Franklin Foer is the author of an important and incredibly informative (and entertaining) new book “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.” He joined me this morning to discuss it:
HH: A couple of weeks ago on my MSNBC Saturday morning show, Josh Kraushaar of National Journal, when we were doing our book roundtable, said everyone needs to read Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. And I take Kraushaar pretty seriously, because he’s a great guest. He’s always well-informed. And I started to read this book, and I am fascinated by it. It is so troubling, and Franklin Foer joins me, formerly with the New Republic, now with the Atlantic. Franklin, I probably don’t agree on a whole lot, but I’m pleased to have you on the program, Franklin. Thank you for joining me this morning.
FF: Such a pleasure. Thank you.
HH: Tell people a little bit about this, because I think it’s the scariest book I’ve read in a long time.
FF: So it’s about Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. And these four companies have amassed incredible power in our lives, in our economy, in our democracy. And they’re companies that have genuine values. They have a real, they have a real view of human nature, of what they want us to become as a species. And because they’ve accumulated so much power, they’re able to lead us to the place that they want us to go. And most of us are completely unaware of what’s happening.
HH: It is an existential threat, because it is an existential threat to autonomy. That’s how I’ve been able to articulate it. I read from one page in particular, Page 142. This is just an example of one of many. “The many Facebook experiments add up. The company believes that it has unlocked social psychology and acquired a deeper understanding of its user than they possess of themselves. Facebook can predict users’ race, sexual orientation, relationship status and drug use on the basis of their likes alone.” That’s creepy, Franklin Foer.
FF: Yeah. Well, and what’s even creepier is that Facebook is a giant feedback loop. So they’ve acquired this intimate understanding of the inside of your head, and they leverage that in order to try to make you more engaged with their site. And by, you know, their view of engagement is my view of addiction. And so that they understand your pleasure points, they understand the things that give you anxiety, and they arrange information in such a way to play off of those things. And so it’s really, it’s not just that they’ve invaded your private space, invaded your mind and tried to figure out in this sort of incredibly intimate way, it’s that they take that information, and then they harness it.
HH: Franklin Foer is my guest. He’s the author of the new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. I can’t recommend this enough. My second, and I’ll leave everyone else to get their own examples, has to do with Google. You are an equal opportunity explorer of the intricacies of each of the big four, but Google, when they went after every written book…
HH: They wanted to capture every written book. You write about Larry Page saying, “If you don’t have a reason to talk about it, why talk about it when confronted with the pleas to publicly announce the existence of its decision to break every copyright law in the world?”
HH: And then you quote their senior lawyer as saying, “Google’s leadership doesn’t care terribly much about precedent or law.” My gosh, that’s an admission against interest, and they don’t even care.
FF: And they don’t even care. And that’s what I found time and again, is I just spent, I spent a lot of time just, this is, you know, sometimes with reporting, you just need to examine the public record. And so I spent a lot of time just watching YouTube videos of the founders of these companies, especially Google’s Larry Page and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. And as I listened to them, I thought my God, we’ve missed the story. Yeah, they’re talking about whatever the next new iPhone release is, or the next new widget. But really, they’re saying important things about human nature and the future of the human species. And the thing is, is that they view us ultimately as just a pile of algorithms. You are code, which means that it’s only natural for you to merge with machines, right? Since we’re already, the body’s already a machine, it makes perfect evolutionary sense for us to take that next leap. And we see this already where you wear, people wear their products on their wrist. If you wear Google Glasses, you wear it on the bridge of your nose. Google talks about the day when they will implant Google in the brain.
HH: And this is not Blade Runner. Franklin Foer is not an extremist. He’s not a nut. He’s not an alarmist or a conspiracy theorist. He’s a center-left intellectual. And it’s a very well-written book. But what is amazing to me, Franklin, I am a center-right public intellectual.
HH: And I sat down with Speaker Ryan, and I sat down with Leader McCarthy, and I asked them both about regulating Big Tech. Leader McCarthy was more open to it. Speaker Ryan was very dismissive of it, saying that of course, competition will destroy anything bad in these companies. I don’t think recognizing the fact that they have achieved market domination with a big moat and a high wall.
FF: Well, I just, I’d suggest a couple of things. One is that if you go back and you read the founding manifesto for National Review, there are several very powerful sentences in that manifesto about the dangers of monopoly. And this is not a liberal or conservative issue.
FF: This is about, this is about fear of concentrated power, which is something that conservatives do a better job often times of owning than liberals. But it’s an issue that cuts across ideological realms. Secondly, I think conservatives historically have done a, have been very fierce in trying to defend human autonomy and the essence of whatever it is that you call the very center of humanness. And this comes up in a lot of the social conservative context. But when it comes to issues like cloning or the like, you see conservatives staking out much more aggressive turf than liberals. And I think that these issues track a lot of things that conservatives have historically cared very deeply about. My prediction is that the questions about Big Tech are going to do more to divide the left and to divide the right than anything we’ve confronted in recent years.
HH: I agree.
FF: I would actually…
HH: I agree completely.
FF: Yeah, I was just up with, you know, and the center is going to rally around this issue, too. I mean, it’s really, I was with Bill Kristol and Bill Galston up in New York a couple of weeks ago at their No Labels conference, and taking on the tech companies was one of their five big ideas for the year.
HH: Yeah, because Big Tech represents the loss of autonomy. It also represents a danger to national security. The attack on our election by the Russians, let’s just stipulate that it happened.
HH: I wrote about it originally in 2004 in a piece for the Weekly Standard called Black Blog Ops, realizing that there would a Carla that would one day exploit what was blogging and is now much more Big Tech. And of course, every secret service is going to use everything that is available, and they’re smarter than the guys and the gals in Silicon Valley who think they’re…that’s, hubris is their problem, Franklin Foer. They think they’re smarter than everyone, because they met at the intersection of need and technology before anyone else did, so they got really rich.
HH: But that did not infuse them with wisdom.
FF: No, no, and this is the problem, is that as so many decisions and so much power gets concentrated in the hands of a couple big companies, it’s their decisions that have rippling implications for everybody else. And there’s not a whole lot of input that goes into making those decisions. And it’s incredibly invisible. Nobody knows how Facebook’s algorithm works. I mean, it’s a giant black box. And I’m not, you know, I’m not even sure that Mark Zuckerberg fully understands his creation.
HH: At the end of the day, when you look at the big four, you’re really talking about a group of people less than 10 in number. They share a remarkably similar mindset, which as you point out comes out of the 60s, and has sort of grafted onto the growth of the 90s and the 00’s.
FF: Right, right.
HH: How would you describe that mindset to the public?
FF: It’s fundamentally collectivist. I know that we like to think of Silicon Valley as being libertarian, and to some extent, they are libertarian in that they resist getting, they resist regulation of their own companies. But really, if you, you know, one of the really interesting accidents of the history of technology is that it happened to develop in the peninsula south of San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s. And that was also the place that gave us the Grateful Dead, LSD, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. So you had the counterculture rubbing up against Apple Computer and the birth of the internet. And those two things really influenced one another. And then you had hundreds of thousands of people disappear to communes in the late 60s and early 70s, and they were utopian experiments that were ultimately fairly disastrous. And what technology has tried to do is try to recreate the commune through technological means. The internet is a giant attempt to try to stitch yourself together into one system to achieve a new sort of consciousness, where we would relate to one another differently. And you know, whatever you think of that dream, you could, at its best and its most charitable interpretation, you could say it’s lyrical and beautiful and optimistic. But it also presented one of the greatest business opportunities in human history.
FF: And so you know, what was once a commune has now become monopoly. And…
HH: And it’s not quite sinister, yet, because I believe in the good faith of most of the people involved. But…
HH: It took 17 years from the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad to the formation of the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate.
HH: And I am wondering, we’re now 14 years after the launch of Facebook. Do you believe, and I don’t believe this should go to the FCC. I don’t believe they have the ability or the institutional knowledge. Do you think there needs to be a regulatory superstructure on Silicon Valley on the information technology companies, Franklin Foer?
FF: I do, but I wouldn’t leave it at that, because I worry, I actually worry about having the state reach its hand too deeply into realms of speech. You know, I don’t want Facebook regulated as a utility like some people suggest, because to me, that’s pretty dangerous. But what I do want is I want there to be a law that protects data, and we have this pretty profound tradition of anti-monopoly in this country. And we need to update those laws and that thinking. It really goes back to Thomas Jefferson. It’s so deeply embedded in the political tradition of this country. And it needs to be updated and reapplied, because I think it’s possible to curb, it’s possible to curb the power of these companies without having the government play an overwhelming role in their day to day operations.
HH: It may be too late. They have so much money and power, and they’ve hired everybody.
FF: Yeah, that’s true.
HH: Theresa May brought this to the EU. And I just don’t know how it gets done, because they can actually torque the system.
FF: They can. It’s going to be hard. There’s no doubt about it. But what’s at stake is so large, I mean, as we’ve been talking, this is about the future of autonomy. This is about the future, this is about the future of the self. It’s about the future of the public square, and it’s about the future of capitalism.
HH: Absolutely correct. That’s why I want everyone to go out and get World Without Mind by Franklin Foer. I thank Josh Kraushaar for bringing it to my attention. I have passed the baton on. It’s also really well-written. Is it being received well, Franklin? We’ve got less than a minute.
FF: Yeah, no, it’s actually, it’s interesting, because when I started writing this book a few years ago, people looked at me funny. They just couldn’t understand why you would criticize any of these companies which has so much, so much cultural prestige. But really, the moment’s turning, and I think that there’s a lot that’s happened in the last couple of months that’s caused people to think about these companies in a fresh sort of way. And I had a good accident of timing that my book happened to appear just as people were more open to its arguments.
HH: Well done.
HH: Well, that is happenstance. Franklin Foer, thank you for joining me. The book is World Without Mind. I just tweeted it out. Go and get it. Do not miss it. And Stay tuned, America, it’s the Hugh Hewitt Show.
End of interview.