The Paper Resistance

Book Review: Franklin Foer. World without Mind. The Existential Threat of Big Tech (2017)

This is a fantastic book, full of stories and real insights. In the center: the showdown between Franklin Foer, author (How Soccer Explains the World, 2014) and long-time editor of the renowned US-magazine The New Republic, and Chris Hughes – Facebook-founder and owner, editor in chief and publisher of The New Republic since 2012. It’s a battle between old school journalism and Silicon Valley-style business thinking.

After having left The New Republic (followed by almost the whole crew at that time) because of quarrels about the editorial strategy for the magazine, Foer has, as he says, turned from a commentator to an activist. World without Mind gives a good impression why activism is a necessary stance to take. Here are the three major points Foer wants us to become aware of.

1. It’s not the technology!

There have been lots of discussions about algorithms, artificial intelligence and about how robots might take over our jobs or could lead to unethical or questionable decisions. (One example: the self-driving car which is supposedly programmed to selectively run over three elderly ladies in order to save one school-kid).

The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to organizations that run the machines

These discussions are missing a very important point: “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to organizations that run the machines”, writes Foer. Algorithms are not neutral: they follow specific interests. Book and movie recommendations are one small example: Netflix directs its users rather to the unfamiliar – because blockbuster movies cost Netflix more to stream. Amazon, with its book recommendations, is in a totally different position. Selling ‘blockbuster’ books is not less profitable than selling rather obscure titles. Therefore, Amazon rather goes for recommendations of bestsellers.

2. Yes, they do have a plan

When we “outsource thinking to companies”, it should be important to know what drives these companies. In order to understand the business imperatives which guide the Internet giants Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (in brief: GAFA) one should not only look at immediate issues, but rather to their long-term strategy and philosophy.

When we “outsource thinking to companies”, it should be important to know what drives these companies.

Amazon, for instance, is often regarded as a company that evolved out of an online-book-selling store by chance. Nothing could be more misleading. Starting with books was a well-considered economic decision. Dealing with books doesn’t require travelling the world to source inventory. Books are never returned for being ill fitting, and they are sturdy enough to not get crushed in transit. In other words: books were the ideal gateway. Making Amazon into a store for everything was Jeff Bezos plan all from the beginning.

Sure: There’s more than strategy to it. Foer also reminds his readers of Silicon Valley’s philosophy’s origin in the hippie-counterculture of the 1960s. “Freedom” and “openness” are values which many of Silicon Valley’s protagonists sincerely share. The demolishing of copyright laws (which back in history made it possible that the leisure activity of writing turned into a profession), was part of a philosophical-grounding and intentional plan. Taken to the extreme, GAFA’s plans lead to nothing less than the takeover of government by companies acting in the interest of what they think is best for society. Foer quotes Zuckerberg as a testimony. “In a lot of ways”, Zuckerberg once stated, “Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies.” It doesn’t sound like regret.

3. They are meddling with our minds

GAFA does not only interfere with our economy. It also infuses our minds. We not only outsource thinking to companies, but internalize the philosophy of these companies. This, maybe, is the strongest claim of World without Mind. While disrupting the media economy, the big tech companies have also worked hard to destroy journalistic ethos. Traffic and clicks have become the key figure by which success and relevance are being measured.

Their supposed solution: Algorithms should to the job! …[But] algorithms are infused with business interest, giving up something important when dismissing the practice and culture of editing

The effects, Foer stresses, can hardly be underestimated, because the whole project of independent journalism is based on a set of principles which does not harmonize with the hunt for traffic and page-views.

The outcome is of concern not only to the profession of journalism. “Stories about Trump” (and much fake news), Foer claims, “yielded the sort of traffic that pleased the God of data.” And stories about Trump gave him the attention to occupy the office which he now has. A further issue: The very institution of a newspaper or a magazine as an entity has become a target of GAFA. When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, he issued a mandate: The paper could hire lots of writers, designers, and engineers. But no editors! It’s not only that GAFA is in competition with newspapers and magazine as platform for selling pieces of content. Editing, curating and gatekeeping – activities, which belong the core of old journalism – are deemed improper and undemocratic by Silicon Valley thinkers. Their supposed solution: Algorithms should to the job! The problem with this is not only that these algorithms are infused with business interest, but that we are giving up something important when dismissing the practice and culture of editing. “Thinking about bundling articles into something larger was intellectually liberating”, Foer points out. It’s not only nostalgia.

Treat monopoly for what it is

What can be done? Foer’s most promising solution is at the same time the most ambitious one: a reformulation of antitrust-legislation. Whereas today antitrust is used merely to secure the efficient functioning of markets, we must, he claims, return to a conception of antitrust which sees itself in the line of putting checks and balances to power – be it political or corporate power. Foer finds this thinking in the tradition of US-legal scholars like Louis Brandeis.

Whereas today antitrust is used merely to secure the efficient functioning of markets, we must, he claims, return to a conception of antitrust which sees itself in the line of putting checks and balances to power.

He is very explicit about his optimism concerning this approach: “When government tries to remodel the economy for the sake of efficiency, it has amassed a mixed record. When government uses its power to achieve clear moral ends, it has a strong record”. One minor point to criticize: While Foer shares his enthusiasm for a renewal of Brandeis-style antitrust in very convincing fashion, he does not provide us with a plan how such a renewal could be achieved within the institutions. Especially for the European Union, which is so explicitly centered on market policy, this would be helpful.

Smaller fixes are more easily within reach. Reader-financed journalism, thinks Foer, is not impossible. His evidence: When buying books, readers do pay for words. Therefore, selling to readers instead of selling to advertiser still seems to be an option. And finally, yes: paper. Pieces printed on paper cannot be appropriated by search engines and social media. Buying and reading these pieces does not produce data trails. Under the contemporary circumstances, using paper indeed has an appeal of real resistance. This, at least, could be something to start with.

 

0

Leave Comment

Comment on this article