business interests
c) how much must a wary citizen forgo her consumer interests — price and convenience foremost,
d) what should a young CS graduate do when many of the best jobs (by both remuneration and interesting work) are at companies seeking or having already won such monopolistic power.

On the first question, Foer (the son of a famous anti-trust lawyer) presents a simple yet difficult answer: the biggest tech companies are monopolies that need to be broken up and more strongly regulated.

Foer recently gave a talk at Stanford, and I asked him the second question. His answer simultaneously recognized the conflict and punts the answer to other actors, mainly consumers and government, that can better align a company’s incentives.

The last two questions are those that individuals must ask themselves. And they’re questions where I am undoubtedly failing the good citizen test, more than most, even as I increasingly believe the dangers inherent in a few companies dominating our media, retail, communication, and informational landscape. I hate going to stores, and so most of my shopping is off Amazon. I even bought and listened to this book through my Amazon Audible account, after a few months of waiting unsuccessfully for my local libraries to stock it; its price, especially after various promotions, was a fraction of the price elsewhere. That Foer chooses to make it available through Audible might be notable. I communicate almost exclusively through Facebook Messenger. My PhD research includes questions of how large platforms can be better designed, I’ve collaborated with such companies, and this past summer I worked at a large tech company that has had more than its share of corporate behavior troubles.

Foer, acknowledges the benefits for consumers — the one-day shipping and convenience of “free” information — but pleads us to recognize the costs, however abstract they may be: the loss of privacy and focus as we become inundated with advertising, and the long-term loss of quality journalism and a healthy public sphere. Foer further suggests a consumer-side savior: just as “organic, natural” food has carved a niche for itself, quality information websites may be able to distinguish themselves for their privacy, non-click-baity-ness, and good corporate citizenship.

Whether any solutions emerge is a question yet to be answered.