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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 (Republic.com). 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?
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