The host has been busy pushing “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,” by Franklin Foer for several weeks now, and rightly so. The case the book makes for regulating big tech is a good one and should be carefully considered by our lawmakers and regulators. As Foer says – we own our data, not Google, Facebook, Amazon, et. al. Additionally, there are the highly monopolistic practices of these companies – practices that our nation has traditionally deemed unacceptable. Foer says of Brandies:
Convenience was nice, but we shouldn’t sacrifice ourselves to achieve it. His fear was that the benefits of efficiency might lure us to surrender our liberty.
Indeed, I agree with the big point that regulation is called for.
But one should also bear in mind that the book is far more than simply an argument for regulation. It is cultural commentary. It was one man’s harangue against a world that seems to be setting aside all that he has valued in his life. The book contains elements of memoir. Finally and most importantly it is a book about what it means to be human, with implications about what constitutes human nature.
The book is written in a breathless style that I personally found distracting, but it has been argued to me by others that the style is necessary to break through the noise of today’s intellectual environment. I think my interlocutor may have a point, but I fear that in trying to break through the noise one contributes to it. In an earlier post where I quoted from the book having not actually completed reading it, I quoted a paragraph where Foer discusses the compromise of journalism by data forces. I wonder if the style of the book ought be examined in light of how the noise forces have operated.
The book is also really big on problems, but really short of solutions. We’ll delve into that a bit more as this piece continues. There are three things I want to discuss from the book, 1) the engineering mindset, 2) artificial intelligence, and 3) the malleability of human nature.
Foer spends a lot of time, particularly early in the book, bemoaning the engineering minds behind big tech. The whole discussion drips with the sort of navel gazing, philosophical discussions I recall from my university days that in the end boiled down to the English majors versus the science/engineering majors. There is little question that there is a personality and proclivity divide between those that gravitate to the humanities and those that gravitate towards science and engineering. But there is little reason these people should be opponents other than simple chest thumping and on some occasions a fight for university resources.
Yet we live in a time when this divide is growing as, it seems, are all other social divides. It is often argued that human knowledge as grown so vast that the ideal of a Renaissance Man is simply no longer possible. But I really think this particular bifurcation is far more mundane than that. Universities want more resources so they pander to the students to get more tuition. As someone who leans to the science side, I know I often resented my sojourns to the other side of campus for the compulsory humanities classes. Likewise, I have been a part of putting together a syllabus for a science class specifically designed such that “English majors could meet their science requirement with reasonable grades.” But all of that was decades ago when universities still made a pretense of offering a true Liberal Arts education. Nowadays many schools have dropped even the pretense, making for seemingly happier students, certainly attracting more students. Put on top of that typical university politics between departments and one must conclude the ideal of the Renaissance Man has been abandoned, not become impossible.
In his descriptions of the engineering mindset, Foer widens this chasm rather than seeks to narrow it. He does not examine its roots at all, he just bemoans engineers. This makes enemies where it is necessary to make friends. I am sure Foer, understandably, feels he is simply defending himself. I think he might be better served trying to convince Google to actually read all those books they tried to digitize.
Foer spends a lot of time early in the book presenting Google’s vision of artificial intelligence (AI) – something Hillary Clinton grasped to tightly in her conversation with the host. In his discussion Foer seems to go out of the way to paint AI in the most “evil science fiction” of terms. I dabbled in AI in the early days of micro-computing, and what passes for AI even today is a stretch to call “artificial intelligence.” It is mostly a brute force analysis of massive amounts of data. Foer admits that passing the Turing test is not likely anytime soon, but then acts as if Google trying to complete your search term for you is almost there.
The warnings we constantly read about AI from Stephen Hawking and many other leading scientists are very real and very true. A Turing test passing AI is as much threat as accomplishment. There is no doubt of that. But the warnings we keep reading are currently a philosophical debate about Google’s stated goals as opposed to a warning against an impending reality. Massive pattern recognition and the resultant predictive capabilities possible from such analysis, even coupled with voice recognition and synthesis is a far, far cry from true AI.
The problems Foer is presenting us with are complex enough, and do not to need to be compounded by worries of the fantastic. I think with this part of the book Foer was simply trying to paint Google as a prototypical bunch of mad scientists. If I am right about that then I point the reader back to my comments on the humanities/science divide. But if Foer is worried about machines actually somehow thinking for us, then I think he needs to look more on the human side of that transaction than the technological one.
Which brings me to the last thing I want to discuss. In the last couple of pages of the book Foer writes:
Human nature is malleable. It is not some fixed thing, but it has a breaking point, a point at which our nature is no longer really human.
He argues that we are not participating in the decision to approach or go past that breaking point. With that I must disagree. How is it that big tech is driving us in this direction? They are taking advantage of some of humanity’s most base nature – our greed, our gluttony, our sloth, even our pride. Amazon’s pricing and tax strategies have lead to their market dominance – that is based on greed. Is not binge watching Netflix or the compulsive checking of Facebook a form of gluttony? Is not reliance on Google to answer all our questions a form of sloth? Facebook hooks us by showing us a very sanitized and “liked” version of ourselves – vanity.
I hope those words – greed, gluttony, sloth and pride – ring a bell. They are four of the seven deadly sins.
Humanity does not have a breaking point that we are being driven past, humanity is broken and big tech is capitalizing on that brokenness rather than encouraging us to be better. The pandering that Foer so derides in his journalistic colleagues is just an appeal to our brokenness.
Regulation of big tech is needed because of the reasons I cited in the opening paragraphs of this post – our data is ours and our system should not tolerate monopolies. But the metaphysics behind why big tech has achieved its dominance and that provides the final response to so many of the problems big tech presents lie in correcting our broken human nature.
The project of fixing broken human nature is not a project for government – it is one for the church. It is in fact the church’s raison d’etre. Big Tech’s success at capitalizing on our brokenness is evidence of the church’s failure. But the church has also been around a whole lot longer than Big Tech and has failed more times than anyone can possibly count. Foer’s book, properly viewed, is a call to revival.
But this revival needs to be different; it should not be satisfied merely with a count of converts at the end of the tent meeting. Big Tech is big and church needs to be big to counter it. The trend of the last decades towards atomization of the Protestant church has got to end. We need an organizational revival, not just a personal one.