technology, media

Is Franklin Foer Right? Part Deux

By Grace Lidia Suárez

Today I will continue my journey through Franklin Foer’s “World Without Mind.” This is not really a review of the book so much as a list of my impressions, opinions and reactions, as I read the book.

I am now at the point, in Chapter Seven, where Foer tells us more about his personal experience as editor of The New Republic after its purchase by a wealthy techie, a Facebook co-founder.

“CHRIS HUGHES WAS A MYTHICAL SAVIOR—boyishly innocent, fantastically rich, intellectually curious, unexpectedly humble, and proudly idealistic.”

The bromance did not end well. Hughes got tired of throwing money at the magazine, and eventually Foer jumped, apparently a few seconds before being pushed. I can’t help wondering whether his attitude towards media tech might not have been different had his personal experience been happier.

“I saw this up close during my time at the New Republic. I watched how dependence on the tech companies undermined the very integrity of journalism. At the very beginning of that chapter in my career, I never imagined that we would go down that path.”

One thing I found interesting is that he spends entire chapters demonizing Amazon, several on Facebook, a couple on Google, but says absolutely nothing about Apple and Twitter. He tears Amazon apart for what he says it has done to the book industry.

In the last chapters, he offers some solutions. One of them is a bit scary:

“What we need is a Data Protection Authority to protect privacy as the government protects the environment.”

I’m not sure how many people would be prepared to put a governmental agency in charge of data privacy. I sure wouldn’t.

But Foer argues that,

“The health of our democracy demands that we consider treating Facebook, Google, and Amazon with the same firm hand that led government to wage war on AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft—even dismembering them into smaller companies if circumstances (and the law) demand a forceful response.” A second suggestion is that media cut itself loose from advertising revenue and make it (or try to) on subscriptions.

“That assumption requires reversing. The time has arrived to liberate media from their reliance on advertising. Media need to scale back their ambitions, to return to their niches, to reclaim the loyalty of core audiences—a move that will yield superior editorial and sustainable businesses, even if such retrenchment would crush owners’ (mostly delusional) fantasies of getting gobbled by conglomerates or launching IPOs. To rescue themselves, media will need to charge readers, and readers will need to pay.”

His other suggestion is to return to paper for reading.

“If I were to justify this choice, I would argue that the Kindle doesn’t fully provide respite from the Web. The Kindle may tamp down the noise, but it still doesn’t provide a state of isolation. Amazon tracks every movement across its e-books. It uses the data it gleans from Kindles to predict the commercial efficacy of the books it sells. It tracks the passages that we underline—and shares those markings with our fellow readers. It remains a fortress of big tech, umbilically connected to an exclusive store. The Kindle is an effective simulation of a book, yet it’s still a simulation.”

Here I have to completely disagree. I have not bought a paper book in years. Yet my library, which resides on my iPad and in iCloud, contains hundreds of books, most of which I have paid good money for. I find the digital reading experience much more rewarding that reading from a page.

I found the book to be entertaining and challenging. I don’t think we will be putting the media tech genie back in the bottle anytime soon, and frankly I don’t really want to. I thoroughly enjoy buying and reading ebooks, and getting my news online, though I do subscribe to my favorite publications (the Economist, the New Yorker, New York Times and others) to show my appreciation.

“World Without Mind” is well worth reading, and just to needle Foer, here is the link to the iBooks edition.

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