Franklin Foer's Tech-Panic Manifesto

Pessimism by numbers


World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer, Penguin Press, 272 pages, $27

Penguin Press

If you want to sell a book about tech policy these days, there's an easy formula to follow.

First you need a villain. Google and Facebook should suffice, but if you can throw in Apple, Amazon, or Twitter, that's even better. Paint their CEOs as either James Bond baddies bent on world domination or naive do-gooders obsessed with the quixotic promise of innovation.

Then you repackage some old chestnuts about commercialism or false consciousness. Add a dash of pop psychology and behavioral economics. Be sure to include a litany of woes about cognitive overload and social isolation.

Finally, come up with a juicy Chicken Little title. Maybe something like World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

Wait—that one's taken. It's the title of Franklin Foer's latest book, which follows this familiar techno-panic template almost perfectly.

Foer's arguments may not break any new ground, but he has managed to bring together in one tome the three dominant fears of modern tech criticism: the death of journalism and high culture, the growth of unstoppable tech conglomerates, and the rise of isolated, distracted individuals. This trifecta of troubles is leading us down a "terrifying trajectory," Foer says. It is eroding "the integrity of institutions," even "altering human evolution."

It all sounds quite ominous. But it isn't any more convincing than those other anti-technology texts.

Foer, a correspondent for The Atlantic, begins by admitting he's more than a little bitter about his own run-in with a Silicon Valley do-gooder. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought a stake in The New Republic in 2012, then hired Foer to serve as editor of the magazine. But the relationship deteriorated quickly, and Foer was dismissed two years later.

Foer's experience with Hughes serves as the foundation for his fusillade against the technology sector. Echoing themes already developed in books by Andrew Keen (The Cult of the Amateur), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget), and Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism), Foer rails against Silicon Valley's "assault on journalism" and "war on professional writers," charging the internet with the "death of the author" and the "collapse of the economic value of knowledge."

Like many in his profession, Foer isn't a fan of journalism being a business at all. While originally viewing Hughes as a "savior" ready to subsidize a magazine, Foer soured on him once the dreaded demands of popularity and profitability entered the picture. His indictment goes well beyond that, though. Foer lambasts what he calls the GAFA cabal (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) for an ethos that is allegedly "disrespectful of authority." GAFA isn't just undermining journalism: Its members are fighting a "war on free will" and aim "to impose their values and theological convictions on the world."

Yet Foer is all for the theology of the old media order. He falls into a long list of critics who are nostalgic for a time when supposedly enlightened gatekeepers served as the "guardians of intellectual seriousness." Foer suggests that the recent artisanal food movement and "buy local" farmers market model might offer a framework for a better media age. But there already are plenty of specialized community websites and digital services tailored to almost every imaginable interest. Foer just doesn't like so many of them being associated with big platforms like Facebook.

So the erstwhile editor wants the government to step in. Specifically, he wants Washington to "wage war" against these "ascendant monopolies" that "aspire to encompass all of existence." With this call to antitrust arms, Foer joins the big-is-bad chorus of Tim Wu (The Master Switch), Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It), Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Googlization of Everything), and others.

A generation ago, many of the same monopoly concerns were raised about Microsoft, MySpace, AOL Time Warner, Blackberry, and Motorola, all of which allegedly possessed unassailable market power. But the decline of yesterday's villains doesn't enter Foer's narrative, so he doesn't feel the need to address the possibility that creative destruction will shake up information markets again.

What really seems to offend Foer is not the scale of the modern tech giants but the scale of their objectives. Oh, the vanity of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk dreaming of colonizing Mars! Even short of space travel or electric cars, Foer stares down his nose at talk of making all the world's information more accessible or just creating big online communities and shopping experiences.

Some of Foer's arguments are contradictory. He worries that tech titans have "given rise to a new science that aims to construct products that pander to the tastes of their customers." Just a paragraph later, he frets about homogenization. It's hard to see how giant corporations can be guilty of giving a diverse citizenry all the different things they demand while also apparently denying them any real choices.

Regardless, he understands that under the modern antitrust worldview, he's going to have a hard time rallying regulators around the flag of—in his own words—"rejecting the primacy of convenience and low prices." Competition policy has been oriented around those two values for years, after all. Now that we have abundant affordable choices, Foer wants to rewrite the rulebook to suggest that too much of a good thing is bad for consumer welfare.

One reason for the success of big platforms and aggregators is that consumers appreciate not only lower monetary costs but also lower transaction costs. It's simpler to notify your family and friends about a new baby when Facebook puts them all just a click away. Need to sell that old junk in your garage? Craigslist and eBay make that a lot easier, too. And Amazon and Google satisfy your shopping and search needs in a frictionless fashion compared to the past. If Foer has his way and government starts encumbering these activities by undoing efficiency enhancements, consumers aren't likely to be soothed by explanations that diminished choices or higher prices are all for their own good.

Short of antitrust intervention, he suggests that large digital intermediaries such as Google and Facebook be converted into public trustees with amorphous fiduciary responsibilities. He sees federal licensing of broadcasters as a potential model. But we now have 90 years of experience with that regulatory system, dating back to the passage of the Radio Act of 1927; the results have included regulatory capture, limited choices, lackluster innovation, and both obvious and subtle censorship—an odd model for an anti-monopolist.

Foer also hints at support for a mandate that digital intermediaries "provide equal access to a multiplicity of sources and viewpoints." Again, the historical experience with the Fairness Doctrine, which ordered broadcasters to offer balanced treatment of controversial topics of public interest on the airwaves, was grim: Media scholars and the courts have found that the policy had a chilling effect on speech, because licensed broadcasters tried to avoid the wrath of regulators by offering only bland fare.

Moreover, is there really a shortage of vibrant alternative viewpoints on digital platforms today? Many critics complain about the opposite problem: too much speech—or at least too many extreme views.

Foer also thinks people need more time for contemplation, introspection, and escape from the hyper-sharing, "always-on," never-ending conversation of the internet world. He speaks of "restoring our lost individuality" and overcoming the supposed rise of polarization, conformism, and "hive minds."

Many other authors have plowed similar ground, including Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), Maggie Jackson (Distracted), Sherry Turkle (Alone Together), Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble), John Freeman (The Tyranny of E-Mail), and Cass Sunstein ( Indeed, the sociologist Frank Furedi has traced distraction panics to a time long before the web existed, documenting how "inattention has served as a sublimated focus for apprehensions about moral authority" since at least 1710. It's easy for intellectuals to tap into the worst fears of parents and policy makers by suggesting that young people have lost the ability to reason or communicate effectively. Each generation somehow muddles through, then finds some new medium or technology threatening to ruin its successors.

Foer inflates these fears into the "existential threat" mentioned in the subtitle of his book. "Our faith in technology is no longer fully consistent with our belief in liberty," he proclaims. "We're nearing the moment when we will have to damage one of our revolutions to save the other"—to intentionally dampen digital innovation for the good of all.

It is hard to imagine how some of his solutions could even be implemented. But even if they were feasible, what mythical golden age would Foer have us return to? Why would people want to undermine technological progress in the name of reverting to an era when everything from goods and services to information itself was scarce?