technology, media

Is Franklin Foer Right?

By Grace Lidia Suárez

I’m reading a very interesting book called “World Without Mind.” It’s by Franklin Foer, who has written several other books and was, for a while, the editor of The New Republic.

It is not a balanced, cool-headed review of modern information technology. Far from it. In fact, it’s a polemic.

As a tech fan, I should be outraged. What do you mean, Mr. Foer? You hate Google, Facebook, and Apple? What would you think of my house, with its iPads, iPhones, and Alexas in every room? I don’t subscribe to any newspapers on papers or anything else on paper for that matter.

Yet the book, which I’m reading on my iPad’s iBook app, is intelligent and captivating. I’m sure I will finish it.

Here’s a taste, from the prologue:

“Over the decades, the Internet revolutionized reading patterns. Instead of beginning with the home pages for Slate or the New York Times, a growing swath of readers now encounters articles through Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple. Sixty-two percent of Americans get their news through social media, and most of it via Facebook; a third of all traffic to media sites flows from Google. This has placed media in a state of abject financial dependence on tech companies. To survive, media companies lost track of their values. Even journalists of the highest integrity have internalized a new mind-set; they worry about how to successfully pander to Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms. In pursuit of clicks, some of our nation’s most important purveyors of news have embraced sensationalism; they have published dubious stories; they have heaped attention on propagandists and conspiracists, one of whom was elected president of the United States. Facebook and Google have created a world where the old boundaries between fact and falsehood have eroded, where misinformation spreads virally.”

Tell us how you really feel, Mr. Foer.

“I hope this book doesn’t come across as fueled by anger, but I don’t want to deny my anger either. The tech companies are destroying something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation. They have created a world in which we’re constantly watched and always distracted. Through their accumulation of data, they have constructed a portrait of our minds, which they use to invisibly guide mass behavior (and increasingly individual behavior) to further their financial interests. They have eroded the integrity of institutions—media, publishing—that supply the intellectual material that provokes thought and “guides democracy. Their most precious asset is our most precious asset, our attention, and they have abused it.”

One of the book’s saving graces is that Franklin Foer is an entertaining writer. By the way, there are three Foers (pun intended) all devilishly clever. I would love to have been at that family dinner table.

He also gives us little biographies which make people like Larry Page and Ray Kurzweil come alive and become eminently human. Well, maybe human isn’t the right word. Read the book and figure it out yourself.

I don’t agree with Foer’s apocalyptic conclusions, such as,

That’s why it’s chilling to hear Larry Page denounce competition as a wasteful concept and to hear him celebrate cooperation as the way forward. “Being negative is not how we make progress and most important things are not zero sum,” he says. “How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing?” And it’s even more chilling to hear him contemplate how Google will someday employ more than one million people, a company twenty times larger than it is now.

That’s not just a boast about dominating an industry where he faces no true rivals, it’s a boast about dominating something far vaster, a statement of Google’s intent to impose its values and theological convictions on the world.

I really don’t think that’s what Page is saying.

Foer really likes his apocalyptic pronouncements. Here is another eye-roller:

“Organizing knowledge is an ancient pursuit. Those who toiled in this field over the centuries—librarians and bookstore owners, scholars and archivists—were trained to go about their work lovingly, almost worshipfully. A professional code implored them to treat their cargo as if the world depended on its safe transit through the generations. The tech companies share none of that concern. They have presided over the collapse of the economic value of knowledge, which has severely weakened newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. By collapsing the value of knowledge, they have diminished the quality of it”

Seriously? A guy running a bookstore selling dime thrillers was trained to go about his work lovingly?

I’m about halfway through the book, so this is going to be Part 1 of 2 or 3. So far I can tell you this.

I am old. I remember life before computers. Hell, I remember carbon paper. I love computers. I love information in digital form. I’m never going back to paper any more than I’m going back to pen and paper or typewriters.

Stay tuned.

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